The problem with footage screenings

Feature Simon Brew 11 Jul 2014 - 07:26

What's wrong with screening some footage of a big film in advance, to generate some interest? Quite a lot, argues Simon...

This past weekend, a 17 minute 'sneak peek' of Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy movie took place at certain cinemas around the world. The idea was that you pop along, get a taster of the movie, and presumably emerge suitably enthused to see the rest of it. If that was the intention, the reports and reaction online seem to vindicate Marvel's master plan.

Also last week, the British press were treated to a 'footage screening' of the upcoming Hercules film, which is also due in cinemas at the end of this month. As a special treat, it was followed by a Q&A with the cast - led by Dwayne Johnson - and director Brett Ratner. For a good hour or two, our Twitter feed was chock-full of people talking about the footage, and passing on the words of the assorted cast and crew. Again, you'd have to suggest that Paramount's approach here has reaped some publicity dividends.

But, appreciating that it sounds like we're getting really old: does all this really help the film? At least the actual bit where you watch the finished feature? Because we're finding ourselves a little baffled by the idea of footage screenings, particularly when - in both of these cases - the finished film is less than a month away.

Avatar & TRON

For a little while, public footage screenings threatened to be a fad. Infamously, around a quarter of an hour of James Cameron's Avatar was screened back in August 2009, a full four months before the release of the full movie. Back then, that made some sense. Avatar was an unknown quantity (it's often forgotten now just how many people were certain it was going to flop), and it was demonstrating some hefty technology (not least the 3D, back when it was a novelty). 20th Century Fox needed to stem the negative word of mouth for the film, and it succeeded. Reaction to the Avatar footage was strong. Within 12 months, the movie would be the all-time champion at the global box office (a position it still holds).

In the aftermath of that, others tried to do the same thing, but it didn't quite work out as well. Disney's footage screenings of TRON: Legacy, for instance - after at one stage holding a special screening of the film's trailer in cinemas - ran for 23 minutes, and arrived two months ahead of the film. It was an impressive presentation, but didn't generate the same level of noise for the film. Public footage screenings - outside of conventions - died off slowly in the years that followed.

Yet they're still very commonplace in film marketing. Pulling back the curtain a little, footage screenings are relatively common for movie press. Especially when there's access to interviews some way ahead, the film studio often insists that you sit through 10-20 minutes of material from the film concerned before you're approved for an interview. In some extreme cases, even longer. So, for instance, the trade-off for getting to interview the director of How To Train Your Dragon 2 would have been to have to sit through a near-one hour presentation of footage from the film. That's over half the movie, out of context. Half a really good movie too.


But therein lies the problem with the footage presentation screening, be it public or press. That the films themselves aren't designed to be seen this way, and it's the films themselves that are the things that matter here.

We have sat through a few such presentations, and have emerged puzzled. For instance, for DreamWorks' Mr Peabody & Sherman, we saw a jamboree of loosely linked scenes, with no glue holding them together. In that context, said material came across really quite badly. It was something of a pleasant surprise when the film itself proved far more interesting.

As an aside, in one case earlier this year, we declined a footage presentation for a movie that was actually finished, and had been certified by the BBFC. In that instance, the distributor still chose to present the footage, rather than the actually quite decent final film.

Whilst there's perhaps a degree of necessary evil for footage presentations, and whilst there are arguments that in the era of hugely revealing movie trailers that damage is already being done, there's still a sense that it takes something away. We haven't seen that 17 minutes of Guardians Of The Galaxy, for instance, simply because we're really keen to see Guardians Of The Galaxy. Perhaps if we'd been several months away from release it might have been different. But we're genuinely confused as to why, so close to release (with the film now finished!), a filmmaker would want their film presented piecemeal like this. If, indeed, it's the fimmaker's choice at all, of course.

One more thing: don't publicly available footage presentations tend to attract those of us already interested in the film in question? Does anyone only vaguely interested make a special trip to see 20 minutes of a film they're thus far not fussed about?

The Way Ahead?

Ledger's much-anticipated performance in The Dark Knight might be cut due to executive fears at Warner Brothers

If there is a way forward here, then maybe Christopher Nolan had the right idea. Rather than presenting footage from the midst of his latter two Batman films, he allowed the opening scenes of both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises to play many months ahead of final release. Neither of these scenes took away from the film, and both generated no shortage of discussion (not least for Bane's voice in the case of The Dark Knight Rises). That seemed to be a sweet spot that Nolan hit. It allowed Warner Bros to generate buzz for its films, and it didn't spoil either of them. It offered sequential footage, in some degree of context.

But still, accepting that the trailer battle is long lost, we still can't help but feel that the place to be watching 10-20 minutes of footage from a movie is within the movie itself. Whether a small indie or a large blockbuster, teams of people have worked to shape a story, and to present material in a certain way. Cutting out large chunks for the purpose of an advance preview, and potentially removing small details, surprises and story beats from where they're supposed to be can't help but have some impact - however minor - on seeing the final cut.

Or maybe we're just getting even older and even more miserable...

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'Or maybe we're just getting even older and even more miserable...'

Yup. Don't read this, don't watch that, don't show the other – you guys come across as quite puritanical sometimes, and, much as I love it, this stuff just isn't important enough to deserve that.

with all these things when its done well. it works. when its done badly. well.

My first experience of this was Fast Five and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
I don't really mind it. If I remember they only showed an action scene each. 10 mins max I think. 17-20 mins seems a bit over the top, It must work though or they would stop doing it.

I think the only 'early footage' sequences that make sense are the first pre-credits sequence, especially if the title comes in with a thud, because audience goes 'what the hell was that? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?'

First instance I can remember of that was The Lion King. Where the Circle of Life sequence *was* the trailer. Building tension, amazing animation, absolutely no idea of the story but everyone was left gaping in the cinema.

I'm ok with seeing trailers, I don't wanna see 17 mins out of a two hour film ahead of time. Why would I wanna already know what's going to happen in that part of the movie? And then there would just be boredom watching the same exact 17 mins again a month later during the movie itself.

I don't like it because I often like to watch the movies in one go without knowing too much, but then different people, different tastes. There are those who like to follow the process and read all the spoilers and then go and see The Thing focusing on how they tie it all together, and those who like to go ignorant and be surprised. I get both.
When watching the movie of a book I've read, for example, I like the "give me everything you can before I go", because since I know the story already, I like to focus on other things.
Matter of taste.

I worked for one of our horrendously large cinema chains back in 2009. A big reason for the Avatar test footage was because there weren't that many 3D projectors around. There were a decent amount of 3D movies coming out, but not enough to warrant total refits in entire regions. After the footage, I remember one of the very high ups in the company getting the ball rolling and having digital 3D projectors installed in as many of the screens in the company as possible before Avatar was released. Our six-screener went from having one digital projector to five within two months. The impact that footage had on the company was remarkable.

I think you're right to a certain extent, but I do love a good scene that gives you a taste of the movie without spoiling the plot.. Most recently, the Captain America: TWS footage was a fabulous taster for the movie, and since it was an entire enclosed scene, it was a perfect sampler. As you mentioned, Nolan did this kind of teaser very well with Batman. However, if you look at something like TA Spiderman and it's 10 minutes of footage over 3 trailers, that practically ruined the entire movie.. I think that done well, it can build incredible excitement for the movie.. Done badly (and from what I've heard, Guardians wasn't a great example) it can be next to no use at all..

Just showing a chunk of the film strikes me as somewhat lazy - there's a skill to crafting a trailer that is coherent and tempting, without giving too much away. Footage screenings smack of 'we can't be arsed with that, watch some film instead'.

It's a shame that GotG has fallen into this trap, as the trailers themselves were great - especially the initial one, which introduced characters who many fans wouldn't have heard of.

I'm sure that bit will work in the context of the movie, but if footage screenings become the norm, I wouldn't be surprised if sections of the film were written with an eye to being shown in a 15-minute chunk. How that would affect the flow of the final film would depend on the quality of the writer, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened.

Star Trek Into Darkness was a good example of how not to do it. They left it with a cliffhanger and I was waiting to see how it would be resolved, expecting something clever and I was completely underwhelmed by the cop-out that followed when I finally saw it.

I'm really not a fan of watching chunks of films before release. Most recently I saw ten minutes of Captain America: The Winder Soldier followed by a good two and a half minute trailer. Admittedly it didn't have the context problem as it was the opening scene (like The Dark Knight), but I just wasn't interested in watching that when I'm not actually watching the film. What's the point?

One or two full trailers is quite enough. I've never understood why studios want us to watch half of the film before they release it.

Correction: Guardians of the Galaxy's diRector us James Gunn, NOT Brett Rattner... They are two very different people.

To be fair, if you've seen the trailer for GotG with the line-up and John C. Reilly being sarky... that's the first bit of the preview scene. You don't really need any more context, as it's still just explaining who everyone is, and then things escalate into a nice little action set piece. It was a pretty good choice of scene to use, near the beginning but not the absolute beginning, and by the end of it you have a decent sense of the characters (especially Rocket) and the tone, and it just sells itself quite nicely. Quite looking forward to watching it all again when the film comes out. And realistically the whole presentation is 17 minutes, including what's already been used in the trailer, plus the future footage montage at the end. The scene itself isn't the whole 17 mins, basically.

More importantly for their box office, I was seriously impressed by the use of 3D on an Imax screen (which I usually hate). Like, I bought the crazy expensive 3D Imax tickets for the opening day on my way out of the preview, rather than waiting to see it in 2D, having seen how well it worked on that screen (the new Imax in Leicester Square, so bit of an unknown quantity otherwise).

The Guardians of the Galaxy preview was brilliant though. Yes it does spoil that scene when I go back to watch the full movie but when it finished I just wanted to carry on watching. And to be honest, I'm one of those guys that loves rewatching films and I'm sure I'll still be laughing in all the same places.

I cannot wait for it now! Rocket Raccoon is going to be an enormous success. Even Groot is pulled off brilliantly.

I can't even watch trailers anymore, i remember something from the trailer halfway through then sit waiting for it. Basically, my brain hates itself.

lol - hallelujah !! I thought I was the only one

then they show stuff in the trailer and it's not in the movie and I feel sooooo incomplete. my wife thinks I'm mad.

just bring on the movie - until then no news, trailers, footage, articles, opinions or even people wearing green are allowed near me...

You might be a bit mad....people in green?

You might be a bit mad....people in green? Are you one of them that goes crazy when people double dip crisps as well?

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