I was watching Terminator 2 the other day, and when I wasn’t questioning how a liquid metal android was able to travel through time when the original clearly stated it was only Arnie’s cocoon of flesh that allowed his hulking metal frame to do the same, I realised something else: the entire first act of the film is played as if the reveal of Arnie being the good guy is a big twist. Robert Patrick is really polite to everyone and only seems to punch that cop in the stomach when he nicks his clothes; Arnie shoots and stabs a lot of people, looks generally menacing and, of course, in the previous film he was the villain – one of the most iconic villains of all time. How amazing would it have been in the cinema if you had absolutely no idea that Arnie was the future’s saviour until the first face-off about 20 minutes in when he uttered “Get down!” and blew a hole in Robert Patrick’s malleable head? The theatre would have gone wild, minds would have been blown; it would have been AMAZING!
But absolutely no one on the entire planet got that thrill, because we all knew it was going to play out like that having seen the trailer.
Somewhere along the line – around the early 90s – the humble movie trailer went from an intriguing tease that would give you a sense of a film’s content to a fast-edited précis of the film’s entire plot. There is apparently a casual rule in movie marketing that anything in the first two acts is fair game to feature in a trailer. Even if this rule was strictly adhered to (which it bloody well is not!) why would I want the dramatic beats and reveals in a film’s first 75 minutes spelled out for me? Why would I want the best jokes in a comedy told to me in advance? Why would I want to see a character get killed when there would be no reason to otherwise suspect they were in danger?
“There are still some surprises in store,” I can imagine the marketing types saying by way of justification. You know what? I wanted ALL the surprises to have been in store. Spoiling some of the film’s delights hasn’t made me want to see it more; it’s just pissed me off!
There’s a bit right at the very end of The Avengers where Iron Man is plummeting to his death. At least that’s how it might have appeared had I not already known that The Hulk was going to leap to his rescue. How did I know? It was in the fucking trailer. Everyone knew.
Dear Marvel Studios: I was going to see that movie regardless of the trailer; I’m pretty sure most people in that theatre were. The uniformly great reviews, the previous movies I liked, the marketing… you had our tickets months ago. Are you telling me that there was a significant proportion of the population who watched the trailer and were staunchly against seeing the movie until Hulk plucked Iron Man out of the sky?! Was that a deal-breaker for someone out there?
“You know, this film looks silly with all the superheroes and everything – it really isn’t the kind of film I fancy watching. I don’t like costumes and super powers and… oh wait! The big green creature catches the metal one in mid-air? Ignore everything I just said! I’m in!”
The best way of having your eyes opened with regard to how great it is to discover a film’s plot completely fresh is when you get the rare opportunity to watch a movie with no previous exposure to its marketing. It occurs so rarely that the last time I can remember it happening was ages ago when I saw ‘The Sum of All Fears’ knowing only that it was a Jack Ryan film and that it wasn’t that bad. If you haven’t seen it and you can’t remember the trailer, then skip this paragraph and watch it some time; it’s actually pretty good. If you do remember the trailer then your enjoyment will be sullied somewhat with the pre-knowledge that at some point in the film, a nuclear bomb goes off in America. Having not seen the trailer, I didn’t know that. I was enjoying a competently put together thriller about Jack Ryan trying to stop a bomb going off and then – bugger me – he fails and a major city in the US is nuked. And the fallout from this incident (pun intended) ratcheted up the tension even more and took the plot in a direction that was completely unexpected and all the better for it.
I caught the trailer on YouTube sometime after and slapped my forehead so hard my IQ may have dropped slightly . Not only did they show the bomb going off, they spelled out THE ENTIRE FUCKING PLOT in two minutes. The film ends with Ben Affleck pleading with the US government not to retaliate against Russia because he knows the bomb was the work of terrorists. The trailer ends in exactly the same way, having done a great job of summarising everything else that went before. It’s like one of those “Previously on…” things you get before a US drama that tell you all the salient plot points in case you missed all the previous 11 episodes. WHY DID ANYONE THINK THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA FOR A TRAILER?!
It never used to be like this. Even as late as the 80s, film trailers were restrained in what they showed from the actual movie. They served as teases, giving a sense of the type of film it would be without resorting to showing you the edited highlights. Many actually used footage that wasn’t even in the film, shot specifically for the trailer. A great recent example of this is the Alan Partridge Movie trailer – a quick sketch filmed just for the preview that is packed with the kind of humour I assume the film will contain, but without spoiling any of the gags. It’s perfect, and I wish other trailer makers would take a leaf out of its book.
In related news, I recently recorded my mum trying to describe the plots of films she had seen for a round in a pub quiz. I put one of her descriptions over footage from the film in question and have ended up with a rather unique sort of trailer. If you’re going to spell out the plot – this is the way to do it: