It’s easy if you try.
Adam Driver thinks that Lucasfilm should release Star Wars: Episode VIII without any trailers. In a recent conversation with Cinemablend, the actor voiced his support for a Star Wars movie ambush, noting that “no one would know anything” and the entire anticipation of the film would be more fun as a result. Of course, Driver is mostly kidding here – playing along with a fun interview question – but he does raise an interesting question. What would happen if a major motion picture decided to skip trailers altogether and just release in theaters without any build up?
Trailers have become quite the cottage industry. In the past week alone, we’ve seen two blockbuster movies garner huge amounts of attention for the different ways they approached their trailers. First there was the release of the first trailer for The Fate of the Furious, a mega-event that prompted Paramount Pictures to rent out Times Square and simulcast the new trailer alongside its Sunday Night Football premiere. With all of the major cast and crew in attendance, the New York City premiere more closely resembled a release party than the next step in a year-long marketing campaign. And then there was the backlash from fans and critics who complained about footage from the Rogue One trailers not making its way into the final film. According to a few people on Twitter, iconic shots from the trailer – such as the showdown between Jyn Erso and a single TIE Fighter – were omitted in the final version of the film, leading some fans to feel a bit betrayed.
Not only are trailers popular – and hotly contested – they’re also a sound psychological practice. Many psychologists have written about the science of anticipation and why looking forward to an event can often be more pleasurable than the event itself; these studies can help explain why Hollywood is smart for inundating us with trailer teasers, teasers, teaser trailers, and trailers. In 2014, researchers from the University of California published a paper to this effect, noting that people often think about future experiences in a “more significant and more gratifying” way. They also identified a social component to anticipation, suggesting that shared anticipation for a new experience can make “people feel more connected and happier overall.” Similarly, a faculty member at the University of British Columbia told The New York Times in 2014 that anticipation can help our minds “smooth over any minor discrepancies if reality doesn’t quite measure up to the fantasy.”
But what about the negative impacts? Many critics would argue that movie marketing – including the release of photos, posters, clips, and rumors – has also dumbed down film criticism and turned plenty of websites into the cinematic equivalent of a gossip magazine. I know plenty of people who choose to forego movie marketing altogether, ignoring trailers until they have a chance to see the film for themselves to avoid spoiling the experience of the movie. Movie trailers can even spoil major events within the films themselves, either out of apathy or a misguided attempt to advertise. If you remember seeing the trailers for Don’t Breathe, one of the year’s breakout horror hits, you’ll also remember that it spoils a major character death, a pretty considerable thing to do when your film basically only has four cast members. Whether it’s focusing too much on the marketing material at the expense of the film itself or altering your expectations for the movie going in, there are valid reasons to point to trailers as unnecessary, especially for the biggest Hollywood releases.
So what might a trailer-less Hollywood release look like? There’s not exactly a lot of precedent for this. In the last twelve months, we’ve seen modestly budgeted films like 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Blair Witch hide their connections to preexisting properties until just weeks before their release dates, but even those films were given normal – if misleading – marketing campaigns. Perhaps a better example would be Netflix, who has taken to promoting some of its original content only weeks before those shows and movies are released. The first trailer for Netflix’s brand new science fiction miniseries The OA was released on December 12, only four days before its December 16 release date. Similarly, their first trailer for the feature film Spectral was released on December 2, one week before its December 9 Netflix premiere.
Of course, that’s not a perfect analogy either. Netflix doesn’t really have to consider the opportunity cost of a new series or movie not catching on with audiences right away. Theatrical releases are different. If a film bombs in its opening weekend, theater owners must decide if the screens dedicated to showing the film are better served by the next movie in the pipeline – and there’s always another movie in the pipeline. The current distribution network doesn’t provide space for word of mouth or casual discovery; if a film isn’t a success out of the gate, then odds are good that it will continue to flounder and cost theater owners money until they decide to pull the plug. As long as films are centered on live exhibition, there really is no better model – or at least no more risk-averse model – than frontloading your ticket sales as much as possible to boost that opening weekend gross.
Still, there’s always the possibility that Hollywood might mix up their approach if they find a better way. Earlier this year, Variety published a piece on the changing state of Hollywood advertising, with several executives noting the volumes of pressure put on marketing departments to help a film succeed. “As long as I was in marketing, if the film worked, it was a brilliant film,” one executive mentioned. “And if it didn’t work, it was the marketing.” Right now, movie trailers offer the best and broadest way for filmmakers to reach out to their target audience, but that might not always be the case. Should Hollywood’s model ever change drastically – with home videos or virtual reality theaters replacing the physical locations – then we could very well see the demands of movie marketing change completely. For now, though, it’s safe to say that we’re stuck with trailers ad infinitum until the movie itself is released. It may not be a great, but it’s good enough for Hollywood needs; in that way, the trailers and the movies they help promote seem to be in perfect alignment.