Don’t Tell Me Everything: Do Trailers Show Too Much?

Warning: Given the subject matter at hand,  there are a handful of major spoilers discussed in this piece. 

Marketing a film through its trailer is a remarkable feat.  Creating the trailer for a film can come down to a consideration between what would constitute too many spoilers versus how much should be shown to pique the interest of the moviegoing audience.  It’s unfortunately becoming a trend that most trailers constitute the former.  It seems now that most movie trailers simply give away not only most or all of the plot, but the vast majority of movie’s best parts or scenes that would best be saved for the element of surprise in the final product.

The main problem here, obviously, is that when a trailer gives away some major twist or big money shot, the audience knows it’s coming.  I remember being quite suspicious at the trailer for the terrible Will Smith superhero movie Hancock.  In the trailer there is a very brief shot of Charlize Theron dressed in black, surrounded by destruction.  It didn’t take me long to guess far ahead of time that Theron’s character was also superpowered.  Similarly, in The Forgotten, the missing-person thriller with Julianne Moore, the big “reveal” is that aliens are experimenting to see if they can get humans to completely forget about a person.  This would have been a fine twist, had the trailer not glaringly ended with someone getting sucked violently straight up into the sky.  There was also Terminator Salvation, which wasted no time revealing in the trailer that Marcus Wright was a Terminator.  Some choice edits could have completely removed this major twist.  These kinds of trailers ruin all intrigue of the film, and instead of trying to figure out what’s hiding behind the curtain, the audience is instead already behind said curtain, and when it opens, it doesn’t even matter.  The trailer for Cast Away is a slightly less guilty offender; though showing Chuck escaping from the island might seem like an egregious reveal, the actual movie is more about Chuck as a character and how the whole ordeal, as well as reintegrating into society, affects him.

It’s almost worse when a major shot is revealed, such as the final scene in Paranormal Activity.  The film ends with the female getting possessed and killing her boyfriend.  Granted, it’s not known that this is the ending scene of the film, but the trailer makes it clear that it’s going to be major.  In another horror film, Quarantine, the final shot of the film is not only in the trailer, but also used for the poster and the DVD cover art.  Again, it’s not given away that this is the final shot of the film, but including it in the promotional materials as such not only kills the intended visceral effect of the shot when it finally arrives, but has the audience waiting for the shot the entire film.  One of the most infamous offenders comes from the trailer for the 70s science fiction film Soylent Green, which spends a lot of time asking, “What is the secret of Soylent Green??”.  As it turns out, the secret is that human bodies are being processed into the food product Soylent Green.  It’s a big twist, but a very prominent scene in the trailer is of bodies being loaded onto a conveyor belt.  One cannot reasonably infer the secret from this scene alone, but when watching the film, it becomes much easier to guess the ending and the resulting revelation loses much of its kick.

With some trailers, “spoilers” are needed to sell the movie.  I initially took a small amount of offense to the newest international trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  The trailer was literally a truncated version of the entire narrative arc, starting with Caesar the ape being born, going through his eventual growth and the rift between him and his family, and leading up to the rise of the apes and their violent takeover of Earth.  Of course, this is how the film would have to end.  There’s no way a film called Rise of the Planet of the Apes could end in any way other than, well, the apes rising.  Though the trailer gave away several of the money shots from the eventual siege, it’s those money shots that sell the film, and tasting the spectacle of those apes taking over the world enticed audiences to propel the film to #1 at the box office two weeks in a row and counting.  In the same way, slasher horror flicks such as the Final Destination series or the Saw series that rely on their kills as a selling point need to feature some of those in the trailer, or there would be no meat to the trailer.  If the trailer is edited well enough, this can be ok; if your movie is Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, the whole movie is ruined by the trailer.

This trickiness can also be applied to comedies, which also need to supply enough jokes to be able to carry the trailer and make it enticing to viewers who are interested in seeing it.  Most comedy trailers, unfortunately, feel the need to put every joke in the trailer, and most of them are ruined when the movie actually rolls around.  Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell comedies that rely heavily on improvisation and/or long-winded gags don’t generally have this problem, whereas one can usually derive the approximate comedic value of an Adam Sandler movie (usually 0 or less) just from viewing the trailer.  Other times, it’s all in the context.  For example, both of director James Gunn’s pseudo-comedies Slither and Super feature well-constructed trailers that don’t give away too much, but what they do show is significantly enriched in the finished product.  On the other hand, the editing of The Change-Up‘s trailer made it literally funnier than the actual movie.

This is less of an issue when it comes to trailers for drama films that do not have any major spoilers, or are based on factual events that the audience is aware of before attending the movie.  Take, for example, the remarkably well put-together trailer for David Fincher’s The Social Network. It is generally common knowledge that the inception of Facebook ended in lawsuits and fractured friendships.  It’s not a movie with plot twists and breathlessly guessing what is going to happen next; it’s a character-driven drama that is anchored on its outstanding performances.  The scene when besties Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin have their falling-out is even there in the trailer, and benefits the emotion in the trailer as a whole.  Trailers for drama films or films based in fact are usually the best: they succinctly deliver the plot, with some choice lines and performance excerpts, and whet the audience’s appetite for the film without showing everything.

This problem can also work in the opposite direction.  For example, the recent Love and Other Drugs, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, sports a trailer that pitches a charming, lighthearted romantic comedy with a little bit of silliness from the supporting characters.  The movie itself was about a Viagra salesman who is dating a girl with Parkinson’s disease and is convinced that she will soon die. It’s a far cry from the pleasant trailer, which touches only briefly on that major plot point.  On the other hand, how do you market a romantic comedy film where one of the main characters is dying?  At least the trailer doesn’t have scenes that aren’t even in the film; it’s one thing to have a comedy that includes some nixed lines, such as some of the “You know how I know you’re gay?” lines from Knocked Up.  It’s another thing entirely in the case of the Navy film Annapolis, which is marketed as a powerful Navy recruitment thriller. There’s even a few shots in the trailer of a ship blowing up and helicopters and jets doing tricks in the sky.  Annapolis the movie was about boxing, and it was terrible.  Another incorrectly marketed film was The American (granted, it was an outstanding movie and one of my favorite films of last year), which was pitched as a sort of action movie but was actually more of a psychological drama.  This led to a great many disappointed viewers.

It all goes back to the original problem, however: the trailer is meant to sell tickets, and how can it do that effectively without giving too much away?  It’s not easy, but it can be done; the trailer for Inception held just enough intrigue and exposition to build hype while also giving viewers a lot to question so they weren’t quite sure what to expect in the final film. In the same way, Watchmen was a trailer designed for fans of the graphic novel.  People who didn’t know anything about the story could guess that the movie was a dark alternate reality with vigilantes, while fans of Alan Moore’s original work were watching the novel spring to life and could get appropriately excited.  If only such craftmanship was more common in movie trailers.  As it is right now, it’s getting easier and easier to know the entire movie based on a mere two and a half minutes of footage, with the only solution being to completely avoid the trailer altogether.  But is it worth it?


Posted on August 16, 2011, in Editorial. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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