Watching the Life of Pi trailer, I was amazed. The glorious, sweeping shots of the ocean, bright, clashing colours, and top-of-the-range CGI washed over me, and they’d even managed to make a Coldplay song slightly less annoying. It was a great trailer, both punchy and sheer visual spectacle. However, my first thought was, “they’ve peaked too early.”
I enjoyed the film, but my apprehension wasn’t entirely baseless. The trailer was a beautifully made little nugget of cinema, and the fact is, a 127-minute film just can’t quite pack the same punch. I’ve been burned before on this; I was obsessed with the Watchmen trailer when it came out, and the excitement that came from it wasn’t exactly matched by the flawed film. In both artistry and content, trailers increasingly seem to ‘ruin’ their films.
Trailers are big business. They even have release dates, generating anticipation for the ‘first look’ at a film that fans have been rabidly awaiting. Often, there’s not just a trailer for a film: there’s a ‘teaser’ trailer first, and perhaps even a ‘teaser’ for the teaser trailer; 10 seconds of a 90-second trailer for a two-and-a-half-hour film. The style has evolved too; we’ve seen the scrapping of expositional voiceover for moody lighting, stark captions, thudding beats and a soaring soundtrack.
Trailers are now works in their own right; the art of editing taken to its extreme. If a trailer does not fit in with these higher standards, it can be jarring; Quartet debuted with a trailer that harked back to the old days, complete with voiceover and horrible colour palette (too much purple) that made it look like a Year 9 media project. I’m not a slave to the aestheticism of trailers, but I was repulsed, and consequently less likely to see the film. Arguably, it was far more straightforward than the modern style, and more informative, but if I wanted that I’d boot up IMDB.
I suppose I’m not the intended audience for Quartet. Increasingly, trailers seem geared towards people who already know what they’re getting: big franchises and tentpole releases barely have to include half a sentence of explanation to make an impact. More original films can struggle to attract audience members, and as such use their trailers tactically. Famously, many walked out of Sweeney Todd and demanded refunds upon discovering that it was a musical, a fact played down by the trailers. This move is often employed by foreign films, which feature a lot of spectacle without showing too explicitly that people aren’t speaking that language we do. But honesty can go too far. Recently, a trailer for Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods raised ire for giving too much away. Clearly, mindful of the entitled nature of movie-goers, the filmmakers didn’t want to be accused of ‘deceiving’ anyone.
It’s a difficult tightrope to walk: give too much in the trailer, and you risk upstaging the film you’ve spent years creating. Too little, and nobody will want to see it. As studios seek more ‘builtin’ audiences, and with the rise of video-sharing websites like YouTube, trailers have become both more accessible and less meaningful. They’re less of a teaser, and more like a Sparknotes of the whole movie. I’m not sure whether it’s a terrible indictment of the lack of mystery in cinema, or just progress.