The Column – On Movie Trailers

Miguel Penabella | 18 July 2012

The Column is a Free Tea segment that serves as a forum with which to discuss random topics on cinema and topics outside of it in a pseudo-opinionated manner, much like your weekend newspaper column. A little more informal and more concise than your regular Free Tea feature, these pieces are meant to both inform and express personal thoughts on various issues.


Last summer I compiled a list of striking film trailers that can really leave quite an impression, for an analysis that deconstructed why these trailers were so effective (article found here). Looking back on it, I completely ignored actually defining and laying out what a good movie trailer actually is in theoretical terms; I just jumped straight to examples with only a minor introduction at best. Simply put, a good movie trailer should garner anticipation for a film without giving the entire plot away. Perhaps it can announce the main struggle of its protagonist, but it shouldn’t illuminate the entire conflict over the course of its rashly edited two minutes and fifty seconds set to a Hans Zimmer-derived BRMMM horn from Inception. Recent trends in trailer development and this summer’s fanboy-packed roster of blockbuster titles (The Avengers, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, to name a few) have greatly changed this dynamic. Rather than titillating audiences, studios have simply decided to placate the burning loins – er, win the hearts and minds – of its near universal audience demographic. To satisfy such a ravenous fan base, trailers have gone above and beyond what they’re meant to accomplish, now giving enough crucial footage to piece together the entire plot of a film. When considering the sheer amount of full-length theatrical trailers and television spots released for just one film (Prometheus has over a dozen promotional videos), eager fans can likely hypothesize how a finished movie could play out in so-called “trailer breakdowns.” And they did.

This investigation doesn’t even include the number of extended trailers released for some films, which are basically entire scenes directly spliced from the film and grafted together with some music and titles slapped on at the end. The recent Amazing Spider-Man movie had so much footage circulating around that the forums and boards were packed with fans who excitedly speculated on certain characters and plot points to the point where many have lost interest in actually seeing the movie in theaters altogether. And if people come away with that sentiment – that the trailers have given them all they need to be satisfied with – then the studios have failed miserably. But what exactly initiated such a growing trend? Surely the fans share the primary blame for willingly sitting through a half hour’s worth of promotional material, but do these spoiler-packed movie trailers reflect trends in the cinema as a whole? I discussed J.J. Abrams twice in my “Deconstructing Movie Trailers” article, talking about the merits of his Cloverfield (which he produced) and Star Trek trailers. Rather than resorting to the typical montage of scenes that trailers often do (sometimes giving too much plot information away), Abrams prefers a calculatedly mysterious tone for his promotional footage, giving a flash of a name – “Enterprise” on the Star Trek teaser – or even a cryptic money shot like the decapitated Lady Liberty in Cloverfield. These are great tactics for early teaser trailers meant to incite discussion, but these trailers don’t give enough way for substantial theorizing of the entire plot of the film (unlike Prometheus’ rapidly edited montage of shots which doesn’t discriminate in using imagery from the final act).

Nevertheless, summer blockbuster titles contain even longer running times, and this factor seems to justify spitting out a two minute and fifty second trailer with shots from nearly every single scene in the film. As for me, I’m perfectly content watching only – and I emphasize that “only” – the initial teaser trailer and the first theatrical trailer, unless of course another trailer happens to roll on by before a feature presentation I watch in the theater (This is how I came to watch the fourth theatrical trailer for The Dark Knight Rises when it played before The Amazing Spider-Man). Which brings us to the bigger root of the problem – the audiences. Rather than exercising some self-restraint, fanatical hordes of people with access to the Internet flock towards any new piece of footage they can get their hands on, even if it’s an international trailer dubbed in another language. The boards don’t help either, as the trailer breakdowns often extinguish any excitement for an upcoming film, leading to hypocritical complaints of trailers ruining the entire plot of a film. Here’s the thing: you’re not meant to watch all twenty trailers released for a film, and if you’re going to argue that studios consciously released all these trailers with easy access for anyone willing to watch, then I suggest you get off your self-entitled high horse because studios don’t personally attend to your every whim. Don’t blame the marketing campaign; blame yourself for intentionally becoming a nosy detective to fulfill your fanatical needs.

Studios aren’t ruining the films for you; the hungry fans who participate in overly obsessive guesswork in the forums spoil the films for themselves because they dedicate so much time to unwarranted pre-release analysis. Trailers aren’t meant to sit in the front of your mind for weeks’ worth of deliberation and hearsay; they’re meant to slowly burn in your unconscious, slowly building excitement rather than cathartically exploding the entire narrative of a film in a Big Bang of Comic-Con internet fan culture. To movie studios: if you want to sidestep the fans who ruin the films altogether, I suggest the brighter half of the Prometheus marketing campaign – the viral advertisements. Because these clips are constructed with footage not included in the film, very little (if any) plot points are revealed, but these ads do enrich the mythology and mystique of a film. Just look at the wondrous “David 8” video, a piece of advertising brilliance that could even make for a great short film. To the hardcore fans out there: it’s perfectly fine not to watch all twenty theatrical trailers, television spots, international trailers, teasers, viral videos, featurettes, production diaries, etc. Watch only one, maybe two.

It can be done.

Notes 0

When Ridley Scott does sci-fi, well… suffice to say that this is my most looked-forward to film for 2012. Here’s the debut trailer for Prometheus.

Notes 4

Official Synopsis for Prometheus Revealed

Miguel Penabella | 30 September 2011

The official plot for director Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has hit the web after Fox quietly updated the film’s brief description on the official movie page. After daily feeds of voyeuristic spy shots from The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers sets, the subtle background revelations for the upcoming sci-fi is a welcome change in film news following months of complete secrecy. You may remember my early Prometheus speculation piece in July, offering cryptic hints rather than outright spoilers for the forthcoming film. The following plot reveal on the official movie site continues this trend:

“Ridley Scott, director of Alien and Blade Runner, returns to the genre he helped define. With Prometheus, he creates a groundbreaking mythology, in which a team of explorers discovers a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a thrilling journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race.”

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Notes 10

Sci-fi Returns: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus

Miguel Penabella | 24 July 2011

     After a thirty year gap since Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner was released (1982), the director has unveiled a number of teaser stills and information regarding his return to the genre with 2012’s Prometheus, one of my most hotly anticipated upcoming films beating out even The Dark Knight Returns, Django Unchained, and The Hobbit, cinephiles be damned. This year’s Comic-Con in San Diego witnessed writer Damon Lindelof (Lost, Cowboys & Aliens) and actress Charlize Theron serving in a press conference panel for a barrage of questions regarding the new film. Meanwhile, the director and his new muse Noomi Rapace gave a live video feed to the jam-packed Hall H while on location at Iceland. And after months of utter secrecy revolving around the film, audiences at Comic-Con were treated to a number of brand new stills and even a bit of footage from Scott’s new movie.

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Notes 2