“Well, now I feel like I’ve seen the whole movie,” is an increasingly common complaint about movie trailers. Studios’ marketing strategy is frequently to lure viewers into the theater with a peek at a movie’s biggest fight sequence or most compelling twist, a promise of what people will see if they buy a ticket. But there are some trailers in recent years that have mastered the art of creating a sense of mystery and avoiding spoiling key surprise moments.
Speaking of spoilers, WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Oblivion, Looper, and Moon.
Oblivion, which opened in the U.S. this weekend and internationally the week prior, appeared to give viewers a pretty full picture of the sci-fi film with its trailers: We saw the blown-up moon. We saw the desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes. We saw Tom Cruise discover that things are not what they seem – there are more humans on Earth, the woman in his dreams is real, his partner is not to be trusted. But it turned out there was more that wasn’t as it seemed. There are Tom Cruise clones. Humanity actually didn’t migrate to Titan. Melissa Leo is really a big HAL-like red light. And derivative of other sci-fi films though those twists may be, Oblivion was still able to pull a few surprises on the audience.
Director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) told the Huffington Post that the marketing team for the film would probably have been “thrilled” to be given the green light to include footage of Tom Cruise fighting Tom Cruise in the trailers, but he decided to keep the lid on that part of the movie. “I feel there are certain twists and turns in this movie that are such an important part of the movie experience that knowing it’s there changes things,” he said. “The message I’m trying to get out there is that it’s a movie with a lot of twists and turns, you have to pay attention, and it’s not what you expect.”
Another sci-fi flick that featured multiple copies of its star, 2009’s Moon, opted to reveal that a clone plot may be at play in its trailer. But the shots with two Sam Bells were still very sparse in the trailer, leaving the best aspect of the movie – Sam Rockwell’s performance opposite himself – an experience exclusive to anyone who bought a ticket.
The editors of previews for Looper, The Hunger Games, and Super 8 also get high marks for knowing how to keep a secret. Super 8 – directed by the master of mystery, J.J. Abrams – showed no shots of the creature wrecking havoc on the film’s small Ohio town in its trailers. The Hunger Games got audiences to the theater by not showing footage of the Arena in its marketing. Looper managed to create trailers with plenty of captivating content that still left out footage of key components of the movie, including the all-important son of Emily Blunt’s character (played by young actor Pierce Gagnon in a haunting, awards-worthy performance).
So why does all this mystery make for a good viewing experience? When you go into a theater all hyped up about the strong points of a film, there’s bound to be some letdown. But when a film surprises its audience and gives them more than they knew they were in for, expectations are both met and exceeded.
It is worth noting, though, that building speculation and mystery with a trailer is a whole different matter from previews that end up misrepresenting a film. Last year’s Flight and Magic Mike kept central plots of substance abuse out of their marketing. Trailers for The Tree of Life, The Fountain, and Drive didn’t let on how arty, philosophical, and abstract – albeit beautiful and compelling – those films really were. The result wasn’t so much creating pay-off to mysteries and pleasant surprises for ticket-holders as it was drawing in the wrong crowd.
Perhaps the best advice on this issue for the movie-making and marketing powers-that-be comes from Joss Whedon, who produced and co-wrote last year’s horror hit The Cabin in the Woods. As explained by his The Cabin in the Woods co-writer Drew Goddard: At a March 2012 screening of the horror film that had more than a few tricks up its sleeves, regarding the choice to introduce Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s characters and the Facility early in the movie, Goddard said, “Put all your cards on the table right away, and then that will force you to come up with new cards.”
What do you think, PopWatchers? Do you prefer trailers that preserve some mystery, or ones that show enough of the movie to guarantee you’re getting yourself into something good?
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