Time to Trim Trailers? The Death of Surprise in Modern Hollywood

Nowadays, Hollywood’s marketing has changed. During the early stages of cinema, filmmakers could not afford to waste film to make a trailer that would promote their movies. The artists used elements of surprise to their advantage in order to grab the audience’s attention. This would be done through the use of posters and loglines which would, in turn, give the people a chance to understand the genre and themes of the motion picture.

Original poster for Michael Curtiz's Doctor X (1932).
Original poster for Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932).

During Hollywood’s golden age, audience members were more invested into the story of a film since they needed to understand the movie from beginning to end. The big studios and their marketing teams had an unique way in grabbing people’s attention: intrigue. Also, “word of mouth” marketing was a huge tool that the studios used to generate more ticket sales. People depended on others to recommend them movies and to give them reasons to watch a certain film. This kind of marketing created a cinephile community that spent most of the time inside movie theatres, talking with fellow cinephiles, and exploring different kinds of cinema.

The entire industry was at its peak, and it had what they needed to maintain their monopoly. The marketing team took advantage of people’s curiosity, and it paid off. Sadly, as televisions started to emerge in the common household, ticket sales dropped exponentially. By 1954, 90% of American homes had T.Vs. Before the “television takeover,” there were 90 million of moviegoers (about 2/3 of America’s population). Nowadays, only 7% of America’s population go to the movies.

However, Hollywood still grew as an industry, and its main objective became to facilitate everything to the audience in order to make more money. By taking to their advantage the use of T.V. in American households, the big studios developed what would be the genesis of the type of marketing we experience today. By making everything about a movie clear to the viewers before its release, Hollywood generated a new wave of trailers that aim for people’s commodity rather than for their intellect; therefore, eliminating the element of surprise behind a movie. But first, we need to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Showing too much

Hollywood thinks they are giving to the viewers a sense of familiarity by showing them the entire movie in 3 minutes. Like most people know, we tend to gravitate towards the familiar because it seems “safe.” This is one of the reasons why Hollywood is so keen on doing sequels and remakes of movies, because they try to hook the audience with what we already know. The artistic side of cinema is being overshadowed by the monetary side of it. The mainstream industry wants to sell their products as fast as possible, so they tell you everything you need to know about a movie in a trailer. Look at the Batman V Superman trailer 2, for instance. In it, you will find the reason why Batman thinks Superman is dangerous, the most important action sequences, and the big reveal of the villain, Doomsday.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - Official Trailer 2 [HD]

Why should we watch this movie when everything we needed to know about it is in the trailer? If we were to go to the theatre and watch this film, we would not be surprised, we have seen everything. The only new things that we are going to be shown are scenes that restate what we already know. This kind of marketing is harmful for the audience, because their ability to figure a movie out through some ambiguous scenes is being underestimated by the industry.

The element of surprise

It is the trailers’ job to define the tone, themes, and genre of the movie without giving too much away. When a trailer manages to do this, the ‘movie-going’ experience is enhanced by the surprise the audience gets when they watch the final product. For example, Jeff Nichols managed to create a trailer for Midnight Special that gives you a glimpse into the world of the movie without telling you the plot. The fun part of this is to watch the movie and figure it out ourselves. About the movie’s trailer, Nichols said:

They [Warner Bros.] sent me a couple of trailers first, and they were really trying to explain what’s happening– you know like the plot of the movie– and I said, “Let’s not do that.” And we kind of had a list of things not to show, and that we’ve stuck to. And I said, “There are these other things you’re gonna have to show. You’re going to have to show the boys eyes. You’re probably going to have to show this moment at this gas station. But I think the best thing we can do is try and strip them of their context within the film itself, so that if you have to show an image of something, don’t attach it to what it’s actually attached to in the film. So try and break those things up. You can see one shot from one part of the film, but then put it with another shot from another part of the film.”

Midnight Special Official Trailer #1 (2016) - Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst Movie HD

This statement evidences the importance of ambiguity when marketing a film. Nichols understands the value of surprising the viewer in order to create a more meaningful movie. It feels more like an experience when you are trying to figure out what is going on, instead of sitting in front of a screen like a vegetable. Because of the lack of surprises, we, as an audience, are becoming less responsive when it comes to engaging with a movie. We expect that the movie is going to explain everything about the story, and about the characters. The excitement of getting our own reading of a movie disappears, and instead of being an active audience we become an unresponsive one. A great director gives to the audience the pieces of the puzzle so they can solve it themselves.

Overall, making a trailer is a tricky thing to do; you must capture the audience’s attention without giving everything away. But if we have learned something it is that most trailers tend to ruin what makes a movie special. You would not laugh at comedies that you have watched the trailers of because the best jokes are in it. You would not get scared when you are watching a scary movie and, because of the trailers, you know when the monster or ghost is going to pop out. Instead, you would be amazed when you watch a trailer that intrigues you, and you are forced to go to the movies to understand the entire picture.

Trailers are a double-edged sword that can be avoided by taking a look at movie posters and loglines. For old time’s sake, let us be surprised again by the magic of cinema.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I really don’t like it when trailers/reviews reference “a twist you’ll never see coming”.
    Well, I wouldn’t have seen it coming. But now I’m waiting for it. Thanks.

    • Oh this. A thousand times this.

      “You’ll never see the TWIST in the sixth sense coming”.

      Well I might not have done if a load of reviewers hadn’t flagged it up with massive fucking neon signs…

    • Yes. I usually avoid old trailers entirely for that reason. In the last 10 years, trailers have changed, though.

  2. Anikake

    I particularly dislike trailers for 15 and 18 rated films, or here in Holland, 16 and sometimes even 12 rated films, shown before films which are really intended just for children (and for their parents who get the jokes). I don’t care about the spoiling effect, most film buffs know what’s coming anyway, but the carelessness of cinemas in showing these things, which often really are too much for young children, is not acceptable.

  3. Not particularly film-related, but another annoying spoiler trend is during certain TV shows (admittedly slightly bad ones).

    The intro section which says “coming up in this week’s show…” usually tells you pretty much what’s going to happen. This, coupled with “after the break…” before the adverts and “previously…” straight after, makes for a terrible viewing experience. Obviously they do it to reduce costs, as they can make the show five minutes shorter, but even so.

    I should stop watching this kind of rubbish, I guess.

  4. Emily Deibler

    I completely agree that it’s annoying when trailers either a) give away too much (BvS, Amazing Spiderman 2) or b) mismarket the movie (a lot of horror films are marketed as creature features when they’re not). This also applies to trailers for TV shows. Good work here.

  5. ProtoCanon

    Strong thesis, but it might have helped to look deeper into the development of trailer-making. You talk about the art of posters and loglines before trailers became a primary tool for marketing films, but then skip ahead all the way to 2016, to compare two movies from this year. There’s a lot to be said about what’s happened in between. For example, look at some trailers from the 1960s, such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a56FnhtuGI) and The Graduate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsdvhJTqLak) which gave away even more of the plot that B v. S does. Following the historical progression of trailer-making (which, in itself, has become a branch of filmmaking) would shed more light on your topic.

  6. A lot of comedies tend to fall into the “revealing too much” category. The producers tend to put as many funny bits into the trailer as possible to make draw in viewers under the assumption that the rest of the movie will match the trailer, only to find out that the best jokes were in the trailer. This leaves viewers unimpressed, especially since most of the movies that fall pray to this have pretty weak plot lines, leaving nothing for the viewer to enjoy.

  7. Lexzie

    I agree with your analysis of trailers. I have not gone to see a film in months because I already know what is going to happen because of the trailer. The trailer should pique your interest, not tell the story.

  8. I agree-trailers these days seem to be way too long and aren’t ambiguous enough. I feel another problem is that so many movies these days just lack originality-way too many sequels and remakes with many more to come. If the films themselves aren’t going to surprise or intrigue the viewer, what’s the point of advertising them?

  9. I think trailers these days are far too long-and I agree that they aren’t ambiguous enough. I feel another problem has to do with lack of originality in so many films these days-way too many sequels and remakes-with many more to come. If the films themselves won’t intrigue audiences, what’s the point of advertising them?

  10. Trailers are supposed to give you a taste of what to expect, but nowadays they pretty much just give you the full meal. It makes me wonder if producers/editors/whomever think that you really need that much to be shown in a trailer to get people know if to watch the movie. I don’t know what the marketing significance is, but I do know that trailers, and even the general marketing saturation of a movie (ie: being shown the trailer on TV all the time, increased presence in retail marketing, release of official clips and scenes, etc.) is a bit much and more often than not turns me away from going to see it, and if I do go see it, I’m not surprised, or even that entertained.

  11. On a positive note the Trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was awesome. Getting the right soundtrack was I think the key and making stuff that happens early and is throwaway seem like its major.

    Reservoir Dogs was another where the soundtrack on the trailer works really well.

  12. Whitney

    For me, it’s gotten to the point where I completely shut myself away from all promo stuff for special films I’m really excited about. You end up knowing so much about a film before it comes out – the opening scene, the climax, plot reveals, cameos, etc. – I decided to know absolutely nothing in advance.

  13. In most cases it seems pointless to go see the films as the trailers appear to have given the best bits away.

  14. Avoid all reviews, trailers, interviews with actors, everything.

  15. When I actually think about it, my favourite movies have nearly all been films about which I knew almost nothing beforehand. They are either films that I’d just heard were meant to be good, were films I’d stumbled across because it was on TV or it starred had an actor I liked.

  16. Kaminski

    I saw a trailer for some crap-looking film recently – ‘French’ Helen Mirren v curry house owner – and the trailer told you the whole story.

    • It was actually a really sweet film and the trailer did not show anything from the final third.

  17. Asa Slade

    People hate spoilers in film trailers

  18. Munjeera

    Great video insertion. I especially love your title. You have done a nice job on talking about a the importance of not giving away too much in a trailer. Note how Star Trek’s Beyond changed after audiences viewed the initial trailer.

  19. The most misleading trailer I can remember is the one for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which gave no hint at all that it was a musical.

  20. Yuk Goodrich

    I don’t watch ANY trailers any more because I have to assume they will ruin the film for me. And for the same reason I don’t read film reviews until after I’ve seen the film. It never used to be like this, but we live in an age where the media cannot restrain themselves at all.

  21. I agree that trailers today have turned into mini movies. Now it is all about catching the audience’s attention, with so many movie choices it really has become a competition to be that “ohh look at that shiny object”. Before fans could analyze trailers for hints or clues about the movie, now we are simply saving ourselves a trip to the theaters.

  22. Still haven’t seen BvS because of those awful trailers. Still want to see Midnight Special because of how intriguing it seemed, specifically because of how little they revealed.

  23. I really hate knowing the story line. For example, I made myself read / watch nothing about Gravity before going, I knew two things: it was set in space and it starred George Clooney. That’s all I wanted to know, and loved the whole experience!

  24. Nof

    Trailers have become ridiculous and I find myself stopping them after 30 seconds. The funny thing is, trailers, like some other forms of advertisements, can be misleading if they’re too short. However, I still think longer ones ruin most of the experience. This is such an interesting topic.

  25. I completely agree. However, I do think that modern movies try so hard for the motion picture to be considered art by means of aesthetically appealing shots or the clever use of an editing style because their trailers rob the audience of interacting and discovering the story. I would infer that their answer to, ‘why should I see this movie now that I know what it is about’ is for the artistic qualities of the production. The quality of the story is underestimated and frankly never given a shot (pun intended) due to the marketing ploy of trailers like Batman versus Superman.

  26. 100% agree. But I also believe that trailers have become increasingly revealing, turning into short films themselves, because of online streaming. Why would I go to the movie theater, if I could enjoy the same film from the comfort of my home? The trailers are trying to convince you to go see the movie in theater, because by doing so you will get the full ‘cinematic experience’.

  27. I really enjoyed reading this.
    Its amazing that within 20 seconds, several scenes can reveal the high points of an entire plot – perhaps the issue is not the length of the trailer, but the style, or the content?
    I think there’s a fine line between revealing enough (I am intrigued, and feel its relevant to my interests and I’m likely to enjoy it) or too vague (I thought it would be ______ and it was not what I wanted).

  28. I think that most films that first release those “teaser” trailers that could be a simple shoe made of glass that is spinning or a storm trooper taking off his helmet is much more exciting and builds much more anticipation and desire to see the film then the entire plot. We do not need to know or see everything! We will go on a simple tease or a simple title. And then once the film is released people’s world of mouth will spread. Cut the trailer down to a teaser!

  29. Kira Metcalfe

    Loved your short-but-sweet article! However, I would have loved to hear more about the post-golden age Hollywood changes, as well why you think its so frustrating that most studios/ directors choose to advertise their movies this way. You also failed to acknowledge that their are many more studio movies besides Midnight Special that have ambiguous trailers.

  30. I like this piece, but I will say that I enjoy a nicely done trailer. Lots of bombastic, 3-minute movies are making a strong case for a movie that the studio needs to do well, and so they dress up a pig and call it a princess.

  31. Daniel Hageman

    This is why I think there is such a beauty to teaser trailers. I too try my best to avoid trailers of movies before I have seen them, especially if it’s within a few months of premiere. Of course you want to try and avoid ratings as well (every movie is better at its midnight premiere), but unfortunately we can’t all just see any and every movie we want, and we sometimes need more than just director and cast to decide if its something of interest. I too have always been a critic of comedy trailers, for that reason it’s my least favorite genre to see in theaters, and the least necessary for that matter. Other people, whose senses of humor don’t line up with your own, can really take away from your personal enjoyment of the film, especially if they are dying from the jokes you saw in the trailer a million times. But at the same time, trailers are a necessary aspect of promotion in modern day, and how can a comedy have a successful trailer without some of the better jokes included? Like in any film genre, it’s just a matter of finding the balance of how much to give the audience to make them want more.

  32. This is why I think there is such a beauty to teaser trailers. I too try my best to avoid trailers of movies before I have seen them, especially if it’s within a few months of premiere. Of course you want to try and avoid ratings as well (every movie is better at its midnight premiere), but unfortunately we can’t all just see any and every movie we want, and we sometimes need more than just director and cast to decide if its something of interest. I too have always been a critic of comedy trailers, for that reason it’s my least favorite genre to see in theaters, and the least necessary for that matter. Other people, whose senses of humor don’t line up with your own, can really take away from your personal enjoyment of the film, especially if they are dying from the jokes you saw in the trailer a million times. But at the same time, trailers are a necessary aspect of promotion in modern day, and how can a comedy have a successful trailer without some of the better jokes included? Like in any film genre, it’s just a matter of finding the balance of how much to give the audience to make them want more.

  33. I was just thinking about this when I saw the ad for Nerve. I feel like the whole movie was given away. They had me after the first 30 seconds, but then they showed me too much. Good article. Explains the background and why Hollywood changed the way they do ads.

  34. I believe that the best example is Christopher Nolan. The trailers for Inception and Interstellar said absolutely nothing about the plot or twists. Instead they offered a look at the world and mood. The first trailer for Inception didn’t even have dialogue, just the haunting soundtrack. The effect that it had in me was intense curiosity. I wanted to find out what the hell the movie was. We know how that turned out to be. Master Trailer Making 101

  35. Antebellum

    I really enjoyed reading this. I have been disappointed by so many trailers which give away the entirety of the movie before I even get to see it, which is why sometimes I like just going in blind to a movie.

    Nice to see this kind of argument backed up by solid proof and analysis!

  36. danielle577

    I do enjoy trailers but they give away too much information. When you see vital clues, evidence, or glimpses of events that you later recognize when watching the film it will inform you that someone will make it through a deadly encounter, two lovers will be reunited, or someone will meet their demise. With that being said, they are sometimes so much better than the movie!! Which, is kind of sad.

  37. Jeffrey Cook

    I find with many trailers now you can tell which scenes will be the finale and it sort of spoils everything – comedy trailers are even worse, giving all the best jokes to you already in the trailer, or in the advertising for the movie they pound a particular joke over and over into your head so by the time you actually watch the scene you can recite the entire bit.

  38. Great article. Like you mention, there have been a lot of so-called comedies where the movie’s best jokes are all revealed in the trailer. After hearing those jokes a million times during commercials, you realize you’ve got nothing to laugh at when you’re in the theater. I really appreciated the trailer for the new movie “La La Land” with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It hooked me into wanting to see the film when it comes out because of the trailer’s brevity, it’s beautiful soundtrack, and enough mystery as to what the film will be about.

  39. According to what I have read, trailers were originally “trailed” after the feature and served an important function besides advertisement: they helped clear patrons out of the current show. Early theatres repeated a loop of movies and it was standard practice for customers stay as long as they wanted. Apparently, intersecting trailers between the films helped break up the hypnotic flow of entertainment and encouraged patrons to leave the cinema.

  40. Jaeb512

    I agree very strongly. Trailers shouldn’t be a highlight reel, but rather a glimpse into the movie’s story that should intrigue the viewer into going to see that movie (as said in the article).
    Though it might be obvious/redundant to say, “Make us (the viewers) interested enough to see the story without giving away any surprises or major plot points.”
    I’m not going to waste my time and/or money to watch a movie and fill in the story’s tidbits along with the main parts (already shown to me).
    “Make me pay to see what I have not seen.”

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