Previews of Forthcoming Attractions: Or how I learned to stop worrying and accept the death of the Film Trailer

We have recently had “Super Bowl Sunday,” and ignoring the actual sport side of it, the spectacle surrounding the event has become more of a cultural phenomenon than the game itself, and alongside the strategically placed adverts and the performance by the hot pop artist du jour, it is also the premiere spot for the biggest blockbusters of the forthcoming summer to show their trailers, targeting America’s most captive audience of the year. But is the world of trailers over-saturated with the big studios flooding the market with so many teases, TV spots, sneak peeks and exclusive online scenes that it sometimes becomes pointless to watch the film itself? In today’s on-demand, 24/7 media and technologically literate world, is there anything of the actual film left to show at the cinema, and crucially, have all the surprises been spoiled?

It has been little over a year since the centenary passed of the first recorded and recognised film preview or “trailer” was shown to audiences in America, for a Broadway show called Pleasure Seekers. Those hundred years have seen such a head spinning revolution in technology that those who saw the first projected moving pictures and ran in horror from the oncoming train would surely have seizures from today’s capabilities.

From sound, to colour, to additional dimensions, not to mention the sophistication of the art of filming, direction, cinematography, camera technique, editing, sound design, the development of animation, from cel and stop motion to state of the art computer generated animation, and of course now thanks to the internet, instant feedback on everything the filmmaker does. So with every tool available to modern filmmakers, how can anything so much done wrong, leaving audiences yearning for the trailers of yesteryear?

Time is a valuable commodity, the one thing which cannot be bought, and accustomed to so many tools and channels of distribution, the world is a very impatient place, and that’s part of the problem. Once word of a project is in the public domain there is an immediate demand for progress reports, with the entertainment sites and social media forums vying for the latest scoop and exclusive access, broadcasting throwaway comments out of context and idle chat as though it were officially sanctioned press releases rather than the fumbling words of actors ambushed on red carpets with demanding questions on projects they’ve not even received the contracts for.

The internet stokes the flames of rabid fandom, and breaking news on any popular franchise – or an upcoming property a studio is willing to pay the price to push – immediately becomes a trending item, making it the only effective means to avoid spoilers, from rumours of casting, forthcoming plots, surprise twists and betrayals, returning villains, in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe even the post credits scene, is to forsake online interactions completely, an impractical solution when so many people are required to conduct much of their business online.

With cookies monitoring online habits, anyone who hasn’t taken stringent precautions finds themselves caught in a deluge of offerings apparently “Recommended Based on Your Browsing History,” advertising targeted based on previous “likes,” the algorithms incapable of discerning that some “likes” are ironic, that some items are viewed as gifts rather than for ourselves, that some things are viewed online in genuine horror and would sooner be forgotten than continually brought up in a variety of alternative colours and sizes, the virtual equivalent of a crude joke dropped during polite conversation.

From those early days where trailers for local productions were spliced into the repeating loop of newsreels, cartoons and feature films, it took a few years for the big studios of Hollywood to catch onto the idea of making a preview of their upcoming works, and early trailers were merely hastily cobbled together scraps of film, showing the main characters interspersed with some text advertising the actors and title.

Many studios didn’t make their own trailers, subcontracting to the National Screen Service (NSS) to splice the footage and distribute it to cinemas. For the earliest memorable trailers, we look to the 1950s, the Technicolor widescreen epics of Hollywood which had spectacle and stars to sell them, and the infamous B movies which had to resort to other tactics to draw an audience. These had all the trademarks synonymous with the NSS, screen wipes, bold graphics in “spooky” fonts with an approach inspired by the patter of a circus barker: “Prepare to be amazed! Witness the horror! Shriek at the unfathomable terror!”

2015pt1_trailers_trailer dayIt was in the post-war era when worldwide distribution flourished, and before the wide penetration of television cinema going was the principal leisure activity for a generation, and the studios were keen to demonstrate their wares were better than that of their competitors. In those days they didn’t shy away from showing the beasts attacking the cities despite the technical limitations of an embarrassed lizard with fins glued on its back threatening the helpless starlet, waiting to be rescued by the rugged hero while a tame scientist would explain that it was the result of some atomic experiment, the principal fear of the post-Hiroshima cold war years.

That well established format continued until the late 1960s, when in a move atypical for anyone by an eternal contrarian, director Stanley Kubrick took steps to ensure that the promotion of his work would be in keeping with his unique vision by crafting his own advertising. The film was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the trailer was as unique as the science fiction epic it announced.

The bar had been raised, and others scrambled to follow, but Kubrick was a step ahead again, the trailer for A Clockwork Orange almost challenging the audience with an almost stream of consciousness montage of images and captions driven by music rather than dialogue, and that was not the only revolution of the cinema of the seventies.

So revolutionary was the trailer that its influence was directly seen in many subsequent advertising campaigns including those of A Boy and His Dog (1975) and The Rules of Attraction (2002) as well as the ultra-slick cool of Quentin Tarantino, perhaps trying too hard to make his feel very clever and self-aware.

With an audience brought up immersed not only in the language of cinema but with television, the diminished cousin of the big screen whose only advantage over it was the convenience of its place in the centre of the family living room, cinema had to adapt, becoming more sophisticated in both the stories it was telling and how they were told and promoted.

Spectacle has always been a key selling point of cinema, and justifiably proud of the tremendous advances in special effects of the decade, the studios were eager to show the size and scale of their ambitious projects to build anticipation as soon as possible, even if that meant showing rough footage, as seems to be the case in the original Star Wars trailer; with the benefit of hindsight the effects are incomplete, the lightsabers white, yet even without John Williams’ score they still sold the excitement of a galaxy far, far away. But as exciting as that was, back then George Lucas knew better than to share the whole story straight away.

2015pt1_trailers_trailer sw smA close associate of Lucas, Steven Spielberg is the master of the tease, as proved in the summer of 1975 when Jaws was released, a film which spent most of its running time not showing the shark. The trailer for his follow up, 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, generated a real sense of the scope of the film, that something significant and astonishing was about to happen without saying precisely what, and audiences desperate to find out flocked to cinema screens to see the encounter, a feat he repeated over and over, with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982 and most memorably in 1993.

With computer animation, animatronics and practical effects ambitiously combined together in a film based on a novel already critically acclaimed, Jurassic Park was one of the first major films other than a sequel such to generate enormous interest even during the production, yet despite this Spielberg was very careful to follow his rule of not giving anyone the prehistoric ancestors of his prize goose without first paying the admission price.

2015pt1_trailers_trailer ce3k smThat carefully orchestrated teasing translated into enormous international success, but those digital dinosaurs also heralded the digital age, and the arrival of the internet signalled the change in the way information would first be disseminated and examined, then expected and dissected, then finally demanded and dismissed by individuals who believe their uninformed opinion is objective truth.

It has long been acknowledged that comedy films are guilty of featuring all their best jokes in the trailer, sometimes even featuring scenes absent from the final cut, leaving the actual viewing experience something of a let-down, though some choose an alternative approach: aware that it was to be released in the same season as the much hyped new chapter in the Star Wars saga, the producers of Austin Powers 2 played on that by admitting that while The Phantom Menace would undoubtedly be the film everyone would see that summer in the cinema, if they did see a second film to please try theirs.

2015pt1_trailers_trailer id4 smIt is appreciated that at least comedy attempts to do something different to engage a potential audience; horror films, on the whole, follow a template so strict it may as well have been ordained in the “rules of horror” discussed in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996): jumping frames, distorted typefaces, discordant music, the inevitable “stinger” after the title card of a character screaming or an object lunging at the camera.

Red band trailers for adult content are just one facet of the current trend of multiple teasers and trailers reflecting the different channels through which they can be seen, while another is different international trailers depicting scenes supposedly appealing to the tastes of local markets, but it is most often the lowest common denominator which is the preferred selling point, the reasoning being that those to whom it appeals will also be those who are most easily parted with their cash.

Increasingly aggressive, advertising for the studio “tentpole” films upon which they had invested the most capital moved away from plot and character to focus ever more on explosions and action; typically, as the most impressive sequence will be the grand finale, it consequently has became more and more common to feature major moments from the final reel of a film, revealing what should be closely guarded secrets, spoiling the film for the very people the studio are attempting to entice.

Possibly the worst example of this was The Sixth Sense, 1999 debut feature of M Night Shyamalan, where the trailer was built around the penultimate scene of the film where young Cole Sear (Hayley Joel Osmont) indicates to his mother the truth about the gift which has plagued him his whole life followed by the inclusion of the most important line in the whole film (“I see…”), a fact which the audience should rightfully have been unaware of for the whole first half of the film, with that unavoidable foreknowledge meaning the opening scene plays in a very different way than Shyamalan intended.

In a rare moment of restraint from Roland Emmerich, 1996’s Independence Day showed off a lot but not everything while The Matrix (1999) showed action but consciously witheld a major plot revelation which changed the perception of not only Keanu Reeve’s Neo but also the audience, but for every demonstration of prudence their is an example of the opposite.

Predictably, the path has been steeply downhill, and recently the 2013 remake of Carrie starring Chloë Grace Moretz was preceded by a trailer which almost served as a synopsis of the entire film, rendering an actual trip to the cinema somewhat moot. Released only last week, the trailer for the forthcoming remake of Poltereist leaves little doubt as to exactly what will be going bump in the night

2015pt1_trailers_future presentationWhile the considerable lengths J J Abrams took to conceal both Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness were largely successful, despite his best attempts there have been numerous leaks from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, raising the question of whether it is inevitable or whether the studios are so desperate to have their project the one with the most public awareness that the consequences of that awareness are secondary.

Contrary to the secrecy which surrounded the unexpected twists of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, information has constantly been drip-fed about the latest film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it seems ironic that the movies of the Disney distributed Marvel Cinematic Universe are among the worst culprits of giving it all away for free, that one of the possible sources of the famous saying “Always leave them wanting more” is the founder of that very empire, Walt Disney. The chance would be a fine thing.



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