It often seems that a day doesn’t go by without the release of a new trailer highlighting an upcoming film release. But for anyone who catches these trailers, either in a theater or on the Internet, it is hard to ignore that trailers have become much louder and more frenetic than from as recently as a few years ago.
Furthermore, the trailers have taken on a new degree of importance – rather than merely informing audiences that a certain film is coming soon, these mini-productions have become newsworthy in their own right.
The Trailer Evolution: Trailers date back to the silent movie era, and in some cases the trailers are all that remain of silent films that are considered lost. Consider, for example, this trailer for the 1926 version of “The Great Gatsby” – no print of the film is known to exist, and all we know about the film’s content can be found in this one-minute offering:
“Movie trailers aim to bring eyeballs and content together, and editors are tasked with giving consumers the essence of a film in a couple of minutes,” explained Ruben Rosario, film critic for MiamiArtZine. “The best trailers give an accurate reflection of the product they're trying to sell. Even better ones convince you that said film is unmissable.”
Interestingly, the Hollywood studios themselves are rarely responsible for their trailers.
“Many trailers are made by companies that specialize in trailers,” said C.J. Glickman, a producer, who noted trailers have traditionally been designed to accentuate or even invent a film’s virtues. “Back in the day, director Joe Dante worked for Roger Corman, and he specifically made trailers – and many of the trailers were highly exaggerated to sell the movie. They were lies.”
But with the dawn of the Internet culture, trailers took on a different dimension.
“Movie trailers today are not the same as they were before,” said Jeff Peters, editor and publisher of The News and Times, a pop culture website. “Sometime during the early 2000s, they switched to being social media-friendly – they were less traditional advertisements and more viral bait. They no longer truly represented what was expected in a film, but what could get the most buzz.”
As trailers began to show up on smaller screens via online video platforms, they were now in a realm where they struggled to connect with viewers amid the zillions of distractions found on the Internet.
“We live in a world where we have a small attention span,” said Scott Johnson, president of Mack Media Group, a digital marketing agency in Brookfield, Connecticut. “I feel like they have to up the ante every time – you’re scrolling through everything else on social media.”
Mike Sargent, the cultural critic with the “PBS NewsHour” and co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle, agreed.
“We're in a society where we have to perceive things quicker and quicker and quicker, from the shortness of a Twitter TWTR post to a TikTok video,” he said. “The irony to me as a film critic and as a filmmaker is that everybody's learned how to edit – everybody knows how to do jump cuts, with things being really, really quick. They were quick to begin with and I think that it's escalated, because our attention span is shorter, so they've got to cram more in because someone else is going to take your attention.”
Bringing Back Audiences: More recently, film exhibition went through an existential crisis when the coronavirus pandemic resulted in theaters being closed for much of 2020 and into the first part of 2021. When theaters finally reopened, some moviegoers were hesitant to return to their favorite screening venues.
“You're looking at the movie theater business that is kind of on life support right now,” opined Jerry Dean Roberts, film critic with ArmchairCinema.com. “It's kind of barely breathing, and this summer is going to either help that or kill it.”
Roberts noted the major studios are pushing summer releases that have been audience favorites since the theaters reopened: the large, loud action-adventure films full of special effects and the wonderfully creepy horror films.
“They didn't really do that last year, so now you get ‘Top Gun,’ you get ‘Thor,’ you get the new Jordan Peele movie,” said Roberts. “So, they have to be bigger and louder because people are like, ‘Okay, I want the theater experience – I want to experience that!’ So, the trailers are a little bit of that.”
Audio Advantages: The trailers for today’s blockbusters exploit the cutting-edge theater technology, often at the expense of moviegoer eardrums.
“All of the theaters have these booming sound systems and I think the trailers are taking advantage of that,” said Joe Meyers, former Connecticut Post film critic and director of programming for Focus on French Film. “They're very, very bombastic. Whereas in previous eras, the trailers often didn't have stereo sound – they had a different tonal quality from the feature you were going to see. That's no longer true – they really wallop you, and they punish regular moviegoers like myself because we get walloped by the same trailers every week.”
Kevin Ranson, a critic with MovieCrypt.com, pointed out that those watching trailers on their cell phones never get the full audio impact found in theaters.
“With the best phones or with headphones, it's never going to sound like you’re watching it on Cinemark XD CNK or IMAX IMAX,” he said, adding that the online release of the trailers nonetheless lay the groundwork for planting the trailers’ seeds with moviegoers.
“I think when people go to the theaters, and they're front loaded up to 25 minutes ahead of the main feature, they're going to remember them,” Ranson said. “So maybe it's like a preview, with the audience thinking, ‘This is going to sound so much better than a theater.’”
What Is Being Sold?: But today’s trailers often carry an interesting dilemma – either they seem to be more interesting than the film they are previewing, or they bear little resemblance to the source material.
“The drawback is trailers, by their very nature, will show you the movie that they wish they made,” said Roberts. “We've gotten so used to it that it becomes part of our experience of going to the movies.”
MiamiArtZine’s Rosario highlighted the Paramount PARAA release “The Lost City” as being a particularly notorious example of disconnect between a trailer and its film.
“The trailer for the adventure comedy 'The Lost City' gave viewers the impression of an heir apparent to ‘Romancing the Stone,’ effectively concealing the lame millennial humor, tired pop culture references and exhausting overexplaining that sank the actual film,” he said. “Ah, but the tight, charming and punchy trailer lives on, perpetually convincing airline passengers that this is the in-flight entertainment they are looking for.”
News and Times’ Peters wondered if this is an example of a wider societal shift.
“It seemed to be a millennial reimagining of a system in which they were only tangentially connected,” he said. “Thus, the expectation of audiences no longer really exists, and a trailer's popularity rarely has anything to do with a film's.”
Indeed, the release of trailers have become news stories in their own right – a glance at the entertainment trade news outlets is packed with announcements of the latest trailer’s arrival. Sargent pointed to that as another reflection of the times.
“The great thing about the Internet was anybody can be a film critic,” he said. “The worst thing about the Internet is that anybody can be a film critic. Twenty years ago, there may have been a handful of film magazines, a couple of industry magazines, maybe a few sites. Now, there are tons and tons of outlets that will dissect the trailer and zoom in to discuss what it means.”
Nonetheless, there are some films that defy these new rules and percolate with audiences through word of mouth rather than trailers.
“The indie market has aggressively gone after these holes that have been left,” said Ranson. “Look at 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' – here's a little movie which literally is coasting on word of mouth, and every week it gets three or four million dollars more. It's now the biggest domestic box office for A24, and it's probably the best multiverse movie this year – even with ‘Doctor Strange’ out.”
And speaking of “Doctor Strange” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe titles released by the Walt Disney Co. DIS and Sony Pictures SONY, independent filmmaker and former film critic David Cornelius questioned whether this cinematic output gains any box office advantages from its trailers.
“Trailers for the tentpoles are hardly necessary,” he said. “Marvel knows they're guaranteed a crowd, so there's not much to hard sell. All they need is a hype reel to bring in the fans. I don't think studios even care if they live up to the expectations or not.”
Photo: Chris Hemsworth in "Thor: Love and Thunder," courtesy of Disney
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