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Movie Trailers: Teasing or Spoiling?

Movie Trailers
By Martin Frenette

Is it the title, the biggest name on the poster, that well-known composer behind the soundtrack or just that it happens to be an amazing director’s latest release? For some it is all of the above and all featured in the movie’s trailer. Even if personal tastes and one’s mood at the box office can influence a movie selection, this industry knows that the secret is not in the sauce but in the trailer! Not only are there editors and composers who specialize in this very specific movie form, but they even have their own “Oscars of promotion” known as The Golden Trailer Awards. From The Matrix to Avatar, with some Billy Elliott, Run Lola Run, and Moulin Rouge!, the list of past winners in all 108 categories keeps getting longer since its first ceremony in 1999.

Is condensing 120 or 150 minutes into a two-minute very short feature really an award-deserving art form? Regardless of what the answer might be, everyone knows someone who purposely gets to their seat early just to see a few trailers (and eat half of their popcorn in the process!).

There is no denying that some stick more to the mind by featuring their leads in a better way, creating a unique mix of music, sounds, and quotes, or pitching their plot in a more compelling fashion. However, some cynical observers like to say that it often comes down to showing the movie’s best scenes to convince an audience to pay for its worst! A simple look at how movie trailers have evolved throughout the past three decades seems to confirm their view, making it clear that the line between teasing and spoiling is now thinner than ever.

Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire and White Chicks.  Three comedies from three different eras with men posing as women and a desire to make audiences laugh in common. A simple trailer comparison is enough to understand that the types of humor and physical comedy vary from one movie to another. Even if one could argue that the premise is only slightly similar, the ways that each movie was promoted could not be more different!

The first trailer, Tootsie, released in 1982, only shows two characters, one is a struggling actor that keeps getting rejected at auditions, and gives the audience a single, discrete glance at him as a woman in 81 seconds. This is a real tease. The motivations behind his transformation are briefly mentioned, but there are no clues as to how it happened nor on where it will lead. This movie trailer is the equivalent of a tiny teaspoon at the ice cream parlor where one gets a taste of what’s to come without spoiling their appetite and is left begging for more!

Eleven years later, Mrs. Doubtfire’s trailer introduced nine characters, including its lead acting and talking as both male and female, unveiling any mystery surrounding the housekeeper on that poster in the process. This clip, 37 seconds longer than Tootsie‘s, also features a few good quotes and faces from funny scenes and makes writing down the movie’s main story arcs possible.

Finally, at 2:27, 2004’s White Chicks‘ trailer does not stop at the premise, but gives away what looks like two of the movie’s big twists, introduces over a dozen characters and gives far more screen time for its leads as women than the previous two did. Even if Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams were probably aiming for broader audiences than the Wayans Brothers, it is worth noting that they respectively made $177 200, $219 195 243 and $70 831 760 in domestic box office sales. The longest trailer clearly did not draw the biggest crowds!

When looking at trailers from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, it also is interesting to see how different marketing was back then and brings up the question as to whether studios believed more in their movies back then.

By never showing key elements nor giving away what would become iconic lines in clips that often barely lasted longer than a minute, production companies picked teasing over spoiling. Something like “Alfred Hitchcock’s new movie” or “Starring Katherine Hepburn” was enough to sell a movie whereas today’s studio execs almost feel that sharing the murderer’s identity in a “whodunnit” or the movie’s entire cast are the only ways to guarantee big numbers on opening weekend!


movie trailers

Similar changes in promotional campaigns for animation movies also started to occur in the ’90s. In this case, it ain’t so much about trailers’ length, but how one’s star power shall sell it instead of the plot or creative team. Up until then, animation movies were no playing fields for celebrities and “cartoons” were definitely no star-studded events. At least, not prior to Aladdin’s 1992 release, when Disney made most of the advertisement about Robin Williams and the character that he voiced: the Genie. Despite Williams’ request of not being featured in more than 25% of the movie’s marketing, this was the first time that a supporting character was taking more space than the leads on a poster and in merchandising. Perhaps in an attempt to attract more adults to the cinema and sell tickets to the entire family, Disney studios included some of the Genie’s best lines and scenes in the trailer, even if that meant giving away surprising moments.

Ellen as Finding Nemo’s Dory, Justin Timberlake’s Branch in Trolls or Mike Myers and Eddy Murphy in Shrek are just a few of those instances where studios ironically picked famous faces to give a voice to their characters, pushed their star power as one of the movie’s main features, and used their best lines for the trailers. Such choice reiterates the idea that one ends up paying for those bits that weren’t great or funny enough to make it to the trailer.

By showing so much of what to expect from their motion pictures, has the industry turned the subtle art of teasing into spoiling or is this their response to audiences’ doubts and a need to know that they will definitely laugh or be terrified before spending money at the box office? Since many reviews now come with a “Spoilers-Free” or “With Spoilers” disclaimer, it is fair to assume that many still want to be surprised and that a return to the pre-’90s approach could avoid walking into a movie with that weird déjà-vu feeling on what’s supposed to be Opening Night!

Trends that emerged in the 2010s actually seem to be pointing in that direction. After some unfortunate mishaps like Tom Hanks’ Castaway trailer that notoriously showed some of the movie’s final scenes, a new, almost spoiler-free, marketing could be seen as the latest shift in a series that movie advertisement has gone through. The fact that moviegoers now mostly watch trailers online, often on their phone, also changed the rules of the marketing game.

People’s attention span has been on a constant decline in the 21st century where attention-grabbing trailers that both entice and leave a lasting impression in a matter of seconds are a must. Without fully going back to that deep dramatic voice from the ’80s that’d open every trailer with “in a world where…” or “this is a man who…” There is hope that the 2010s will be referred to as the time where trailers were teasing and not spoiling.


Also by Martin Frenette:

Can a Voice last Beyond “The Voice”

The Day Comedians became News Anchors

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