On March 30, a 30-second television trailer for The Avengers was released, and was consumed by most members of the geek community as quickly as possible, over and over and over again. It offered us a few new shots from the film to ponder as we spend the next month salivating until the film’s release. I’m sure I’m not the only one who watched this trailer frame by frame.
This phenomenon isn’t new. Ever since the dawn of reasonably sized video files on the Internet, geeks everywhere have been downloading trailers (preferably from Apple in glorious QuickTime) and watching them on a repeating loop.
Even though I have a love/hate relationship with trailers, I’m as guilty as the next of this behavior. In 1998, when the first trailer for The Phantom Menace was released on Apple, I tied up my phone line for more than 12 hours downloading it in a quality more befitting a postage stamp than a monitor. And I dissected each shot, frame by frame, watching it hundreds of times. This was my first look at new Star Wars material, and I simply had to consume it.
For many fans, trailers for big summer blockbusters of their favorite franchises are the only way they can sate their thirst for the final product. It’s a way to get amped up and carry their desire to see the film forward. In the best cases, the trailers give away very little except a taste of what the film will be like. In the worst cases, they give you a false impression of a movie that might look good, but is going to violently touch you in your no-no spots—like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. But that’s the job of the trailer: to make us excited for a movie we wouldn’t have otherwise cared about, or amp up our current level of care and turn us into walking marketing campaigns for the movie.
I love trailers when they’re done right—see Trailer B for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith; it might be one of the finest trailers for a film ever conceived—but when they’re done wrong, or star Ashton Kutcher, they make me want to withdraw from the world and suck on my thumb. If a trailer cutter can’t make a film look good, then it’s very likely there’s no good to be had from the film. And I love the experience of movie trailers. I won’t go see a film if I’ve missed the trailers beforehand—I’ll go to a later show. The trailers are half the experience for me.
But there is a dark side and a danger to trailers, as well. What good does it do anyone if the trailer gives away all the film’s secrets? What good is it if it gives away any of the film’s secrets at all?
A good trailer should give a general impression of the tone and feeling of the film, perhaps the hook of the story, but nothing more. All too often, I’m given every major story beat of a film in the trailer and have absolutely no need to ever see the actual movie. The entire experience was so effectively compressed into 2 1/2 minutes, why would I pay $10 to see the full version?
And I don’t like knowing the secrets to movies. I would much prefer going in and being surprised. One of my favorite experiences is to go into a film knowing nothing but the title and seeing what I come out with. Sometimes, you’re completely disappointed. Other times, you’re blown away. I walked into Terence Malik’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line on opening day knowing nothing about it other than it was a war film, and as soon as I left the theater, I went right back to the box office and bought another ticket.
But now things are getting so ridiculous, at least for genre films, that we’re getting trailers for trailers. Both the latest fecal entry in the Twilight saga and the remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall had teaser trailers to announce the teaser trailer of their upcoming releases.
For me, that’s a bridge too far. Which reminds me of another film with a great trailer, A Bridge Too Far, starring everyone. Look it up.
Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.