In December 2011, we had a week where three movie trailers hit the web: The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Prometheus. They looked stunning: these were perfectly crafted marketing tools from films with slick visuals, a promising story, and an unheard of amount of hype around their production. 2012 was shaping up to be an incredible movie year. The Avengers looked quite good good, although it’s trailer was released at a different point in time.
The thing is, in my opinion, none of these movies really held up to the hype. I liked them okay: The Dark Knight Rises was good, but not as good as The Dark Knight (my all-time favorite comic book film), The Hobbit was quite good, but it lingered in almost every scene when it didn’t need to, and Prometheus, well. I liked Prometheus for all the wrong reasons: it’s execution was pretty bad, even as it looked wonderful. The Avengers was the best of the lot, even if it felt like every moment was designed by committee. I fell to the trap of the film’s marketing departments, who knew just what worked to draw audiences to the theaters.
And it worked: each film did quite well at the box office, with follow up films coming for each one of them (Well, maybe not Batman, but we do have the Justice League films coming). It was mission accomplished for the production machine, and left my expectations in a heap near the door. By the time The Hobbit rolled around, I was prepared for the film to really be terrible (it wasn’t), but I’d realized that I should probably not get my hopes up after the next couple of trailers for the 2013 film class.
The expectation of hype has reached ridiculous levels: Apple’s film trailer section now has trailer teasers, and the release of a film’s trailer is trumpeted with all the energy of a film’s regular release. This has been going on for more than a decade now: I remember the excitement for Episode I: The Phantom Menace‘s teaser trailer way back when. We all clamor to see the first glimpses of our hopefully-favorite-new-film on the same level as Apple fans clamor for rumors of the next iGadget. Already, we’re beginning to see trailers with multiple endings (gotta collect them all!), released strategically around the world to fill a growing need to get every hint of a plot detail, as though this is some sort of puzzle that needs to be unraveled, with the final film as the answer key. Now, we can pretty much piece together the entire film from what’s released as a promo.
The big thing at the moment seems to be the details around Benedict Cumberbatch’s identity in Star Trek: Into Darkness. The fervor has reached idiotic levels of inanity, with entire editorials and blog posts dedicated to trying to figure out just who John Harrison is, and whether or not he’s the Khan that we’re all expecting. Why not just wait and see?
The film is no longer the central goal in the story. The entire industry seems to have been shifted to a track that requires extensive engagement with their audience. It makes sense: the work to retain an audience begins long before the lights go down, starting with posters, on-set photos and interviews, trailer promos, teaser trailers, trailers, international trailers, 9-minute clips, and finally, the barrage of TV-Spots that continue on after the movie’s been released.
The desire for information about a film to piece together what’s going on is part of fandom: it’s been going on as long as there’s been fanzines and letter columns. What’s changed in the last two decades is the ability for a film production to reach its audience with the click of a button. The infrastructure to ensure a flow of information from the crew to the fan has changed radically. I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see personalized trailers, with information culled from your online information, to make the film the most appealing to you. We see this with the differences between Romance and Science Fiction covers, why not with films? The romance-inclined viewers? They get the highlights of the personal scenes that a marketing department has figured out will best appeal to them. The action fans? They get the explosions and slow-mo. The cerebral fans? They get the talking points. The folks who fall under all categories? They get all of them.
We take the marketing at such face value that we don’t often seem to forget that it’s something tailored to show exactly what we expect to see. I’m okay with that, when the film is good: the trailers for films such as Moon, Inception, District 9 and even Battle: Los Angeles lined up with what I was expecting. It’s the films like The Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus and The Hobbit in which there’s a divergence in expectations. The culprit here? It’s not the marketing department, but the films themselves. Whomever worked on Prometheus deserves a raise in pay and an award: they sold what appeared to be a smart, interesting science fiction thriller with awesome visuals. Instead, we got a confusing, often stupid, good looking film. Imagine if Prometheus and others had lived up to the hype!
So, my resolution for 2013 is to keep my brain in my head when it comes to trailers for the upcoming genre films. My expectations for productions such as Iron Man 3, Oz the Great and Powerful, Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and Elysium aren’t going to be based on the tailored trailers and production stills, but on what they’re actually about. I’ll still watch and appreciate them, but let’s see if we can’t remember that the film is what we’re really excited for.
(I might slip and fall with the trailer for Pacific Rim, though.)