6 Reasons Why Trailers Have to Spoil Movies

By  · Published on September 16th, 2015

Yesterday an article complaining about trailers ruining movies blew up on Reddit, and it’s not hard to imagine why. A lot of trailers are ruining movies. That’s why I stopped watching most trailers a year ago. I’ve stuck to watching ads only for movies I know nothing about with a few minor indulgences here and there (see: Mad Max: Fury Road), and I’ve never come close to regretting the decision.

The original article from All Day Every Week even offers a warning to stay away from the latest Creed trailer, so thanks for that, ADEW. Meanwhile the Redditors offer up The Force Awakens, Pixar teases and others as examples of great hooks that don’t bite.

I recognize why a lot of movie fans love trailers. They’re exciting by their nature. They’re often little joys that come months before the main course. They give us glimpses of the worlds we want to go to.

Still, if you’re reading this site, it’s likely that you’re going to see a majority of movies coming out anyway (because you have a problem that therapy cannot fix), and I’ve talked to an increasing number of fans who have shunned trailers altogether, hoping to avoid the surprise of seeing third acts play out long before they ever get a chance to buy a ticket.

We love movies, so why run the risk of dampening our experience in the name of being sold on something we’re already sold on?

It’s a personal choice that’s going to have to stay a personal choice because there’s no way that studios are going to stop utilizing movie-ruination as a tactic in selling a film anytime soon. While we can shake our fists at trailers that give to much away, it’s important that we understand why studios, their PR departments and hired marketing firms choose to toss twists and surprises into the mix.

With that in mind, here are six (of probably many) reasons why trailers have to spoil movies.

Standing Out in a Crowded Field

There are so many movies available now. So, so, so many movies. So, so, so many platforms to watch them on. On any given weekend, almost none of us has any clue exactly what all is coming out because niche releases and VOD have rendered us helpless. A few years ago, a site like The Projection List wouldn’t have been necessary, but now it’s damned near vital. For example, there are 10 movies hitting theaters this weekend alone.

Just kidding. There are 16.

And that doesn’t count VOD, all the television that’s at our fingertips, all the old movies Netflix offers, a sickening amount of sports programming or that badly neglected playground in your neighborhood.

The point doesn’t need to be belabored because it’s become gospel, but consider what it means if you’re a movie advertiser with a new product coming out. The large amount of movies necessarily means that we’re also getting a larger amount of similar movies, and that spells trouble if your main job is to differentiate your product from the competition’s.

Sequels and connected universes have complicated this problem in a strange way, too. If you’re selling Terminator: Genisys (one of the trailers railed on in the ADEW article), you not only have to prove why it’s worth seeing over another action movie in a crowded field, you also have to prove how it’ll be different than all the other Terminator movies. Filmmakers are always telling us how the fifth movie to use the same characters will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before but trailers show us how.

Everything “Looks” Great

If you see a movie in theaters, it’s highly likely that it will at least be competently shot and edited. Our baseline standards have continued to increase to the point where a fake baby in one scene of a major release is an unthinkable outrage.

When Drew McWeeny called this the “Age of Casual Magic,” he tapped into a large problem not only for creators but, subsequently, for people selling the creation.

We are awash in beautiful action sequences, gorgeous CGI and powerful cinematography. That’s a win for us (as long as we don’t get bored with the amazing), but it’s a huge hurdle for trailer makers. They may be happy for the note of familiarity that helps the medicine go down, but if yours is the 20th action movie trailer in two months, you’re going to start blending into the background.

Thus, if you have something that makes your story different, the desire to utilize it can override any desire to keep the movie “pristine” for the viewing audience. That desire becomes doubly strong when the movie isn’t tracking well to begin with.

Twists Hint at Something More to Explore

It’s rare that outright twists are added to trailers, mostly because it would be difficult to place them in the right context to begin with (The Island trailer notwithstanding). Revelations, on the other hand, are used more and more frequently. That the bomb goes off in Sum of All Fears, that Adam Sandler gets sick then gets better in Funny People, that Gandalf shows up again in The Two Towers – these are all things we should have discovered for ourselves in the movies instead of in ads for them.

However, it’s easy to see why showing Sir Ian McKellen back from the underground dead would get people excited to see the sequel and why advertisers wouldn’t concern themselves with those who hadn’t read the books. It’s also easy to see how adding these revelations hints toward the potential audience that the movie will feature an interesting plot element as well as its aftermath.

Showing off which Terminator is the bad guy (or who is really a Terminator) is a franchise tradition since the second film, and while we complain about it, spoiling those elements in the trailer is meant specifically to show that there’s a weird situation that the movie wants to focus on. In that sense, marketers want us to know a twist is coming, director be damned.

Actors Don’t Sell As Much Anymore

Think about the elements of a trailer. What does a studio show you to get you interested? Great visuals, names you know (both people and titles), and, if they’re desperate, weird premises. There are, all things considered, not a lot of different tools in the box.

Revelations that ruin our initial experience of a narrative are becoming popular because famous names are losing their power to ensure big box office numbers. They’ll obviously still be included in the trailer (and often more of them will be included in the film itself; when Will Smith is part of a 10-actor ensemble, you know the tide has changed), but marketers know that showing us a famous actor’s face isn’t nearly enough to make the sale anymore.

When traditional modes of enticement falter, what do you turn to? You mine the movie itself for something interesting.

We Aren’t Meant to See Every Trailer

We all laughed and laughed when Sleepy Skunk put together 25 minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man – a compilation trailer that told essentially the entire story of the film – purely from marketing materials. It seemed to prove that Sony was so eager to sell tickets that they were giving away the movie for free, but it was also a product of the internet age where studios have to utilize different media to reach different audiences. There aren’t four quadrants for nothing, and cinephiles defy them by seeking out all sorts of information about all sorts of movies.

Plus, since we live in a world dedicated to the movies of next week and next year over the movies currently playing, the heady drug cocktail of over-advertising and open access to the Japanese trailer, the European trailer, et al, results in bizarre artifacts like Sleepy Skunk’s fantastic video.

And, yes, there are trailers that give much of a movie’s plot away designed specifically for an audience that needs that kind of nudging to pay at the box office; a group that likes knowing exactly what they’re getting for their money. They exist, and they’re probably asking you why it’s been so long since you’ve called home.

(There’s also another weird thing to note here: we who watch a lot of movies are invariably better at reading movies and reading trailers than other people. While some trailers are egregious, there are some trailers that bother us that fly right under the radar of people casually flipping through commercials. Some people won’t even notice that a movie has been ruined in a trailer. Food for thought.)

And They’re All Over the World

Complementing the previous point, we have to remember that movie advertisers are also trying to reach global markets, and that this fundamental shift has created a lot of changes in how things are done. Movie trailers went through decades (notably in the 1930s-1960s) where every little detail (including, sometimes, the ending) were shown because showing your hand was the standard way of convincing an audience of what to see. Viewers got savvier, trailers changed, trailers shifted back, trailers changed again, and now we’re in another era where studios and advertisers seem dedicated to operating as though a broad audience of people who won’t understand dialogue needs to be convinced to see the latest Marvel movie.

Again, this is another point that doesn’t need to be beaten to death because we see it devolving on our screens, but it’s one more reason that trailers have to spoil movies – in some situations, some studios would rather spoil the film than risk having a large amount of people confused because they weren’t properly prepared for what was going to happen in the story. If that seems insulting, it’s because it is, but there’s also currently no consistent, proven method of selling the same movie to potential fans in China, Sweden, Australia, Guatemala and the United States simultaneously. Studios are stuck with what they believe works, and they respond by making different trailers (and even different movies, technically) for different cultural audiences.

Which means we’re also stuck with trailers spoiling movies. Other than movies with big reveals that aren’t tracking well, we can’t be certain what trailers will over-expose a film we want to see, so the only safe option right now is abstinence.

If you’re content to navigate the minefield for the rush of seeing cool trailers, you already know the risks of overexposure, but if you’re worried about having movies ruined for you by trailers that show too much, all you have to do is refuse to press play on advertisements for films you already intend on seeing.

Either way, good luck out there.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.