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Off the Beaten Trail(er): Trailers and Spoilers

Trailers are a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, they tease you with footage from that upcoming realise you’ve been anticipating (or can even get you excited about one you couldn’t care less for) – but that comes at a price. More often than not, trailers frequently spoil the film that they advertise. There are quick shots of action, but you can see something that doesn’t occur until more than half-way through the film, or a comedy which frequently includes its best laughs in the trailer. Of course, this makes sense – if you want to convince an audience to see a comedy, the trailer needs to make ’em laugh, so you include the really hilarious scenes; for an action movie, you want to tease what you have, so show them clips from the climax (usually larger than the other action scenes). So what are we supposed to do?

We actually need something like this...

The most obvious recent example I can think of is the international trailer to Predators. The film features various shots of the creatures stalking their prey (which is, admittedly, what one would expect from a film called Predators), but it also features a clear shot of a main character getting impaled from behind with those giant shiny claws, from which there is no coming back. Given the premise of the movie and the small cast, that’s at least one surprise I can discount jumping out of my seat for in the film. I’ll now be sitting through that movie, anticipating that scene. In fairness, if it’s a good movie, it will have more than one jump scene and – in the grand scheme of things – spoiling one death shouldn’t have too big an impact, but it’s still an impact.

I don’t know. Maybe this is just a consequence of what we expect a trailer to be. We expect it to neatly encapsulate the plot in two minutes, and to offer us a rich sampling from the buffet of moments that the film will offer to us. As a result, in some ways, the stereotypical trailer feels like an attempt to condense the first two acts of a film into a bite-size chunk, so that we’re already familiar with the movie before we sit down to watch it. Truth be told, I don’t really have a fundamental problem with this approach, but it just feels like it sells films short – as if to say that a film is simply what occurs on screen. Of course, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m smoking, so please – let me explain.

When Frank over at Pompous Film Snob asked me to pick my favourite trailer ever, I picked Face/Off. Why? Because it wasn’t really a trailer per se. If you watched the trailer, you had no idea of the subplots or motivations. Sure, the last minute was loaded with action, but it was so condensed as to be nonsensical. Instead, the trailer opened with a shot of John Travolta talking, staring at the camera. It’s not a scene that appears in the movie, but is instead one that speaks not to anything which actually occurs on screen – there’s no mention of surgery, or a ticking clock, or the death of Sean Archer’s son – just a neat visual to explain the concept of the movie. As the camera pans around Travolta, he observes that he’s finally found a way to trap his opponent. And then, we come back around to face Nicolas Cage. “I will become him.” Nothing is spoiled, apart from the very basic concept of the film at a very highest level. You don’t know that the swap works both ways, for example, or that a fake John Travolta will be living with his family. You just know that John Travolta is going to become Nicolas Cage. In fairness, Ricky Gervais’ teaser for Cemetary Junction opened with the actor and Ralph Fiennes having a conversation, as if to say “Ralph Fiennes in a Ricky Gervais film, isn’t that an intriguing premise?”

Restricted, because it could spoil the movie for you...

There are other options, of course. I’m a sucker for that trailer for The Dark Knight which is just a single converation between Alfred and Bruce about how “somebody just want to watch the world burn”. Yes, it’s a conversation which appears in the film, but it’s a short snippet of dialogue which encapsulates the premise of the film – how easy is it to make the world burn? – without giving any actual plot points away. In fact, I loved that movie’s publicity, which only hinted at the presence of Two-Face, despite the fact that the character would have been a big draw and anybody with any experience of Batman had to know that was where the plot was going. Two-Face is a popular Batman villain, so locking him away during the publicity phase must have been a tough decision.

The only other approach to making a non-spoiler-y trailer is to use outtakes or deleted scenes. Although, since most trailers are cut before there is a final cut of the film, I reckon the cases of this I’ve noticed are more accidental than intentional. The most obvious example I can think of is Get Him to the Greek, which I saw last week and found it a pleasantly engaging film, easily one of the better films of the (so far disappointing) summer of 2010. However, while I was watching it, I noticed that a lot of the material in the trailer wasn’t in the film – for example Jonah Hill hugging Sean Combs and creepily whispering “I respect you” or the pitch “two words: Mexican Jonas Brothers” or Aldous’ early morning jogging. These were bits which actually fit quite well with the film and felt relatively on-par with the humour I got when I watched the film.

So what do you think, do trailers spoil too much? Is there a particularly innovative approach to movie trailers that you are fond of?

15 Responses

  1. I have been ranting about this for days now actually.

    I watch a lot of trailers online but I’ve found myself cutting back on the films I’m actually interested in because they spoil too much now. I don’t want a trailer that removes any reason to see the film just like I didn’t appreciate a trailer in the cinema telling me that Inception was all about *insert plot here*. Rom coms are terrible for this. Leap Year or Letters to Juliet for example, show you all the key scenes and the outcomes of plot. What would be the point in watching the filler inbetween?

    To me a trailer should tease. A trailer for a comedy film should not have the best lines because by the time you actually see the film, you’ve heard that joke before and it’s not funny anymore.

    For me my favourite trailer was for Watchmen which had no dialogue and it was stylised and sexy and the music was perfect. The film itself was nothing like this (especially when it came to music choices) but despite what the actual film was like, this trailer sticks out for me.

    • Yep, that trailer is way better than the film. And you’re right – a joke is only funny the first time – so it’s pointless to waste your best material in trailer. I loved the original Inception teasers more than the trailers. But I love that music. Only two weeks to go.

  2. When you go to the cinema as much as a film blogger trailers are definitely the least favourite part of a movie-going experience. This year, every time there’s been an Inception trailer (pretty much every fricking film) I’ve covered my ears and put my head between my legs… reason… I’m sick to the back teeth of being shown all the best parts of a film.

    Scott Pilgrim trailers have been particularly chronic spoiler-fests. Predators, Splice, A-Team… all these films have also been mauled by trailers IMHO.

    Good post, editors take note!

    • Thanks. It’s particularly irritating if you’re trying to avoid spoilers. It’s grand if they’re out there and you have to go searching for them – but when they’re showing before a movie you’re at, there’s only so much you can do to avoid being spoiled that won’t get you ejected from the cinema.

  3. Nolan is great at not revealing too much with his trailers. I wish more directors would do the same.

    • Yep, I particularly love how he shows you things without showing you things. Like, for example, the fact that the first clip in The Dark Knight trailer is the last shot of the movie, but it doesn’t matter as you don’t know that.

  4. I was just thinking about this this morning in the context of Cast Away. There’s plenty of plot points given away in the trailer, but they’re mostly things you know have to happen – like the stranded on a desert island part. Sometimes I think that it’s okay for a trailer to show the “what” of the happens, because what it’s all about is more the “how” of it.

    I’m glad you brought this up, in that I have a sort of debilitating relationship with trailers in that I am irresistibly attracted to them, even though I know they’re sapping my enjoyment of the movies I’m preparing to see. That’s why I’ve stayed as clear as possible from Inception to keep that as unpoiled as possible… yeah, good luck.

    I’ve been all over the Scott Pilgrim trailers, even though I’m super psyched about the movie, but that’s because I’ve been reading all the books, so the plot points are pretty much all revealed already.

    Worst trailer ever? Arlington Road. Ruined. The. Whole. Bloody. Thing.

    For some reason, I’ve never posted a link for your site on mine. An oversight I’ll be rectifying today. Wanna put one up for me?

    • Favour returned. Cheers mate.

      I’m glad I saw Arlington Road blind. I imagine it’s kinda pointless if the ending has been spoiled.

  5. TDK trailer you reference is a teaser though, isn’t it/ There’s a difference there if it is.
    Personally, as long as the film isn’t like the 6th Sense, I don’t mind spoilers! I had Shutter Island spoiled and still found it utterly enjoyable. Though I know I’m in the minority!

    • Some jackass in the library I was studying at blew the ending, but I still think it’s the best film of the year so far.

    • Good point on the teaser, I suppose, but the main trailers were also fairly good in the non-spoiling department. Even though Two-Face was a given to anyone who knows their Bat mythos, all you got was “Harvey will, like everyone else, be put in peril over the course of the film.”

  6. I don’t like trailers that show you best bits of a film. I do enjoy watching trailers though. For the most part they really excite me, it is an art in itself I think, less is usually more trailer wise for me i.e leave me wanting more.

    • Yep. It’s easy (enough) to do an action montage, but to give a feel of a film in a two minute chunk takes a lot of skill.

  7. Trailers are what stopped me from going to go see Michael Bays TMNT. The plot was completely spoiled in the trailer. So I didn’t see it.

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