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Trial and Trailer: The Perils of Publicity in the Internet Era

It is a cliché to suggest that trailers are spoiling movies.

Clint Eastwood was complaining about the trend more than a decade and a half ago, lamenting, “Half the time you go and watch a film, you see eight or 10 different trailers and you’ve seen the whole plot line. There’s really no reason to go see the film.” While film fans might look back nostalgically on classic trailers like Alien or Point Blank, the truth is that movie trailers have always been a bit of a haphazard artform. The trailer for Carrie is as spoilery as any modern trailer.

At the same time, there is a definite trend in contemporary trailers – especially for big blockbuster releases – to ensure that the audience knows exactly what they are going to get. This is most obvious in trailers like Alien: Covenant or Spider-Man: Homecoming, which go beyond spoiling the entire plot thread to spoiling big moments from the film; memorable cameos or distinctive sequences. When dealing with spectacle driven films like Kong: Skull Island, there is a conscious effort to load the trailer with spectacle, revealing monsters and set pieces.

To be fair, this is arguably more of a problem with big budget summer releases. These trailers typically belong to blockbusters that have to absolutely saturate the market in order to build hype, releasing trailers more than a half a year before release or even offering trailers for trailers. It is inevitable that this desire to effectively carpet-bomb the media landscape with footage will reveal far too much about the film in question, particularly for those who task themselves with keeping track of this information. The sparse understated trailers for smaller films like Get Out are a blessing.

It is interesting to wonder what drives these creative decisions, why studios are saturating the market with trailers that seem to lay out every beat ahead of time and which effectively promise every twist that will be delivered over the course of the narrative. There is a lot to be said for the joy of seeing a film blind, without knowing exactly what is coming and how it will be delivered. It seems reasonable to argue that the job of a trailer is to tease, to offer the viewer a hint of what is in store, instead of mapping out how they might spend two hours of their lives.

However, while these views are quite common on the internet and among film fans, it is interesting to wonder whether they reflect the opinions and taste of the mass audience. Is this increasing tendency towards spoiler-heavy trailers that plot out the entire arc of a film are driven by the tastes of audiences? Is this how the majority of viewers want their entertainment delivered, even if they would never frame it in those terms?

The world of entertainment has changed dramatically in recent years, particularly with regard to film. The medium has arguably found itself under attack from a number of quarters, even discounting the industry’s somewhat paranoia about piracy. Audiences now have far greater choice when it comes to entertainment options, whether through home entertainment or video games or even smart phones. More than that, even television has undergone a revolution in quality and prestige in recent years. Many shows claim to offer the scale and complexity of a cinematic release.

Of course, at the same time, cinema attendance has been increasing in the European Union and box office returns have been climbing. Reports of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated, even if the anxiety is palpable as high-profile figures like Christopher Nolan and Sofia Coppola find themselves stumping for television over streaming. There is a clear sense of eagerness and desperation to these pitches, a recurring suggestion that studios need to work as hard as possible to capture the attention of audiences.

After all, this is the world where Batman vs. Superman can earn over $850,000 world wide, make well over $100,000 profit after expenses, and still be considered an embarrassing financial failure. Part of this is simply down to oversaturation of the market. In a world where there is on average one blockbuster film opening every weekend from March through September, it is impossible for a movie to have the staying power of something like Titanic or even Avatar. Movies need to earn their money back right away, or get crushed in the melee like Star Trek Beyond or Ghostbusters.

As a result, there is a tremendous weight placed on opening weekend. Big movies cannot rely on word of mouth. Indeed, some movies even go out of their way to avoid world of mouth, as demonstrated by the extremely late embargoes on films like Ghost in the Shell or Zoolander 2. There is an imperative there to put as much of the information upfront as possible, to sell the movie before it hits theatres so that the audience is primed to go out and see it on opening day. At midnight, if possible. Breaking presale records, ideally.

This explains why there is such an emphasis on getting the information out there ahead of time. There is simply no time to allow the audience to discover a film on their own terms. Indeed, many films with great word of mouth may not even find an audience until they arrive on home video or streaming services. In the time it takes for word to filter out that film like Pete’s Dragon is good, the movie has already slipped quietly from most cinemas to make room for Kubo and the Two Strings, which will soon make room for Storks.

Along the way, the only way to keep a movie in the zeitgeist is to feed the multimedia machine. Set visits; interviews; talk shows; podcasts; television spots; trailers; competitions; sponsorship opportunities; even free-to-play tie-in games. Because everything is building to one big weekend, and because there are more channels to exploit than ever before, the response is to saturate the media landscape with hype. It is impossible to do that without some measure of exclusivity. “Sneak peaks”, interview teases, specific trailers for specific distribution channels.

With so many movies competing for space, it makes sense to front load the trailers by dropping in spoilers and key moments. Trailers have become events of themselves, showcases designed to “wow” audiences. It is no longer enough to ask audiences to trust studios. Trailers are designed to package the big moments, even when those moments are spoilers. And studies seem to suggest that audiences want those elements:

According to experts in the trailer-making business, the more audiences know, the likelier they are to go. “There was a lot of discussion internally whether to show the death of the wife,” says Matt Brubaker, president of theatrical at Trailer Park, the agency that edited the preview for Southpaw. “But it was decided to show more of the good, so to speak. People have felt burned in the past. If someone’s going to pay $20 to go on opening weekend to see this movie, they want to know that they are making a pretty good investment.”

This occasionally even runs against the express wishes of the film makers in question. Discussing the publicity for Jurassic World, director Colin Trevorrow admitted that the studio “have shown far more of this movie than I would ever have wanted.” However, the goal of this publicity is not to satisfy the director, but to appease the audience. But what audience?

At the same time, this deluge of content is fed and enabled by the internet, which has allowed a much greater sense of interaction between fans and studios. This relationship has long been complicated, with the studios often struggling to properly calibrate its level of engagement with the online commentariat. Things have come a long way since Snakes on a Plane went back for reshoots in March 2006 based primarily on the fact that the internet really loved the title. Even the major studios’ engagement with Comic Con has wound down in recent years.

However, there is still a very strong sense of engagement with this audience as part of the studio publicity process. This is particularly obvious with Warner Brothers’ superhero slate, which seems in a very apologetic mood following the critical and online mauling that Batman vs. Superman received. Reportedly, the Suicide Squad was heavily recut by the studio when the poppy upbeat trailer scored well on social media. During the production of Justice League, the production team made sure to set an apologetic tone in the various media set visits.

However, the issue is not unique to Suicide Squad or Justice League. A lot of the advanced hype and the spoilery information loaded into trailers seems designed to appease those vocal hardcore fans online, as if wary of striking the wrong note or provoking their ire. As such, it is not enough for Spider-Man: Homecoming to signal its presence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by heavily featuring Tony Stark, the publicity makes a point to feature Avengers Tower and a cameo from Chris Evans to assure viewers that this is much closer to a bona fides Marvel movie.

There is a sense that trailers have become a way to appease an increasingly temperamental base, that they exist primarily as peace offerings rather than as marketing pitches. This is almost certainly the case with the trailer for Alien: Covenant, which plays very much like an over-compensating attempt to please franchise fans after the perceived disappointment of Prometheus. It is not enough to put “Alien” in the title. It is not enough to feature the classic alien (and egg and chestburster) in the trailer. The film also showcases some of the bigger Alien-centric moments, too.

These trailers feel like a weird form of genuflection, an attempt to preempt criticism by effectively getting out ahead of it and distracting the most vocal quarters. What possible justification could there be for the third Spider-Man reboot in as many years? This time he’s really in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so those vocal online fans can stop complaining about The Amazing Spider-Man. How does the studio placate those fans who felt disappointed with Prometheus? Make sure to stuff the trailer for Covenant full of generic Alien-esque moments.

There is something very disheartening in all of this, as if the only way to make (and market) a big budget movie in this day and age is to ensure that audiences know exactly what they are getting ahead of time. The audience is never to be challenged or surprised, because catching an audience off-guard could lead to an immediate and visceral reaction from movie-goers on social media that would immediately become the narrative of the film. In the churn of the internet age, no studio wants their opening weekend devoured by angry thinkpieces and twitter/facebook rants.

“Yes, Father. I shall become a dragon.”

Indeed, this almost seems like a reasonable response to a pop cultural climate that seems driven by the rush to judgement. Righteous anger seems to fuel the internet, which is entirely reasonable given the state of current affairs. However, there is also a sense that the rush to judgement can be suffocating. Every frame of multimedia is picked apart by a ravenous audience. Any hint of a mistake (or even an unfavourable direction) in publicity material is treated as an affront. Laying out all the cards on the table ahead of time seems a fair way to counter this.

Some of these pre-release criticisms are entirely reasonable. Given that Asian Americans are underrepresented in Hollywood, it seems fair to approach casting announcements for Iron Fist and The Great Wall with skepticism and to flag those films as productions as potentially problematic. However, while it makes sense to voice these concerns during casting and production, it also seems reasonable to suggest that the material criticism should come once the film or series has been released and once the final project can be properly (and holistically) assessed.

For what it’s worth, the reality was generally a little more nuanced than the rush to judgement suggested. Iron Fist was a disaster, although its reactionary politics did not help it much. Matt Damon was very much presented as part of an ensemble in The Great Wall, although his highly-publicised presence felt very much like pandering to western audiences. Ghost in the Shell used the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a commentary on whitewashing, an Asian woman’s brain put in a white woman’s body, while fumbling the execution of the premise.

This rush to judgement occurs across popular culture. Consider the outrage caused by a cliffhanger ending to the comic book Captain America: Steve Rogers #1; a splash page of the character declaring, “Hail Hydra.” Death threats were directed at writer Nick Spencer, ignoring the fact that this was a story still in progress. Similarly, a variant cover for an issue Secret Empire #1 generated outrage for suggesting that Magneto might align with Hydra. Never mind that the image was released more than a month before the issue itself.

It could be argued that this is not just an issue with traditional nerdy media, although the high stakes of the summer blockbuster season make it a greater concern when marketing those films. The annual festival circuit involves a similar process, although at least those forming the consensus have generally seen the film. Still, it is not uncommon for the collective opinion of a prestige picture to have solidified long before the movie is actually shown to the public.

Indeed, it is possible for an awards contender to have generated both a consensus and a massive backlash long before it opens to the general movie-going audience. Birth of a Nation might be the best example in recent memory, it went from a Best Picture favourite to a forgotten also-ran months before it finally opened to a very muted response. The whole process can be draining, and serves as an example of how the current internet media model has changed discourse. In order to keep pace, it is important to have opinions on something before even seeing it.

Increasingly, it seems like consumers and fans are unwilling to actually wait for media to be released before making a judgement and forming a consensus on it. Media will frequently arrived with a narrative predefined, with audience members often knowing whether a film will be considered a “success” or a “failure” before even setting foot in the cinema on opening day. With that in mind, it makes sense that the media around the release of the film should ensure that there are few surprises preserved for opening day.

It is disheartening, but it is not an issue that rests squarely with distributors. In many ways, it is a reflection of the culture around it, where the race to be first means the film itself often comes last.

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6 Responses

  1. I don’t know about more trailers becoming spoiler heavy. The ones in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, were even worse. Take the trailers for two iconic Alfred Hitchcock films, Rope and Strangers on a Train. Both films reveal an awful lot about the plot and even show major portions of the ending scenes.

    I agree, however, that the current wave of criticizing a movie based solely on the trailer is ridiculous. Some of my least favorite movies in recent years, Star Wars The Force Awakens or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, had superb trailers, while some of my favorite films, Kubo and the Two Strings or Tangled, had terrible trailers. “Children’s” movies have it especially brutal because the studio always seems to think they have to put in the most low brow jokes in the trailer or children will not be interested, which is just insulting.

    • Yeah. I definitely don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. But it does seem more acute these days. Although maybe it’s because the other formal markers of teasers have become engrained. (Quick disorientating cuts before revealing a big moment. Classic pop song over blockbuster montage. Creepy cover version playing over thriller trailer.)

      And children’s movie trailers are terribly condescending and patronising. I kinda blame parents. The teaser trailer for Cars 3 is striking, which is saying something given how much I hate the series. But parents complain that it “scares” kids.

      • What’s been interesting to me is that Disney/Pixar movie trailers have tried to make films look slapstick/action and appeal to boys, while Japanese trailers for Disney/Pixar films instead try to make them look like Miyazaki movies.

      • I never would have noticed that, but – after some quick googling – I think you’re right.

  2. Re: Captain America as Nazi, while there is no excuse for death threats, Brevoort & Spencer were explicitly *not* laying their cards on the table as at the time of release they claimed to EW that Cap was not brainwashed; one month later, fans found out Cap was brainwashed.

    But that story (a very tone-deaf concept in these times) was designed to court controversy and when you publish something designed to sensationalize you must anticipate some sensationalism from the audience’s response (as opposed to apathy, which is how most comics are received). No one ever says, “Don’t rush to praise this comic, wait until it’s done.” Why are we told to withhold criticizing comics until the story is done? (in Bendis’ case fans continually moved the goal posts until it was basically not cool to criticize any of his 2004-12 Avengers work until he was done writing it)

    William: What you say holds true with every 30s & 40s trailer I’ve seen, which makes me wonder when film trailers began wielding implications and suggestions of their plots as opposed to spelling out how it would start, develop and finish. Is there an example earlier than Point Blank?

    I do love Hitchcock’s Psycho trailer because it’s essentially a overly-long gag as Hitch trolls his audience, casting misdirection about ideas which never appear in the actual film and stopping short whenever he’s about to spoil a plot point. He gives away a lot of the film without actually spoiling the film.

    It’s amazing we’ve said this much about trailers without invoking John Carter. So: John Carter. That was an instance where the director was given control over the promotion and he snarled it up; audiences weren’t hooked and before it came to theaters it was already predicated to flop – which it did. We’re so far now from the days when films like the Sixth Sense & Blair Witch Project could start small and expand their audience week-by-week through word-of-mouth. As Darren says, the opening weekend is what is supposed to make-or-break films.

    • Dr. Strangelove’s original trailer is a highly interesting early example. It is not like the trailers today, but it is also quite different from the kind of trailers that preceded it.

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