I loved movie trailers when I was a kid. A huge part of the thrill of going to the movies was seeing previews for coming attractions. Part of it was because this one of the few reliable ways I could learn about new movies — my family didn’t have home Internet access until I was in high school — but trailers also had an air of possibility, of excitement, that kept me riveted. Here was something new, and it could turn out to be amazing. I would happily zone out in front of E!’s Coming Attractions, which was nothing but an entire half-hour block of movie trailers with occasional commercial breaks. It didn’t occur to me that I was just watching ads compete with ads, broken up by ads; I just wanted to see what was coming out.
As I got older and started to really fell in love with movies, though, I felt apprehensive whenever trailers would start up because I knew, just knew, that some major moment or revelation or joke from the film would be spoiled. If a secondary character in an action movie found themselves in danger, I knew they’d survive because, e.g., I hadn’t yet heard them deliver the snappy line that had been drilled into audiences in the trailers. I started doing what I could to avoid watching the trailers before movies, which usually meant closing my eyes, plugging my ears, and patiently waiting for the show to start. (Surprisingly, I did not alienate many friends by doing this.) And for years, that was the main reason I avoided trailers: I didn’t want to be spoiled on action, dialogue, or plot that I could see in the film. I wanted to trust the movie to do its job, and I wanted to let it unfold the way the filmmakers intended, which meant watching the whole thing, not a blast of clips.
But that’s not why I avoid them now. Those things are all still true, but the real problem is different. It’s not that trailers spoil the action: it’s that they’re all the same.
A video editor named Vadzim Khudabets assembled a trailer for a fake film he dubbed Eterna earlier this year, splicing together scenes from dozens of movies to make one all-encompassing super-blockbuster. It’s kind of a joke, but also, not really. What’s more, it works incredibly well because it’s patterned on the beats of modern movie trailers that have turned almost every ad into the same overly somber, melodramatic collection of clips and tricks. Watching it, you feel like you’ve seen it before, and not just because it recycles images from other movies:
Earlier this week, the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past was released, and it was met with mostly positive feedback. The ad is everything you’d expect from a modern trailer: lots of fading in and out, ominous dialogue, string sections, the works. It also uses the same music and emotional rhythms as the ad for 12 Years a Slave. Here they both are, for comparison:
They’re both built in part on music from Hans Zimmer’s score to The Thin Red Line, a selection that gets used all the time in trailers. Part of this is just business: all three films were/are being distributed by 20th Century Fox, so it makes financial sense to look in-house for intellectual property. But it’s also a sign of how trends can take hold. The theme from Dragonheart is everywhere, and several other major movie scores are go-tos for trailers. The same music and styles are played again and again and again, and though trailer fads come and go (it’s not an accident that you can’t get away from the Inception horn), the result is always the same: we get an ad that feels totally familiar, completely predictable, and never too challenging. I asked an editor friend of mine who used to work in trailer production about how trailer trends start, and he said, “I’m still not exactly sure how it happens. Zeitgeist in the trailer world, maybe? It happens with the cutting styles, too. Quick fade ups and downs, the Inception BRAAAAAHHHMMMMM sound. Some cues are suggested by the studios, but the better part of half of my time as an assistant editor (and editor some days) was spent just listening to hundreds of tracks for that perfect cue. Some cues are just right every time.”
The visuals are just as regimented. According to my friend, “Initially it is a nice balance of give and take between the post house and the studio, but as release dates near, it becomes a very tightly monitored and guided ship, as the film’s campaign and style guides have been set and most editing and storytelling follows that ship. There is a real tipping point in a campaign, and you can feel it, when it goes from being creative to pushing buttons for the studio decision-makers because they’ve locked in on the film’s jokes, story points, and imagery they feel is working. Any deviation from that gets questioned. This is why, as a campaign gels, you’ll often see the same shots from spot to spot and trailer to trailer.”
All of which is unsurprising. These are ads, after all. Their job is to get you to see a movie, and the best way to do that is to remind you of movies you’ve already seen and hopefully liked, and the best way to do that is to make the new movie look feel just like the old one. Of course trailers look awesome and fun and exciting, and of course they have little if anything to do with the actual film. It’d be amazing if the ads didn’t blow the doors off. Who doesn’t remember feeling the rush of excitement when, after years of rumor and myth, we finally saw the powerfully scored trailer for Star Wars: Episode I? Who doesn’t remember the stunning disconnect between that excitement and the confusion and regret that came with actually seeing the film? Pretty much every trailer is going to look great, or at the very least do a good job of covering up the sins of the product at hand. The new X-Men ad isn’t good in the sense that it’s exciting or flashy or moving; it’s good precisely because of how formulaic it is, how easy to digest, how tested and pre-chewed and evenly distributed.
Yes, there are still some trailers that manage to break from the pack and express something like an original voice or capture some small fragment of what the actual film could be like. They’re artfully done ads, though still ads. The majority, though, are created to be the almost identical, and the result is that they start to blur together. There’s not much point in watching one when you’ve seen others. You don’t even have to look to know what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be exciting and ominous, interchangeable with other trailers, and not much at all like the movie. Trailers promise a set experience like the ones you’ve had many times over, and that might be the most insidious thing of all. I (obviously) haven’t seen the forthcoming X-Men film yet, but I can’t imagine a single way it would look or feel like 12 Years a Slave. Every film is its own thing, full of individual successes and failures, but looking at the trailers, you’d never know it. As far as the previews are concerned, there’s only one coming attraction, and it’s always the same.