Three years ago, the LA Times wrote a short piece explicating how ‘movie trailers have become the main event’, on the back of the huge success enjoyed by the teaser trailer for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. ‘This is the new world of trailers,’ Ben Fritz writes, ‘in which the Internet and rabid fan culture have turned one- to three-minute ads, once seen only in theaters, into events promoted and analyzed as avidly as the films themselves.’
Since then, however, film trailers have become even more of an event than they were back when Fritz was quaking in his boots in fearful anticipation of cinema’s dystopian future. One need only look to the recent Star Wars trailer — teaser trailer number 2, apparently — that garnered over thirty million views overnight. That blows Prometheus’s achievement so far out of the water that it has skipped the nearest landmass to find itself in another figurative ocean, one filled with tears and broken dreams and awkward metaphors. And then, of course, there was the slew of big trailer events that following suit in the week or so after Star Wars nearly ‘broke the internet’; Jurassic World finally got its official ‘non-teaser’ out into the world, Ben Affleck’s gravelly voice shook the speakers of laptops worldwide in the first-look at Batman vs Superman, and the new Terminator Genisys trailer ensured that it spoiled as much of the plot as possible before the actual film arrived.
Let’s face it: trailers are a big deal now. IGN now has a delineated section devoted to games and movie trailers; The Guardian writes opinion pieces on them; hell, there’s even sites called ‘Trailer Addict’ and ‘Coming soon.net’. But how exactly have trailers become ‘events’ in and of themselves? And what exactly does it mean for the future of film?
Okay, so have you ever heard of that old cliché of ‘life mirroring art’? Well, I think it has some gravity in this instance. You see, in this contemporary media landscape of fibre-optic stuff and super fast other things and frame-rate whatever, we have placed a greater emphasis than ever before on communicating as much information as we can in the shortest time possible. ‘Brevity,’ after all, as our good friend Bill Shakespeare will tell you, ‘is the soul of wit.’ And now, it’s also the soul of marketing.
Trailers are not the only thing emphasising this need for ‘efficient’ communication. Twitter hails the era of condensed messaging, restricting anything you have to say to 140 characters, so you’d better believe you need to think about every single word if you want to broadcast anything that’s remotely important to you. And on top of that, there’s Vine, an app that lets user make videos that can be no longer than 7 seconds long. And then there’s SnapChat, an app that forces you to absorb both image and text at almost inhuman speeds by giving you a few seconds before cyberspace swallows it forever and sends it to a place no one is really quite sure about and everyone is a little bit scared will come back to get us in some shape or form.
And what does this new imperative to ‘condense’ information yield? Creativity. Honestly, watching some of those Vines and you’ll see what I mean. They’re damn entertaining. So when we gather around (well, figuratively) to watch the latest smattering of images from an upcoming smash hit, we do so less to decide whether or not we want to watch the film, and more so because trailers, like Vines, have now stylistically adapted in such a way that they are entertaining in and of themselves. They build tension, they offer a climax, a dénouement. They have come to form a narrative that is arguably more interesting than the final product because the pressure to condense means that, in order to ‘communicate’, the editors have to experiment.
The weirdest part about this whole phenomenon is that I don’t think it is even the full trailers we enjoy anymore. The most exciting — and indeed successful — mutation of movie marketing has crept up on us in the last couple of decades. I am talking, of course, about teaser trailers.
Teaser trailers, for those of you living under a rock or incapacitated by some similar mineral composite, are essentially ‘trailers for the trailers’. On a most fundamental level, teaser trailers simply confirm a film’s existence, and leak fragments of plot so minimal that only a vague mist of a narrative seeps through. They do what they say on the tin: they tease. And they do so by stranding tenuous reference points amidst a swirling semiotic barrage, provoking the ‘in-depth analysis’ that Ben Fritz writes about in his article.
At what point, then, did the editors cotton on to the trailer analysis trend? Well, pretty early on, actually. Let me draw your attention to a couple of examples from 2008 that sort of set the bar for our contemporary teasers.
Who remembers the first trailer for J. J. Abrams’ Cloverfield? In recent memory, this is a paramount example of ‘not giving anything away’. Hell, we don’t even get a title; Abrams holds his cards so close to his chest that they have begun to fuse with his torso. All we are given is a Blair Witch-esque exposition, which it turned out was pretty much a compressed version of the first ten minutes of the final product. And then, bang! Wild speculations about giant lizards, terrorist plots and alien invasions fly across the media landscape with the same panicked dislocation as Lady Liberty’s head. All we are left with are clues. We know it’s New York. We know there’s a party. We know there’s an earthquake. We know that there’s an explo– “WAIT, what was that? Was that Godzilla?” It was all very exciting, and provided plenty of ammunition for conjecture for the months leading up to its release. More’s the pity that the final film sort of collapsed under the weight of its own hype.
Now, The Dark Knight tends to be remembered for becoming the superhero movie to beat, but let’s not forget that Nolan also concocted a really clever marketing campaign, ensuring that his magnum opus was a commercial as well as a critical success. The teaser trailer for The Dark Knight is an interesting case because, for the entire minute or so that it runs, we are given only soundbites from the final film, as we watch the canonical reveal of the Batman symbol. We hear Christian Bale’s Batman talking about gangs in the city, Alfred’s familiar cockney drawl, and then suddenly a chilling cackle that coincides with the Batman symbol exploding into various CGI shards, and a playing card hurtles towards the screen so that, for a split second, we can see that the card is, of course, a Joker. This is a trailer that throws the medium on its head; it demands that we rely more on our ears than our eyes, that we transcend the boundaries of ‘viewership’ and piece together an audible puzzle rather than a visual one.
All of this is only possible thanks to the ability to post trailers up for unlimited streaming on sites like YouTube, since viewers can pause at specific points to mull on the semiotic significance of a single frame, or play it through in slow motion, or play it backwards to hear secret demonic messages… well, maybe not the last one, although I’m sure that’s been done.
Ultimately, there occurs here a relinquishing of power to viewers. Unpacking the bites of information provided to us is a sort of thrill in itself; we are no longer spoon-fed the narrative arc of a movie via some prolonged, banal truncation of it (we’re looking at you, Terminator Genisys). Instead, we are granted the tools to deduce for ourselves all of the possible outcomes. We are given more with less.
As trailers get better and better at communicating large amounts of info in brief, cathartic flash-narratives, we as viewers are becoming more and more adept at rapid analysis, more open to debating the meanings of certain elements of what we are given, and form a stronger bond as a fanbase by opening such discussions. And with that in mind, its difficult to approach trailers with a negative attitude. The obvious backlash is that the trailers will get better than the films themselves, although even now it’s rare that a bad film gets a great trailer. Plus, the critical autonomy that the internet teaches us might also equip us with enough balanced judgement to spot the good from the bad.
The reality is that trailers don’t last a couple of minutes anymore. Now, trailers can last for months, thanks to a heightened level of interaction between the viewer and the product. We can replay, rewind, edit, add comments, search interviews, follow links in descriptions, all because of Web 2.0. Trailers are free and they’re packed with exciting content. In a funny way, trailers are ours now. And as we place more and more importance on them, Hollywood will continue to step up its game. These companies don’t have to convince us the first time around any more, because we will watch and rewatch. Rather, they have to make trailers so dense and rich with content that we actively spend weeks of our time thinking about them. Finally, Hollywood is getting rewarded for doing stuff that is clever. To me, that makes the future look a little bit brighter.
And if you think I’m completely wrong… well, the comment section is there for a reason.