Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a race between the Resistance and the First Order to find Luke Skywalker.
Passengers is about a man who dooms a woman to live out the rest of her life with only him, after he is woken out of cryogenic sleep on a voyage in deep space too early for him to survive the journey awake and the loneliness drives him mad.
Collateral Beauty sees a man inconsolably grief stricken by the loss of his daughter that he writes to love, time and death as if they were people for therapy, his friends find this out and decide to gaslight him by hiring actors to embody those concepts, talk to him, and edit them out digitally to prove to the board at the company they all work at that he’s gone insane and fire him because his inactivity is causing them to go under.
What do all of these have in common? Well, none of these plots are even hinted at in the film’s trailers or promotional material. While you can give Force Awakens a pass as the plot isn’t as important to the film as it is in the latter two, what these particular ones do that I find interesting is manipulate the audience into thinking they’re entirely different films.
Passengers leaves out the incredibly important, plot hinging fact that Chris Pratt wakes Jennifer Lawrence up. Collateral Beauty goes one step further and tries to convince you that Will Smith actually IS talking to these concepts and leaves out the acting troupe subplot. Why they did this is really obvious; their plots are kind of awful and hard to watch as the movies attempt to make you sympathise with objectionably horrible people. But what I think it really displays is just how much advertising is designed to convey an idea now rather than, you know, sell the film.
One of the best examples of this was the promotional material for The Huntsman: Winters War. The film, a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, brings back Charlize Theron’s character. Of course it does, as she was the best thing about that clunker. but then the marketing decided to avoid spelling out if the movie was a sequel or a prequel. It’s a sequel, if you couldn’t guess, but this seemed to be in an effort to not annoy the fans of the original, as Theron’s character died at the end of that one. So I guess they thought people would be pissed off they ruined a sacred cow that was…a really boring derivative Kristen Stewart vehicle based on a trend of mature fairytales that was well and dead long before the movie came out? It’s the strangest goddamn thing! Who cares that Theron comes back-not outlining that this is a sequel does not mean you’re spoiling a movie nobody remembers!
So that’s the idea, really. Marketing and especially trailers have become morphed into part of the cinematic experience itself. If you don’t believe me, look at the reaction to the Ghostbusters trailer, one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history, and look at how underwhelmingly it performed in the box office. That ain’t a coincidence-Sony’s micromanaging the REACTION to this trailer is proof enough that this is an essential part of the moviemaking make-up now instead of a tool to tell people about the film.
(I should note here that the reaction to that Ghostbusters trailer was ridiculously overblown, regardless of how mediocre the movie actually is, but you can’t deny the trailer’s impact)
Far from trailers being a separate entity to promote the film, it’s an essential tapestry to cynical Hollywood moviemaking to get us from Point A to Asses in Seats. I’m not saying that didn’t used to be Hollywood’s objective-they’re not in this game for the love of the art-but our relationship with the marketing has mutated into something a bit more immersive. Now we can wait for certain movies for decades (thanks, Marvel). I mean, trailers for films get so unbelievably hyped, the guys who made the Suicide Squad trailer ended up editing the fucking movie!
I mean, it wasn’t always like this. I actually preferred it when movie trailers (or teasers at least) tried to do something clever or unexpected with how they marketed themselves. One of my favourite trailers ever was the teaser for the first Scooby Doo movie because it’s such a hilarious mislead. That movie sucks donkey nuts, but the teaser is so great I honestly think it’s worth celebrating on its own.
I’m not saying this immersive marketing a bad thing-Deadpool’s campaign is a great example of how both the experimental side of marketing and the bureaucratic campaign cycle were both married perfectly. And I’m not saying these marketing gimmicks have never been a thing, nor that studios don’t plan out how to sell a movie. That’s ridiculous. But I’m not focusing in on that, I’m focusing on what our relationship to this material is like now.
It’s why I brought up The Force Awakens at the start-you know how long it takes for us to find out Luke’s fate in the movie? The first. Fucking. Line. On the opening text crawl. You know how pissed people got back then if you revealed this? Extremely. Not that this reveal ruined the film for them (it didn’t), but because they were so invested in the promotion that the fact that what Luke’s fate is at the start of the movie is a really arbitrary thing doesn’t really matter. A lot of that, inevitably, falls on the head of the director. This fucking guy.
In 2008, JJ Abrams did a now-infamous TED talk where he discussed a mystery box concept and how it can be applied to filmmaking. It’s actually a really great talk about how technology allows us all now to make films and how petering out character-based information can make a story more compelling and emotionally satisfying. However, like all great things, soon the idiots got their hands on it and it became more about how to market films in a certain way.
They even started affecting Abrams own movies, like in The Force Awakens. Cloverfield had a similar hanging mystery to it that made it extremely hyped, so did Lost for that matter. The problem with holding mysteries like this up as the hook for a moviegoer is that the reveal is nowhere near as fulfilling as the build-up. When the answer to ‘What is the monster?’ in Cloverfield is just ‘A monster’, when ‘Who is Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek: Into Darkness who seems a lot of like Khan?’ is ‘Khan’, then it very clearly becomes apparent that modern day filmmaking uses mystery, and our willingness not to be spoiled from it, to coax interest and entering cinemas, and ultimately leave them feeling sourer about a film than they would have been otherwise. Even if Cloverfield and especially ST:ID aren’t great.
It harkens back to this idea that spoilers weren’t really a factor back in the good old days that movies weren’t spoiled. That you went in completely blind with a vague notion of what’s it about and got a great experience because of a lack of reveals. And I think going into a film as blind as possible certainly helps with the experience, but this idea of remaining spoiler free wasn’t exactly there at the birth of cinema. One of the earliest examples of this was the extreme lengths Hitchcock went to hide the reveals of Pyscho from the public. He desperately wanted people to be caught off guards by plot reveals. And yet:
This trailer would absolutely be considered a spoiler-filled one today, but it’s a shame cause it’s great! Because Hitch knew how to wow an audience is not to give them what they don’t expect, but to give the unexpected in a movie they are anticipating. Revealing so much but withholding certain info. Being so blind about a film that you don’t know the basic premise like in Cloverfield or a basic outline of a plot like The Force Awakens doesn’t hype you up about a movie, it hypes you up about a false idea of one. And it’s easily what kills a film way more than knowing everything about it.
Speaking of, have you *seen* movie trailers from the 70s or 80s?! Especially grindhouse ones! I mean you should, always, they are some of my favourite things to watch. Here’s a few for you:
And they are relatively spoilerific, and you can’t tell me you don’t want to see these!
Why am I writing this, you ask (well, more I ask and I pretend you’re asking me a question because it’s easier to communicate ideas like that)? Well, because I think it’s interesting to examine how social media has evolved our moviegoing experience, and marketing now try to second guess how we’ll react to films.
Sometimes it’s a stroke of genius-back to Abrams, 12 Cloverfield Lane got fuck all marketing with a trailer a few months before its release, worked like gangbusters! But it didn’t build up your anticipation for a movie it didn’t deliver because the thing about mystery boxes is that once you open them they’re never going to be as good as you suspect. I just think marketing can be smarter in how it presents its products to the public-Logan promised exactly what it was, a gritty draining character drama about a man reaching the peak of his life-and it’s probably one of the best recent trailers on memory.
I think the future of how media is consumed should be incorporated in ways that are more honest and personally engaging. Because we don’t remember Jaws because we didn’t know it was a story about a man finding his place in the world, or Die Hard because it’s about a couple nearing divorce, or ET because it’s about a family actually going through divorce. We remember them because they’re great stories with impressive premises and emotionally satisfy stories. Once you realise that, there’s a lot you can reveal.
One of the best things about marketing is that it’s more interactive. Once a trailer is released, seeing the reaction to it on your Facebook is one of the most rewarding things because it builds up your own hype. They’re trying a quasi-mystery box thing again with The Last Jedi (note: as of writing this, I haven’t seen the movie) with Luke’s fate AGAIN, this time his own morality. As that is a massive cause of speculation, what’s impressive to me was that that was not a lot of people’s focus when the last trailer dropped. It was seeing an emotional lingering shot on General Leia facing her son.
There’s more to films than being surprised by them and meeting our expectations. The faster we let go of this the more likely that they’ll entertain us. Getting invested in spoilers so much, while you should naturally not reveal an entire story as it could affect the experience, makes it so that you’re building yourself up for disappointed, because the movie you created in your head will never match what ends up on screen.
If there’s any point to this rambling introspection, I guess it’s that we need to readjust how we hype up movies, both from a marketing and personal perspective. Because I doubt you’d enjoy Jaws any less if you didn’t know it was about a shark, and that’s kind of ridiculous extremes marketing is reaching at this point.
But the communal spirit of how this promotional stuff keeps a movie alive is great, and being creative about your marketing can be a lot of fun and really create a positive build-up to watching the damn thing. As long as the studios behind it are obnoxiously pushing it on the public, I’m all for that dialogue. Don’t get too bogged down on what you want a film to be. Get invested in what a film is and what you can anticipate from it. And I’ll see you at the movies.