The owner of the popular Trailer Track website, Anton Volkov, dissects the changing face of the movie trailer.
Anton Volkov (@TrailerTrack)
Trailers may have got their name from originally being played in cinemas after films, but today they are the subject of just as much, if not more, discussion than the films they advertise. As much as their ultimate goal is purely commercial – to get ‘bums on seats’ – trailers are an ever-increasing part of today’s film culture, with much of that as a result of how changes in the landscape affected not only the way films are advertised but the way we, as audiences, engage with it. Just before Christmas, for instance, speculation as to when Disney would release the world’s first look at Avengers: Endgame was rife. In fact, rife is an understatement. Intense social media chatter as to when the trailer would arrive, and then the likes of Twitter virtually at a standstill when it did.
With that in mind, it’s easy to think that trailer releases becoming such massive cultural and media events is a recent phenomenon. But in fact, it isn’t so. Even 20 years ago, in an incredibly well-documented example, Star Wars fans sold out screenings of the likes of Meet Joe Black just to see the debut teaser for Episode I – The Phantom Menace. If anything, it could be argued that today’s culture of anticipating footage for the next Star Wars or comic book film is a by-product of these types of films, along with their respective fanbases, becoming more mainstream.
This also feeds into another aspect that has changed: how trailers are seen. The cinema is still the place a lot of people see them, and very often they are cut together in mind for the big screen: taking advantage of not only sound capabilities (such as the initial Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice teaser, featuring dialogue snippets panning all around you), but also the element of surprise. In a cinema, you don’t necessarily expect to see a look at Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, however minimal it may be in terms of what it shows. But when you’re not only actively looking it up on YouTube, but also anticipating it during some football game on TV, a teaser that ultimately shows a cave and one shot of the title character seems disappointing.
Our predominantly online gobbling up of film marketing, added to that culture of anticipation – in turn boosted by studios announcing the arrival dates of these trailers – directly affects how they are put together. The aforementioned Aladdin teaser is one of relatively few such sparse first looks released for major films, with most ‘teasers’ now being considerably meatier in terms of content. It was only back in July that we got a three minute ‘teaser’ for Warner Bros’ upcoming blockbuster, Shazam!…
Our mobile devices also have had a massive effect on how trailers are put together and released. Every time a new look at a film launches, there are complaints among the film community about the footage being cropped to square – or worse, vertical – frames. As much as it may frustrate us as film fans that the immaculately composed work from the likes of Roger Deakins may be ruined by the change in formatting, research from social media companies such as Buffer suggests that said change boosts viewership numbers by 3035%, as well as likes, shares and retweets by 80-100%. It’s like pan and scan has come back from its grave to haunt us. And while some may argue as to why don’t people just rotate their phones, marketers bank on our collective laziness and ‘optimise’ trailers for that.
The dreaded and omnipresent ‘bumper’ (5-10 second ‘tease’ you see right before a trailer plays that tends to ‘spoil’ the best shots) has become popular for similar reasons. On Twitter, CBS Films’ Grey Munford explained that studios have “a little under three seconds…to make you pause & engage” with the trailer while scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feeds – and that’s not to mention to be able to fit the message in before you are able to hit ‘skip’ when a trailer plays as an irritating ad in front of a YouTube video or an article.
Ruining the film?
This increased reliance on data and chase for view numbers is also responsible for arguably the biggest trailer pet peeve of all: spoilers. While those of us excited for films may hate seeing major plot turns or character appearances ruined, the similar focus group testing process used on feature films reveals that the more of the film the average potential audience member sees in the trailer, the more they will connect to it. Even the people behind the trailers seem unhappy with these developments: in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Dan Asma, co-owner of trailer agency Buddha Jones, asks “what can we do when testing and focus grouping consistently say that numbers spike when you give away more of the story”.
But others, such as legendary editor Mark Woollen, who has worked with the likes of the Coen Brothers and David Fincher, argues that there may be a generational change with this, younger audiences being happy with less plot in trailers. With the way Disney has encouraged people to keep its silence throughout the promotion of Avengers: Infinity War, ‘spoilerphobia’ is seeming to become increasingly more mainstream, although it could be said that it’s the strength of brands such as Marvel and Star Wars that enables studio marketers to go against the grain in this regard. Similar spoiler-averse marketing attempts were recently spearheaded by director Denis Villeneuve on Blade Runner 2049. If only, for many reasons, that film had enjoyed a better time at the box office.
Much like major studio filmmaking itself, film marketing and trailers are a fight for balance between the commercial and artistic imperatives. But since ultimately the goal is to get ‘bums on seats’, do opinions of the likes of Sofia Coppola (who, when asked in a Q&A about spoilers in The Beguiled trailers, encouraged fans to write to distributor Focus Features) and Christopher Nolan, or us as film fans, matter? Some would say that those who are already excited for and planning to see certain films should avoid trailers altogether. But maybe, as more audiences become passionate about these marketing issues, a better balance could be found in the future.