One of the unfortunate byproducts of nerdery is the increased susceptibility to hype. Like many of you, I caught the first glimpses of the new Fantastic Four teaser this week and began trying to piece together what I had just seen. As far as I could gather, Reed (wide-eyed intern), Sue (the girl who programmed WOPR from WarGames), Ben (high school varsity baseball player who’s been held back two years) and Johnny (the guy who built KITT) all get in a bunch of steel tubes that explode and send them to Hell. From there, they spend the rest of the movie fighting enemies that are always just out of frame.
I suppose the teaser accomplished its goal. Sure, I want to see more, but only because I have no idea what the hell I just saw. This seems to be the new marketing strategy of Hollywood. We see a teaser, talk endlessly about it for three or four days then forget about it. Later, they release the next cryptic trailer that has us doing the whole song and dance all over again.
Was it always like this?
Searching for answers, a friend and I began to look at the trailers of our ancestors. What we found there was a world of movie marketing long since forgotten. Trailers from these ancient times differed in a number of ways.
Nowadays it’s common for an official theatrical trailer to be preceded by a teaser. The lengths of these teasers fluctuate. Normally you’re looking at somewhere between a minute and a half. Then again, some teasers look like they just pieced together all the footage they had from the first day of shooting:
As I’m sure you know, that was the teaser for Breaking Dawn Part 2, unless of course you happened to blink and miss it. Taking out the green preview screen, this trailer clocks in at around forty seconds or around the time it takes to melt butter in a microwave.
Of course, eventually they got enough footage to make a full trailer for audiences, which clocks in at a whopping two minutes, which is about the average running time of current trailers.
Compare that with the official trailer for Lawrence of Arabia from 1962:
That trailer is almost a full five minutes long, where they basically take time to list the entire cast of the film. Furthermore, they take time to give you a basic rundown of who T.E. Lawrence was by opening with nice little quote by Winston Churchill. The equivalent to this would be if the Breaking Dawn trailer opened with a quote from Stephenie Meyer and finishing off by listing off each cast member of the Cullen Family.
For some of you that may not be familiar with the Fantastic Four, you may have been curious as to whom these fresh-faced lads and lasses were decorating your computer screen. Now maybe this is because Hollywood is banking on the fact that fans of the FF4 are already familiar with these characters. Still, I’ve found that current trailers still make very little attempt to introduce their characters. Take this trailer from the upcoming Jupiter Ascending:
What can we gather from that? Well, we know that Channing Tatum is a badass with a neck tattoo and he wants to get Mila Kunis for whatever reason because doctors are trying to kill her for whatever reason. Kunis even goes as far as to ask, “Who are you?” to which Channing simply says, “I’m here to help you” for whatever reason. From there it seems clear that the story revolves around Kunis, yet we don’t hear her name till the end of the trailer, where everyone says, “Oh, like in the title! That explains why she’s moving up so many beams of light!”
Now let’s look at the trailer for the sci-fi classic Tron from 1982:
In this trailer we get a pretty good idea who we’re dealing with. There’s the villainous computer introduced in, what can only be described as, the most frightening Apple ad ever seen. Then there’s our hero, Kevin Flynn, who’s of course a genius because he’s searching for answers. They even briefly introduce Tron before explaining what it’s like inside the computer itself.
Finally, a big unspoken rule seems to be that you don’t give away too much of the plot. This is particularly the case with modern horror movies that all seem to rely on some big twist at the end.
For instance, check out this trailer for Insidious:
If you didn’t have time to watch it, don’t worry. The trailer is simply a montage of all the scary things that happen in the film in rapid succession. There is virtually no dialogue to explain any of this, just a few blurbs about hiring the landlady from Kingpin and that their son is haunted.
Let’s see how they explained the plot of a movie in 1976 with this trailer from Carrie:
Oh sorry everybody, I should have said SPOILERS, but I believe the statute of limitations runs out at exactly thirty-eight years. Plus, now you don’t even have to watch the film, because that’s literally the detailed, step-by-step plot of the entire film. If they had Cliff Notes for feature films, this would be it.
But my absolutely favorite part of this trailer is the introduction of John Travolta in his first ever film debut. They could have picked any clip from the film to lead the viewer to wonder, “Oh, I wonder what kind of character he plays in the film?” But why even try to instill any sense of mystery? No, instead the editors decided that the best way to introduce this new burgeoning superstar was by letting the audience know within five seconds he was absolutely going to die in the most fiery and violent way possible.