A trip to the cinema these days inevitably feels like deja-vu all over again, and not just because Hollywood remains obsessed with sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginings and reboots.
Instead, the audience’s greatest enemy is now the movie trailer used to entice them into their local multiplex in the first place. If you’ve seen the trailer, then chances are you know exactly how the film itself is going to play out, key plot points, rug-pulling twists, action setpieces and all.
In an era when competition at the box office is more fierce than ever - not to mention gaming, television and the web also vying for consumers’ time, attention and money - there’s an understandable nervousness at the heart of this push for over-explanatory movie trailers. Ever conscious of the fine line between a finance-draining flop and a tentpole cash cow, marketeers are increasingly determined to take as few chances as possible when pitching new movies to a potential audience. It’s simply too risky to rely on an oblique two-minute sell, especially when the bankability of leading actors and actresses is harder to calculate than ever and familiarity with a property is no longer guarantee of a ready-built audience.
There are exceptions, of course. Despite ultimately unleashing a whole armada of cinema and TV spots for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Disney has successful calibrated the campaign to appeal to newcomers and appease long-time fans without actually giving much of the story away. The first teaser for Captain America: Civil War is also surprisingly well measured, doing enough to explain the stakes at play in the titular throwdown without telegraphing every moment to come.
And it’s not as if this is a completely new phenomenon. Back in 2002, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was promoted with a trailer that maddeningly revealed Gandalf hadn’t really died in the preceding episode. Scenes in the trailer for Cast Away (released in 2000) showed that our hero does escape from that desert island. Hell, even the 1976 trailer for the original version of Carrie features a voiceover discussing all story points up to and including the climactic prom night sequence.
But what was once exceptional has become commonplace. Look back over the last decade and the list of offenders goes on and on. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came accompanied by a trailer that pretty much negates the need to watch the film itself. Ditto Avatar. Terminator Salvation was nearly ruined by its trailer, which needlessly revealed that the lead character is not only a machine, but an honourable one. Ever wondered what The Island is about? Don’t worry, the trailer helpfully tells you all you need to know, including the mid-movie plot twist.
By and large, the only way to get maximum viewing pleasure from any new film is now, perversely, to steer clear of the marketing campaign. In the last few months alone we’ve had a trailer for Ant-Man that spoils the comedic surprise of the final act battle, one for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that actually shows the movie’s climactic scene, another for Southpaw that reveals the demise of a key character, and - perhaps worst of all - ones for Terminator: Genisys and Jurassic World that show just about every story beat and (and most of the key effects shots) from the final movies.
Studio nervousness aside, it’s worth noting just how trailers have evolved to reached this point. The trailers from the 1940s through to the ’60s were big on declamation and ‘you will be amazed’-style hyperbole. At this point almost all trailers were produced by just one company, the National Screen Service. Then ‘voiceover man’ aka the Voice Of God fully grabbed centre stage, ushering in an era the gravelly intonations of Don LaFontaine and his contemporaries invariably began with ‘in a world…’. Since LaFontaine’s death in 2008 the preference is to show rather than tell, most recently with Inception-indebted trumpet braaahms and fade-to-black quick cuts utilised to ramp up the tension.
Unfortunately the tendency is to show too much, summarising the story rather than simply attempting to telegraph spirit and tone. The trend for building up to a movie’s release with multiple teaser trailers and then several full-blown trailers only makes things worse. With so much screen time to fill it’s almost impossible to avoid showing too much.
Tellingly, even some directors are unhappy with the way their films are promoted. “They’ve shown far more of the movie than I would’ve wanted,” Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow recently told IGN. As for the fact that the Terminator Genisys trailer went so far as to reveal that John Connor is now a bad guy, director Alan Taylor admits to clashing directly with the studio over the decision. “I think they felt like they had to send a strong message to a very wary audience that there was something new, that this was going to new territory,” he explained.
Clearly, the decision to show more than is desired is not taken lightly. Matt Brubaker at Trailer Park, the company responsible for editing the aforementioned Southpaw trailer reveals that there was a lot of internal discussion about whether to show the death of the hero’s wife, with the final decision made on the basis that it’s wiser to showcase the ‘good stuff’ than to hold it back: “If someone’s going to pay $20 to go on opening weekend to see this movie then they want to know they’re making a pretty good investment. As much as people complain that trailers give away too much, nine times out of 10, the more of the plot you give away, the more interest you garner from the audiences. Audiences respond to the trailers with more of the movie.”
Frustratingly, credible research seems to be corroborate this. A 2011 paper published in Psychological Science showed that people who read summaries of a story subsequently enjoy the full stories more, even when they contain a twist.
Whether the paper’s authors would have come to the same conclusion if their test material had included Citizen Kane, The Sixth Sense, The Unusual Suspects and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back is another matter.