The problem with footage screenings

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

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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.

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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?

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.

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Or maybe we’re just getting even older and even more miserable…

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