Should You Stop Watching Movie Trailers?
Previews and trailers are a vital an organic part of the movie-going experience for most people. They are inextricably linked with movie-going in the minds of many, and I used to feel like I missed part of a movie unless I was sure to see them. But as my love of film has grown, and my relationship to film has switched to the professional, my view has begun to change. Indeed, many questions now arise: Should we watch movie trailers at all? Should we only watch movie trailers occasionally? Should we seek them out ahead of time, or should we wait for them to arrive organically?
It turns out that there is a case against movie trailers, dear readers, and a case for them.
The Case Against Movie Trailers:
There is a new Star Wars film coming out in December, hadn’t you heard? If you hadn’t, then you perhaps missed the official press announcement, the vague, black-and-white group photo of the cast, the only-six-unconnected-images teaser trailer released in November, or the longer teaser trailer released a few weeks ago. No one has yet seen the completed film, but there are already people designing dresses, costumes, and Christmas tree ornaments after the robot character glimpsed in the preview. Imagine what they’ll do one they actually see the movie!
I believe it was critic James Rocchi who coined the phrase “the anticipation industrial complex” to refer to modern marketing techniques; for advertisers, it is no longer enough to merely inform the public of an upcoming feature film. Now they must whip the public into a frenzy of anticipation months – or even a year – before a film’s release. In the last decade or so, studios have begun bolstering their “tentpole” blockbuster releases to dizzying a degree through ads, trailers, TV spots, interviews, and “leaked” factoids, ensuring that their films stay at the very forefront of the public consciousness for extended periods. The hype, we can easily observe, has become far more important than the film itself.
Professional film critics, and true-hearted cineastes, find this hype machine to be problematic. It is our job (or simply within our best interests as film-lovers) to look at a film objectively, and analyze it outside of the hype. We too may be whipped into a frenzy by the advertising machine in certain instances, but when when critics sit down to watch the film at a press screening, surrounded by our fellow professionals, we must – out of professional necessity – turn the anticipation knob way down so that we can let the film itself say what it has to. It’s not our job to criticize the hype or the ad campaign. It’s our job to criticize the movie.
Indeed, critics can sometimes come across as nabobs, contrarians, and sourpusses for this very refusal to buy into the hype. A critic sitting down to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Avengers: Age of Ultron has to be prepared to love them, or hate them, or feel indifferent about them, all while being wholly honest about their feelings. We cannot afford to fall prey to screaming “Awesome!” merely because our favorite characters are back on screen. We have to be beholden to higher standards. Hype cannot guide us. We need to take a deep breath, clear our minds, and try to look at the movie with as pure an eye as possible. How does this film stand up as a film? As opposed to a piece of a larger cultural puzzle?
We can mention the hype and the culture in our review, and we can mention what we feel the studio is trying accomplish with a film. We can mention what we perceive to be the film’s intended audience. We can even mention if we’re fans of the material going in. We can offer readers a sociological dissection of a particular franchise’s success (as in, what does it mean that Avengers: Age of Ultron made $187 million in four days?). But the film itself -in the Platonic sense – will ultimately have to drive our reactions.
Also, if any film lover is trying to have as clear a view of the film as possible, then avoiding previews altogether might be the wisest move. Modern previews, as many critics have pointed out, tend to give away far too much about a feature film ahead of time. Consider the newest trailer for Terminator Genisys. It has already revealed a few vital surprises in the film, including the reboot of the in-film timeline, the resurrection of an aged Terminator, and the surprise twist that John Connor, the hero of the future resistance, might himself be some sort of Terminator robot. Sorry if you wanted that to be a surprise, but the studio itself has decided to let that nugget slip.
At least J.J. Abrams, a master of obfuscation, will likely keep details of his Star Wars film hidden until the film is released. I think it reveals a lot about “trailer culture” that hiding the basic story of a film is now seen as a brilliant and uncommon marketing tactic.
A critic or cineaste going into one of these movies with that knowledge will no longer be able to look at the movie objectively. They already have certain scenes they expect, and they have been sold a certain tone (whether or not it’s the correct one). The advertising has, in many cases, already primed the pump, so to speak. The film itself no longer has to sell a tone or a story, because we know it ahead of time. I would argue that if a film relies on its advertising campaign as part of its own cinematic experience, then the film has failed the audience on a fundamental level. Everything needs to be in the film. If we need commercials, a very specific culture, a booklet, etc. to understand a movie, then the movie has officially become too pretentious to stand on its own.
Besides, watching previews robs one of the vital experience of entering a movie blind. In 1996, I was outside of my local theater scanning the film titles, looking for a nice morning matinee. There was a film I had never heard of on the marquee. It was described as “a comedy hit from England.” I asked no more questions, paid my money, and found my seat. Imagine how blindsided I was by the energy, filth, and bracing originality of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. My blindness and ignorance was a virtue. I was so very pleased to be shocked and startled by such a film. Avoiding previews and being adventurous at the box office can welcome new experiences you never knew you were seeking out. The best movies are not the ones that give you exactly what you want, but the ones that give you something you didn’t even know you wanted in the first place.
So when a trailer premieres online, I would advise any serious critics or film lovers to avoid them at least 85-90% of the time. Oh sure, you are permitted to fold here and there, and I think watching a single trailer is not a transgression so grievous as to ruin a movie entirely, or a sin so evil as to topple your critical integrity. But as a general rule, trailers are to be avoided. The hype machine is not for critics, and critics should want nothing to do with the hype machine.
The Case For Movie Trailers:
But I understand that the bulk of filmgoing audiences are not critics, and that many wouldn’t consider themselves “cineastes.” Indeed, the bulk of film audiences only see upward of a dozen films in a theater per year, whereas critics typically have to see hundreds. As such, the perspective on previews is markedly different for professionals. A casual filmgoer will see a string of previews and select which ones they want to see. A critic will see a string of previews and only catch a glimpse of what their work docket looks like for the next few months.
So while a cineaste is trying to see a film from a pure standpoint, your casual filmgoer is taking to exact opposite approach. To a filmgoer, a preview is not a spoiler, but an influx of 100% positive information (provided the trailer doesn’t give too much away). We all know now that there is another Star Wars feature film on the way. It’s all well and good to say “I can wait!” but when a studio skillfully metes out images, details, and plot points in the year leading up to the film’s release, they can keep eagerness at a steady percolation. Sure, the hype may outstrip the film, but let us not forget how important – and indeed how vital – that hype can be to a certain audience.
Hype – or “buzz” as trade magazines call it – can often function as more than mere advertising for the community of casual movie fans. The excitement is something that can be shared, something that contributes to a whole community of fans who are participating in a common thrill of anticipation. Teenagers in particular (but older folks as well) don’t just want to see a movie by themselves in a black box, judging it objectively. They want a party. They want to cheer. They want to share in the overall energy in the room as their anticipation finally breaks and the thrills wash over them.
There is a reason I like going to midnight repertory movies. The energy in the room is different than at a daytime screening. The people tend to be more raucous, more loose with their energy. The punk rock joy of sharing in a community experience. Movies are, after all, often consumed in public with strangers. And a film experience can be much more textured and exciting if you’re in a room of like-minded enthusiasts who are feeding from the same energy as you. Previews are the first step in that like-minded movie picnic.
Another important thing to acknowledge about previews is that they do inform the audience. A critic or a fan may look at a studio’s upcoming release schedule, but a long list of titles and release dates is, to the casual observer, going to be largely meaningless. Here is a movie coming out called The Lobster. I know nothing else about it. Will I see it? Maybe not, if I know nothing about it.
But what if I saw a preview? What if the preview was effective at its most basic function, which is to inform an audience member, and entice them to come? I now know a lot about the movie, what actors appear in it, a shard of the story, a piece of the tone, and the names of the filmmakers. Despite the talk of the anticipation industrial complex, we need to recall that 90% of previews aren’t feeding into a giant hype machine, but merely informing audiences of a film’s existence.
A well-placed preview of a tiny genre film placed in front of a large-budget summer blockbuster can inform millions. Indeed, including previews for a movie like, say It Follows in front of Furious 7 will likely entice at least some teens to discover an effective and awesome little horror flick. From there, those teens may seek out other films like It Follows. They may actually have their horizons expanded because they got a taste of a movie they would not have paid attention to otherwise.
The anticipation industrial complex may be bad for criticism. It may even be tearing down the very notion of objectivity. But it’s awesome for fans, for whom objectivity is a distant concern. Let’s get the party started. And the party starts with the invitation. The preview is the invitation.
I would advise any and all critics, would-be critics, and those who take their film-going very seriously to try to stay outside of the hype machine. Hype is not our game. Movies are. And movies and hype should be, for those who wish to analyze and dissect, mutually exclusive. Ironically, the biggest film nerds are the ones who should not take a dip in the preview pool.
For casual fans, I would argue that seeking out previews can be a healthy way to stay excited… provided you don’t let the machine grind up the movie. It’s possible to allow yourself to get far too hyped up for a film. Watch a trailer, become thrilled, smile, enjoy. But it would be healthy, even as a fan, to take a deep breath before a film, calm your eager nerves, look at the screen, and utter the small mantra: “Don’t suck.” Thrill is all well and good, but a note of skepticism will ultimately prove to be more rewarding.
Indeed, no matter how loudly the hype machine blares, cautious optimism is key. Be hopeful, be a little bit objective, and enjoy.