Trailers have become an enormous part of our film culture. They’ve always been a big deal (I still hear people talk about the first time they saw trailers for Tim Burton’s Batman and Terminator 2), but the advent of the Internet has created a curious mythology about trailers, bumping up their importance a hundred fold. My fourth grade teacher pulled a bunch of us dorkier kids aside during class to let us watch the first teaser for The Phantom Menace on his computer. He stopped teaching so we could watch a commercial. That’s how important some trailers are for people (I can’t lie, it was an awesome moment. Shame about the movie).
Trailers are viewed as their own little short films, inciting debate about their artistic merits or lack thereof. Let’s make something clear. Trailers are made to do one thing: sell you on a movie (read: product). I think the idea of a trailer as advertising has almost been completely diminished. People make up their minds about movies just by watching a commercial. And don’t think I’m saying this atop my high horse named Better Than You in my Tower of Know-It-All; I continue to preconceive notions about films based on promotional material (Terminator Genisys is completely repellent to me based on the commercials we’ve seen, whereas I think it will be impossible for me to even remotely dislike Mad Max: Fury Road) and that’s kind of bumming me out.
Modern trailer culture has created audiences that have preformed a film in their minds before the lights go down in the theater. I had a friend who was so excited for Prometheus that he ripped the first trailer from YouTube and would play it constantly, examining every detail and heaping speculation upon every frame. It got to the point that I realized that I was walking into Prometheus with an unfair bias against it; there was no way it was going to live up to the movie I had created in my head based on that trailer. This mental moviemaking is especially unfair when marketing materials leave out pertinent information or even straight up lie to you.
Take for example last year’s Godzilla. According to all the trailers and sneak peeks, the movie we were going to see was going to be a somber and darkly meditative look at man’s relationship to nature, hearkening back to the grim tone of the original 1954 film. I was excited by this prospect. So, when the movie I saw in theaters was instead an old fashioned kaiju smackdown film featuring Godzilla as an undeniable hero, I found the movie I was sold clashing with what the movie actually was. This caused me to originally dismiss Godzilla because I was caught off-guard by my expectations. Once I saw the movie a second time, with my preconceived notions no longer in play, I found myself immensely enjoying the film.
Here’s an example of a film’s trailers not cluing you in on what the movie is actually about: Looper. Spoilers for Looper in this paragraph, by the way. As far as the commercials were concerned, the movie was just about hitman Joseph Gordon-Levitt having to face off against his future Bruce Willis-y self. When the movie actually turned out to be about a telekinetic kid who would end up decimating the world, I was taken completely by surprise. I never expected Looper to be a film so focused on the importance of parenting, and that’s because all of the marketing left out the most integral aspect of the story. This was a positive experience in regards to what I’m talking about, but it does illustrate the deceptive nature inherent in any piece of advertising.
I think this importance we’ve attached to trailers is affecting how we consume films in a big way. Yesterday, trailers for both Batman v Superman and The Force Awakens hit the scene. While The Force Awakens has been met with near unanimous praise, Batman v Superman has had a mixed reception at best. What happens if The Force Awakens turns out to be bad? Will our disappointment be compounded upon because of all the good will this trailer has created? What if Batman v Superman turns out to be good? Will we think it’s better than it actually is simply because it’s better than the commercials we’ll be consuming over the next year?
Movie trailers are advertisements, same as the ones you see trying to sell you mayonnaise or car insurance, but because they are advertisements for things that we actively anticipate, we don’t really come at them from the same mindset as we do commercials about potato chips and bladder infection medication.
Don’t think this means I think we should stop being excited for trailers. It is invigorating to get a peek at a present you’re going to get, but we need to do better in remembering that the wrapping isn’t necessarily representative of what’s inside the box. I think we need to scale back on the importance we’ve bestowed on trailers. If we continue to invest so much into their cultural worth, how long before studios start charging for the premiere of some highly anticipated trailer? Because they will. If they can find a way to make people pay for a commercial, you can guarantee they’ll figure it out.
What trailers do you think are worth bringing up in this conversation? Some ones I considered talking about: Battle: Los Angeles (great trailer for the cinematic equivalent of Ambien), Unbreakable (a case of a film being sold based on the director’s previous film), and pretty much every Zack Snyder trailer ever (with this one exception of Batman v Superman, the guy puts out great trailers).