A Critical Look at Movie Trailers
I have the bad habit of logging onto Youtube with the intent of watching one movie trailer and end up staying for hours watching every other trailer that Youtube suggests to me. I can’t help it — I love movie trailers. I’m the kind of person that gets upset when we’re running late for the movies. Those who don’t know me well say “Don’t worry, we’re only missing the trailers”. Those who do know me step on the gas to get me there faster.
Movie trailers are like those samples that they give out at grocery stores. Some of us take the sample, enjoy it, and pick up the item being advertised. Some of us don’t like it. Others make an afternoon of circling the sample table doing nothing but picking up the same sample over and over again (those, I think, are the people who break down trailers into frames). There’s something about film trailers that give us just enough to get us interested, but not enough to spoil the movie.
At least, that’s how it used to be. Nowadays the comment that I see more and more associated with movie trailers is that they show the whole movie. Comments like “if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie” and “they showed all the funniest/most exciting/best bits in the trailer” are frequently posted under movie trailers now.
But have movie trailers always been like this? The answer is a gigantic no. Were they better back in the day? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in a film trailer.
Movie trailers back in the day didn’t really push the plot as much as movie trailers do now. Let me give you an example. This is the movie trailer for the 1938 film The Lady Vanishes. (Yes, this is an interactive article — just go with me on this).
The only real thing we learn about the movie (aside from the actors) is that someone is missing. Movie trailers back in the day only gave the audience enough to make them curious. This was also the time that an actor was developing more of a celebrity status rather than just being an actor. Although the large amount of text can be distracting, we still use some of the same text strategies in films today. By the end of the trailer, we know the cast but only a glimpse of the plot, just enough to pique our curiosity.
Now, here’s another trailer from 1957, almost twenty years later. It’s for the Academy Award-winning classic, Bridge on the River Kwai.
Now here, we get a little bit more plot. We even find out how the film’s title plays a part — because the men will be building the bridge over the Kwai. Once the trailer figures we have the plot down, it introduces us to some of the main characters. We’re also given more footage in this trailer, with more scenes of action and drama being shown. This time, there’s also a combination of text and voiceovers, rather than just the text from the last one. But slowly, the plot is becoming more and more important to the movie trailer people.
Now, let’s jump ahead another two decades to 1975. The film is Jaws. Here’s the trailer.
Now we’re getting to see the trailers that we’ve become used to. The narrator voiceover work at the beginning provides the mysterious foreshadowing the audience wants in order to become interested. The trailer also gives us the majority of the plot situation in this trailer, from the appearance of the shark to the threat of the shark to finding a shark hunter to going after the shark. It doesn’t show us the entire movie, but it definitely does more with the plot than the trailers in the past have. Finally, it introduces the actors to us at the end (this is after most of us in the theater would have been saying “Oh! It’s that guy! From that other movie! What was his name again….”).
Finally, let’s take a look at a more recent movie. Here’s the second trailer that was released for the film Captain Phillips. Notice the complete lack of narrator voiceover work here. In more recently trailers, filmmakers rely on piecing dialogue together from the actual film to provide the voiceover work.
You can see how the trailers now are a combination of varying changes throughout the years. We still use text banners, but it’s primarily just to build up extra suspense or piece together films, rather than just provide information. The trailers are also more plot driven, and when they can’t fit all of the plot in, they continue to show disjointed flashes of it, almost to fill the time. Finally, they rely more heavily on using dialogue from the movie to do the work for them.
I think putting extra plot in our movie trailers now is the solution to the movie trailers of old. People like to know what they’re getting into when they see a movie. People who go to the movies don’t have as much time to enjoy them as they once did. They can’t take the chance on seeing a bad movie, and so they want as much information as they can about it before they go in. Trailers nowadays are built for that purpose: to show the busy person who may only see one movie this month that this is the movie they want to see.