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.
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.
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.”
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.
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