The Art of the Trailer

To succeed in the current entertainment climate you need a constant presence. You need to demand the public’s attention and get them talking, and one of the biggest weapons for that is the movie trailer. You can excite people with casting news and interviews, but nothing creates buzz quite like a trailer. And we’re seeing more and more in recent years. Theatrical trailers, international variants, TV spots, teaser trailers and the new buzz piece, the teaser-teaser trailer that builds anticipation for the teaser trailer (sigh). But with five to ten different trailers throughout a movie’s promotional run it is possible to take a wrong step in the desire to build hype.

In the past week alone the public have been treated to a bounty of new trailers, encompassing both the good and the bad. This isn’t about the quality (or suspected quality) of the movie – you can make a horrible trailer out of a classic and make bad movies look good. What I want to examine is why a trailer succeeds or fails.

The one worth addressing first is Ant-Man, which is the first Post-Ultron movie in the world conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe. After delivering a truly genius ‘ant-sized’ teaser-teaser that both hyped the movie and proved the insatiable lust for information that fans have as they tried to decipher anything from the microscopic imagery, the actual trailer left a lot be desired. Compared to how well the Guardians of the Galaxy teaser won over fans, the Ant-Man teaser feld bland and by the numbers, unsure whether to highlight drama or comedy, ending up little more than a generic mash of trailer tropes.

This was all changed with last week’s follow up trailer, which hit the necessary beats, selling the public on not just the visual concept and opportunities presented by the titular hero, but also gave a strong impression of what the film is aiming for. Many suspected they were aiming for an Iron Man esque action comedy, but the first trailer didn’t sell that. Through the second trailer the humour shone through, and the action was plentiful enough to excite and give us a thirst for more. The pinnacle of the trailer, the toy train scene, sold the concept of a movie without words. What’s important is we are given an idea of what to expect without feeling like we’ve seen all it has to offer. Comedies often suffer here, using their best jokes to sell the audience on the movie but then leaving nothing for them once they’re in the cinema.

Action movies can suffer similar issues. The Amazing Spiderman 2 made the mistake of giving away basically every action scene of worth. What little there was left wasn’t surprising to hardcore fans of the hero, and it was a concern highlighted well before the movie hit cinemas. You knew certain events had to transpire because trailer action sequence #11 hadn’t been seen yet. There were so many trailers for the movie that if you followed everything you ended up seeing just about everything

And then there’s Terminator Genisys. Releasing almost alongside the Ant-Man trailer, the latest entry into the Schwarzenegger action franchise saw the errors of the Amazing Spiderman 2 as a challenge. Instead of offering a strip tease it threw caution to the wind and revealed all, namely a plot twist that has massive reprocussions for the rest of the movie. It would be as if the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back revealed that Vader was Luke’s father (spoiler warning for the previous statement…). What’s worse is that much of the action shown could have been used carefully used and still avoided the reveal. It was a conscious decision by those in charge to use the plot twist in the trailer.

There may be method to the madness. The producers realise competing for airspace with the current heavyweights is tough. If they knew that both Star Wars and Batman v Superman were doing trailer reveals this week, then they may have felt a conventional trailer for Terminator would just be watched and forgotten in the public sphere once they had other trailers to discuss. They may have banked on the reveal keeping Terminator relevant through the period and generating discussion. But it may have cost them more than it won. People might be curious to see the effects of that plot twist, but they may also feel robbed of the moment. Being hit with an effective plot twist that you didn’t see coming has a powerful effect on the viewer, often catapulting said movie into a special place in their hearts. Whether the plot twist in Genisys could work in that way remains to be seen, but the advertising has now robbed the viewer of that chance. The general perception of the next Terminator seemed wary at best before, and the ill timed plot reveal hasn’t helped the movie’s cause.

In contrast, the new Star Wars and Batman v Superman trailers that were revealed over the past few days had the opposite effect. They gave us glimpses into the world of the movie, hitting a couple of character beats that hint and set the foundation of what we might see, without guaranteeing it. It plants seeds in the mind of the viewer, which grows into theories and wild speculation. It does what it says on the tin: it teases. And it generates that coveted discussion in the public sphere.

Now this is easier to do with an established franchise. We can be given that snippet of Batman and a single sentence (“Tell me, do you bleed? You will”) and we can make assumptions and claims. We can sway with emotions as Luke talks about the Force that is present in his father and his sister. We have previous connections that make us care. But even a teaser trailer for Pixar’s upcoming Inside Out, a new intellectual property, is able to entice us and frame expectations (it’s going to be an emotional ride) without the need of a Superman or Vader.

Let’s be honest, it’s not always easy to know how far is too far in revealing. A dull trailer like the first Ant-Man can damper interest, but overdoing it like Genisys can just make fans angry (spoiler: it did). And where as before there might be two or three trailers that reused the same footage about half the time, now there is an expectation for double the trailers but disappointment at anything re-used. But while one answer would be to simply ‘avoid’ the trailers, that’s difficult to do in the current social media climate, and in doing so you essentially barracade yourself off from that community in fear of spoilers. I considered avoiding watching/hearing anything on The Force Awakens, so I could go in blind, but based on what’s popped up on my social media feeds even if I didn’ click on the trailer plenty would have been exposed.

And it’s worth reiterating: fans are hungry. People have been demanding trailers for Batman v Superman for nearly a year, and it’s still another year out before the movie is in cinemas. Movies are being announced further and further ahead (the battle between Marvel and DC has given us the next half decade mapped out). Keeping interest over such a long time, in a space already flooded with movie properties with ties to your nostalgia and heart (They’re writing a sequel for Incredibles! Finally, give it to me now!) can mean revealing more and more. You can only show so much before the audience has seen enough and looks to others, and knowing when to stop before you end up naked and embarrassed is an art-form. Terminator is now naked, while Star Wars continues to dance for the hungry consumers who continue to talk and theorise about what lays beyond. And yes, I’ve well and truly run this whole strip-tease metaphor into the ground now


One comment

  1. Trailers are all very good, but the important thing is having something worth selling. If you have a great trailer that turns ou to be promoting a poor film the backlash can be harsh. Sad also if a poor trailer ruins the chances of a great film, Trailers also tend to be more important in regards to pop culture block busters. I agree that there is a real skill to creating a great trailer. Probably the best one of modern times was the Guardians trailer as it caught the ‘essence’ of the film, without giving too many of the surprises away.


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