Don’t Hate Movie Trailers, Hate the Way We Watch Movie Trailers
The greatest movie trailer of all time is the first trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.’ This is not up for debate. This is not a subjective opinion. It just is. The trailer for ‘The Phantom Menace’ is so good that I firmly believe its goodwill bled over to the actual movie, inflating some early opinions of a movie that we all, now, realize isn’t very good. (I readily admit that I loved ‘The Phantom Menace’ the first time I saw it.) Here’s a fun thing to try: Forget everything you know about ‘The Phantom Menace’ and just pretend this is a brand new trailer for a ‘Star Wars’ movie. OK, now, with your mind blank, watch this:
I still want to see that movie. This trailer proved so popular that people would purchase tickets to ‘Meet Joe Black' just to watch it, which now sounds so antiquated that it seems like it should be visually presented in black and white stock footage.
I was reading a piece that Sam Adams wrote for Criticwire titled "Why I’m Not Watching the ‘Inherent Vice’ Trailer," which is a fairly self-explanatory title of what will follow in the body of that piece. Adams’ main point here is, that if he’s going to watch a movie anyway, why would he possibly want to watch a trailer that might spoil important plot points of the movie? (To the question of spoilers, I will now direct you to Adam Sternbergh’s Vulture piece on the subject, which I agree with. I like spoilers!)
My first reaction to Adams’ piece was to write a “Hah-Rumph” style retort because, hey, I like trailers! (To Adams’ credit, his prose is very “Do what you want, I don’t care.”) But I started thinking about this a little more and I think Adams makes some good points, but it’s not as much about trailers in general, but The Way We Watch Trailers Now.
As with ‘The Phantom Menace’ example, people used to have to go to the movie theater in order to see a trailer. Or, more accurately, people went to the movie theater to see a movie and, as part of the experience, trailers would play before the movie. As Adams points out, yes, these are advertisements -- but, especially then, necessary advertisements. Before the Internet, this was how most people learned that a new movie was coming out. I’d argue that even today, a lot of people still learn about new movies this way. (Normal people with lives and family don’t know December’s release schedule the way I do.) But trailers are advertisements in the way that music videos are advertisements (also mostly relegated to the Internet now) – they are designed to be entertaining and cool. ‘Inherent Vice’ is a product, but it’s also cool in the way Tide detergent will never be. These almost serve as little opening acts for the actual movie. It’s part of the whole spectacle of going to the movies. I like them. I don’t want them to go away. Having said that…
A few weeks ago I paid to see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ This is not that remarkable of a statement because many people can claim the same thing, but I mention this because, with this job, it’s rare that I get a chance to do that. And before press screenings, there aren’t trailers. I’m now used to living in a world without them and the only way I ever see them now is on the Internet. When the trailers played before ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ I was overcome with glee thinking, Oh, wow, these are really great in a movie theater. And every time that new green band comes up on the screen, there’s this weird anticipation of “Oh, what’s it going to be?” It’s a fun game of movie trailer roulette.
But trailers are now kind of made for the Internet. I remember this started about the time that the ‘Attack of the Clones’ trailer was released. (I distinctly remember trying to download this trailer on a 56K modem the day it was released, which took about three hours. It was worse than when a new Apple iOS is released.) I suspect more and more of the best moments are put into the trailer so that they will be talked about online. It’s basically a cinematic version of a You Won’t Believe What Happens In This Movie! headline. And there are so many of them! It seems like every day the Trailer You Have To See premieres as my Twitter feed lights up with tweet after tweet promoting the same thing. (To be fair, I have a fairly esoteric Twitter feed).
So, it becomes this weird dichotomy, because when I read Adams’ piece thinking about trailers in a movie theater, out comes the “Hah-Rumph” sound again. When I read his piece in the context of Internet trailers, well, I find myself agreeing. The risk/reward for watching a trailer on the Internet isn’t worth it. And, again, in the movie theater, we don’t have a choice what trailer is shown. Maybe we will be introduced to something new that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen if we hadn’t watched the trailer. But the fact you’re watching a trailer on the Internet means that you already have at least a passing interest in that particular movie. It’s just reinforcing the opinions that you already had. There’s no discovery, which is my favorite thing about a good movie trailer -- a small part of me doesn’t want ‘Mad Max: Fury Road' to ever come out because the trailer is so perfect; maybe we can just all remember that and smile – because anything is possible … I mean, even ‘The Phantom Menace’ still looks good.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.