Trailers are an ingrained part of the moviegoing experience now. Going into a theater, you know that the first 15 to 20 minutes or so after the posted start time are dedicated to trailers as opposed to the feature you paid to see.
As the lights dim for the start of the usually eight or so trailers to run, you begin to hear whispers of, “that looks good,” or, “I love that guy,” or, on the other hand, groans of disapproval. Coming in at around two and a half minutes, these trailers have become an enjoyable part of attending films, as opposed to what used to be seen as an inconvenience.
What makes them so popular? What about these glorified ads for other movies make them more appealing than the thousandth auto insurance ad you see while watching television? For starters, there is a sheen of novelty to them. It is inherently exciting to see the first trailer for an upcoming movie; it has an aura of possibility around it that most regular ads can’t match. In the case of a highly anticipated movie, for example Star Wars: Episode VII, due to come out in 2015. When the trailer is released, people will be analyzing it and breaking it down for any clues they can mine from the two minutes and 30 seconds of George Lucas’ table scraps. There is something else beyond the novelty aspect that has also ballooned the popularity of trailers, and funnily enough it is also just the thing that comes up as the number one complaint about them. Trailers fit a lot of information into those two and a half minutes, so much so that many people complain that some trailers give away the important parts of the movie, rendering surprises less impactful.
This point is hard to argue. Sure, there are movies that manage to keep their major plot points secret, but there are countless examples of movies revealing a good three-fourths of their plot arc or the five best jokes in the film through the few carefully selected snippets included in their trailers.
It’s frustrating at times because it takes away from the movie. They rarely give away the finale (though it has happened to some extent), but it is disappointing to be coming across scenes an hour and a half into the movie that you already knew were coming. This lessens the impact of the moment and robs it of the element of surprise.
In sacrificing this impact, however, the audience gets something else from the trailer: entertainment. They are almost like miniature movies. We are introduced to characters, we are shown what conflict they have to face and we are usually shown a pivotal point in the movie.
These mini-movies not only take advantage of the anticipation that they produce but also provide a shot of entertainment of their own accord. Earlier this year there were rumblings that the National Association of Theater Owners (yes, they go by NATO) was pushing for a reduction in the length of the trailers from 2:30 to 2:00, but didn’t succeed. The strongest driving force for this was the fact that research done by the studios conclusively said that the majority of audiences preferred the trailers of longer length -— in essence, viewers prefer the straight sell over suspense.
The master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock, took a much different approach to the trailer. Perhaps his most iconic one was his trailer for the movie Psycho. In the trailer we see no footage from the movie or dramatic music; instead, we see old Hitch himself alone giving the audience a tour of the iconic Bates mansion and motel for a good six minutes, culminating with him tearing aside the shower curtain to reveal a screaming woman and the sudden appearance of the movie’s title across the screen. Instead of showing everything, the Psycho trailer is all a tease. It really epitomizes the intentions of most trailers from earlier in movie history (not going too far back to when the trailers actually trailed the film and came after the movie) in that they offered a taste but only enough to entice.
Trailers like Psycho’s still exist. They come in the form of teaser trailers. They’re usually only made for big-money productions but they can be plenty tantalizing when done right. One that really stood out was the teaser for Super 8 that came out in 2011. For a while, we were only given a brief but tasty glimpse of the movie. Of course later, the trailer came out and gave away half the plot. For a while there though, we saw how enticing trailers could still be without giving it all away, even though all that market research shows that they will never really go back.
Daniel Grzywacz is a senior majoring in neuroscience. His column “The Reel Deal” runs Fridays.
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