Most movie trailers are awful. They’re artless, overbearing, deceptive, and designed to coax people into the theater by promising something comfortably familiar, yet sensational. But every so often, a trailer comes along that’s beguiling, insinuating—even thrilling. The best trailers have a rhythm all their own, and build to crescendos, not unlike a great piece of music. Here’s my question, though: Good or awful, if you’re a dedicated movie buff, should you even be watching trailers at all?
Well, actually, this isn’t my question. To be honest, up until recently, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to whether trailers could be hazardous to cinephiles. I’ve always been a “get to the theater early so we don’t miss the previews” kind of guy, and when I take my daughter to the movies, the second question my wife asks when we get home—after, “How was it?”—is always, “Did you see any good trailers?” To me, the anticipation for a film, and even to some degree, the hype is as much a part of the overall experience of being a moviegoer as the smell of popcorn. But lately, some professional critic and movie-loving civilian friends of mine have been responding to the flood of “New Django Unchained trailer online!” announcements, or “New footage from Brave now available!” by asking, with open scorn, why anyone would be eager to watch a few out-of-context minutes of jokes and stunts from a yet-to-be-released movie.
There’s a larger context to their criticism. Hollywood studios and the entertainment media have had a symbiotic yet stormy relationship over the years. We in the press welcome the advertising dollars that studios spread around, and we write about movies because that topic tends to draw a lot of eyeballs. On the other side of the wall, Hollywood needs the media to spread the word about their product in ways other than merely running ads. Ideally, the people who bankroll and distribute movies would love it if newspapers, magazines, and websites ran nothing but softball interviews, puff pieces, and hype-jobs about their films, and never wrote any actual reviews or did any hard reporting. So in a way, every time a website posts a breezy story about new set-photos or trailers, we make it easier for the studios to marginalize the role of critics and hard journalists. We help sell the movie for them, and without much compensation—either monetary or in terms of our credibility.
Moreover, the glut of coverage of trailers, casting notices, and the like has helped foster a sense that the movies don’t matter as much as the idea of the movies. Entertainment-media coverage runs the risk of becoming like sports reporting (where “What’s going to happen in tonight’s game?” is starting to outpace highlights and analysis) and political reporting (where “What do the pundits think about the candidate’s speech?” gets more attention than whether the claims in that speech are true). Already, some movie-lovers regularly lash out against bad reviews—and sometimes even good reviews—of movies they haven’t yet seen. They make up their minds when they see the posters and the commercials. Everything else is mere formality.
So I understand my friends’ concerns about how the coverage of cinema is trending, and I share it. But only to an extent. The Internet has changed the overall tone and approach of the entertainment media, pushing the discussion toward a more casual, fannish form at times—which is just fine, in measured doses. To put it another way: Back in my early 20s, when I’d go to the movies with my buddies, we’d talk about the one-sheets in the lobby, and the trailers we saw before the show. I don’t see anything wrong with transferring those kind of relaxed, geek-out conversations to a larger, more public forum, so long as they’re accompanied by other, more substantive analysis. I get why this kind of coverage exists, even when I’m personally not that gung-ho for it. After the Django Unchained trailer hit last week, for example, I saw pieces scrutinizing the trailer for cues to what the movie would be, and even some pieces that seemed to preliminarily judge Django based solely on a couple of minutes of clips. For me, that’s a little excessive. But not everything on the Internet has to be meant for me.
Besides, did I watch the Django Unchained trailer? Hell yes—practically as soon as it was available. I also watched the strange and wondrous first teaser of P.T. Anderson’s The Master that was released a month ago, and the Moonrise Kingdom trailer before that movie came out. When there’s a trailer for the next Coen brothers film, I’ll be all over that too. I don’t make it a point to click on every link to every trailer out there—I’m not champing at the bit to see footage from, say, Hope Springs—but I’m a fan of Tarantino, the Coens, and the two Andersons, so I’m eager to see whatever they’re up to, as soon as I’m able.
Some of my anti-trailer friends would argue that because I like these directors, I shouldn’t watch previews of their movies. They’d argue that it actually makes more sense to watch an ad for Hope Springs, because that might persuade me that the film is going to be better than I expect. But since I already know I’m going to see the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, why would I risk spoiling it, or even dampening my enthusiasm if the trailer’s no good?
I could say that I trust the trailer-makers not to give away any surprises, but that’d be some seriously misplaced faith. Plenty of trailers spell out too much of what’s going to happen in a movie, all the way up through the third-act twists. Plenty of trailers also spoil a movie’s best jokes, and the most eye-popping action sequences. But does that necessarily diminish the experience of the movie itself? And if so, does that mean that the generations upon generations of moviegoers who’ve watched trailers have been doing it wrong?
To answer that last question: It depends on what the individual viewer prefers. I’ve never been much of a purist when it comes to how best to watch a film. Some moviegoers like to know as little as possible when they walk into the theater; others will watch commercials, read reviews, and listen to the conversations other people are already having about the film. There are advantages to both. People in the former camp see the movie “fresh,” and can be genuinely surprised. I remember seeing Never Let Me Go without any foreknowledge of the book on which it’s based, and the dawning awareness of what was going on with these strange boarding-school kids made the movie more powerful. But it can also be enlightening to see movies with an advance understanding of how it’s being marketed, and how it’s being received. At least half a dozen times a year, I come into a movie with diminished expectations, and as a result, enjoy it all the more.
From back-and-forths with friends on social media, I get the sense that a lot of their anti-trailer campaigning has mainly to do with the promotion of trailers as “news,” which I agree is something to monitor, and warily. But just because some people like to go online and peek at their presents early doesn’t stop those presents from working perfectly once they’re fully unwrapped.