April 24, 2014

The Pixar Perspective on The Necessity of Trailers

Great movie trailers are something of a lost art. While we are overloaded with ads for every new big-budget movie these days, they’re getting more obnoxious, cacophonous, and ruinous. Depending on the movie, you can go onto its website or YouTube and see a handful of TV spots—most of which repurpose the same shots, action, and dialogue, but tweak them ever so slightly to stand out—as well as teaser trailers and full trailers that often lay out a movie’s entire plot. If they don’t, they’re almost certainly going to show you some of the most impressive bits of action or the funniest jokes. It feels as if we’ve been clucking our tongues at trailers that spoil the films they sell since the advent of the Internet. So why, exactly, should we watch trailers for movies we know we’re going to see?

The Pixar Perspective

Monsters University - Mike Arrives HD

Specific to the world of Pixar, the latter question arises in the wake of a new international trailer for Monsters University that, as some Pixar employees quickly rushed to say on Twitter, spoils the entire movie. You can watch the trailer on The Pixar Times, if you like. Or you could follow the example of this writer and not watch the trailer at all. (But by all means, read what Samad wrote in that article.) Why would you watch the international trailer for Monsters University? Let’s pretend you’re a fan of the majority of Pixar’s output, but you’re not sold on the idea of this college-set prequel to Monsters,Inc.. Maybe you’re wary because of Cars 2 and Brave, and you’re not sure you want to blindly go into a new Pixar film without knowing what’s coming first. But even in that case, why learn more than appropriate about the movie with a trailer that lays out so much of the entire story? If you’re on the fence, wouldn’t a domestic trailer do the trick? And if it doesn’t, why not just wait until the movie opens to read reviews from critics and commenters or, even, read the plot description on Wikipedia?



But more to the point, why does anyone watch an advertisement for a movie they know they’re going to see? If you—and considering the site you’re visiting, this is fairly likely—are already excited to see Monsters University, whether or not you’re planning on buying midnight-show tickets, why watch the trailer? Do you really need to be convinced of a return to Monstropolis? Of course, this question can extend itself outside of Pixar, to the many other big-budget blockbusters peppered throughout a calendar year. Look, a new trailer for Iron Man 3 just came online! And hey, a poster and new TV spot for Star Trek Into Darkness! Though the majority of the Western world may not build themselves into a fervor over such frivolity, the large swath of people online who get heated about these ads also know exactly when and where they’ll be seeing such films, all the way down to which row and seat they’ll plant themselves in.

BRAVE

There is a fascinating hypocrisy at play in our spoiler-obsessed film culture, and it’s manifested itself around Pixar films over the last couple of years. A phrase now uttered as frequently online as you might say “Good morning” to someone in real life is “Spoiler alert.” By now, we usually say it ironically, but every once in a while, someone acts as if an article mentioning the twist in a movie that’s 5, 10, or 50 years old constitutes a ruined potential moviegoing experience. Spoilers are the worst, or so it would seem. But we also are so impatient that, depending on the piece of culture, we want to be spoiled. Going to Wikipedia or IMDb to read a detailed plot summary is one thing, because in that case, you’re actively choosing to spoil yourself. But when we watch trailers, they either spoil us more than we’d wish—wouldn’t it have been nice to experience that joke or explosion first in the context of the full movie?—or don’t spoil us enough.

Yes, you read that correct. Sometimes, apparently, we want to know everything about what’s happening in a movie upfront. Take, for example, Brave, a film that hinges on a literal character shift roughly 40 minutes in. (In case you haven’t seen it yet, and managed to avoid any discussion of said shift, this article won’t spoil it directly.) This twist isn’t in the trailers explicitly, though if you knew enough about Brave’s lengthy production history, including its original title, you could piece together the surprise from that knowledge and a couple of shots in the trailer. But it wasn’t laid out specifically, which appeared to bother people. A good example, in this article by Mike Ryan of The Huffington Post, is that people couldn’t definitively say what Brave was about from the trailer. Said Ryan, “What we’ve seen in the trailers, for whatever reason, does not quite reflect what the movie is about.” Yes, Heaven forbid we not know exactly what happens in Brave, or any movie, before seeing it. Arguing that the trailers promised a better movie, or that the movie itself wasn’t up to snuff is fine. But to act frustrated that the trailers for any movie don’t give away major plot points is head-scratching. Do we want to be spoiled before a movie comes out or do we not want to be spoiled?

Monsters University - Campus

More to the point, Pixar still garners a high enough opinion among worldwide audiences that people probably know the instant they hear of a new film from the studio if they’ll see it. To those on the fence, how much do you need to know from official marketing to buy a ticket? The last thing we need is to encourage the film industry that their promotional materials aren’t spoilery enough—if you crave all the knowledge, being patient enough to see the film on its second weekend after devouring everything possible once the film opens might be better. A trailer will never satisfy you so thoroughly. But if you know you’ll see a movie like Monsters University soon after it opens, why would you want to watch a supposedly spoiler-heavy trailer three months beforehand? You don’t need to be convinced to buy a ticket; you may not even need to be convinced to buy the subsequent Blu-ray or DVD release. Unless we’re talking about a trailer that deliberately goes out of its way to not spoil specific plot points—very rare these days, especially among mainstream films—why do you need to watch a trailer?

Make no mistake, the word “need” is appropriate. Excluding anyone who sees movies every week, most people see a handful of big mainstream films a year. If you see The Croods, you might be subjected to a Monsters University trailer, but not the international trailer. You may be spoiled on some jokes, but not so much that you’ll essentially know the film’s story beats months before it opens. (A separate discussion: why do international trailers spoil so much of these movies? The trailer for Brave was similarly spoiler-heavy, and to what point and purpose?) If, however, you watch the international trailer for Monsters University, which may well ruin the whole film, you sought it out. You clicked the Play button. So, the question is simple: why? Our fast-paced culture has turned us all into Veruca Salt: we want it now. Who wants to wait until June 21? Let’s find out where we’ll find Mike Wazowski at the beginning of Monsters University, and what his exact journey at school will be, and do it right now!

Brad Bird

It’s legitimately fascinating to see how that immediacy which has pervaded the Internet spawns a disdain for filmmakers who want to keep secrets. JJ Abrams, now firmly a part of the Walt Disney company as the director of at least one new Star Wars movie, is well-known for choosing deliberate vagueness over direct reveals in his marketing campaigns, something he’s passed on to collaborators like Damon Lindelof, who’s co-writing another Disney tentpole film, Tomorrowland, directed by Pixar stalwart Brad Bird. And people can’t stand it. Maybe it’s latent frustration over how Lost ended (or maybe you don’t like its beginning or middle), but people get so furious online to think that Abrams hasn’t, for example, told us who the bad guy is in Star Trek Into Darkness. Is he Khan or isn’t he? We must know! Now! It’s our right! It’s our right to know everything possible about movies like Star Trek Into Darkness and Brave before they open!

Except, of course, it’s not our right. Just as Pixar’s filmmakers take risks in the stories they tell and the characters they introduce to us, we take a risk every time we sit down to watch a movie for the first time. If we want the filmmakers and studios we admire to take risks, it’s on us to do the same. We risk our time and money with any new movie, precisely because we don’t know what we’re getting into. Even the most spoiler-heavy trailer can’t give us a perfect idea of the film being advertised within. One funny (or unfunny) joke in a trailer doesn’t tell us precisely what kind of humor will be on display. A single jaw-dropping action-heavy money shot isn’t concrete proof that the rest of the movie won’t have similarly, or more, impressive feats of pyrotechnics. Honestly, to the people who demand as much knowledge as possible about any movie, a trailer isn’t marketing. Most of us know which movies we want to see as soon as we hear of their existence. The trailer is simply meant to bolster our opinion, even as it also serves to automatically disappoint us. Until we can see the finished product, any tease will let us down because we didn’t really want a tease. We wanted our impatience sated by knowing everything quickly, and knowing it before everyone else.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

If you click on the Pixar Times story about the Monsters University international trailer, and begin to nudge your mouse to the video itself, pause and ask yourself why. What do you get out of watching that trailer that you wouldn’t get from a domestic trailer? Why do you need to know plot details so extensive, so early? There’s no all-encompassing answer. Maybe you like watching trailers, spoilery or not. If you know the risks, go for it. But if you can’t handle being impatient, if you’re so desperate to get a few more pieces of a puzzle that will remain incomplete for months, you may need to reevaluate your strategy. Whatever anticipation you may place on a film will become more palpable and overwhelming if you avoid its trailers. The less you know, the more surprised you’ll be in the theater. We are so rarely taken by surprise these days by movies, because we allow ourselves to be spoiled partially months in advance. For Monsters University and countless other movies, those which do not (presumably) hinge on a third-act surprise, knowing as little as possible will only allow your theatrical experience to be that much richer. Avoid the trailers. You won’t be sorry.

About Josh Spiegel

Josh isn't just a Disney buff, a film buff, or a TV buff. He's a pop-culture obsessive, through and through. His long journey began in Western New York and has taken him to the American Southwest, where he resides with his wife and six--count 'em, six--cats. Among his favorite overall films are Singin' In The Rain, There Will Be Blood, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Royal Tenenbaums. His favorite Disney movie (non-Pixar) is Beauty and the Beast, but his favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and he thinks the latter is at least five times better than the former. Read more of Josh's work at Sound on Sight.

  • JayEllCee12

    To be honest with you, I barely watch new trailers anymore; the only time I really see trailers is when I go to the cinema (which is unfortunately far less than I should/want to go). I’m not really sure why I don’t watch trailers anymore; maybe it’s because the majority of trailers today make the movie look terrible – especially trailers for animated films.
    I think it’s teaser trailers I enjoy more than actual trailers, because they are just that: teasing the movie, not giving away too much. I like to think of the teasers for most of Pixar’s earlier films – Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 – when I think of effective teaser trailers. When I saw the teaser for Brave, I had no idea what it was going to be about….however, living in the UK following many US film critics has horrible disadvantages on the subject of spoilers. I try my very best to avoid spoilers, but I was unfortunately spoiled for the story of Brave, and other films.
    The only thing I’ve seen of Monsters University was that first teaser trailer, where Sulley wakes Mike up, and Mike’s hung up like a disco ball at the end. Even without knowing before-hand the basic premise, you still get the basic premise in the teaser. I don’t think I’ll see anything else of it until I see the movie, which I will most likely see (I’m not really bothered about this one, but it’s Pixar).
    Oh, and I agree with you on the people who need to know everything before they see the movie. I unfortunately was one of those people once…recently…last year when I watched every single clip, trailer and featurette of Frankenweenie, but I think that was out of over-excitement, having waited for that film for 4 years. But in general, I still agree: what are you going to get out of knowing everything about it before seeing it?

  • Randy Grossert

    I watch trailers quite often since I consider them to be a part of the whole moviegoing “experience”. And yes, sometimes I am a bit surprised to see how much of the plot the trailer is giving up.
    However, the whole controversy over MU international trailer is blown out of proportion. I have seen the trailer and, frankly, I don’t think it spoils the plot – or at least it doesn’t spoil the plot I care about. I still don’t know how Mike and Sulley’s friendship evolved and Randall still seems rather cute than homicidal. I mean, we all know that they somehow end up working at Monsters, Inc., right?
    Finally, if I were a filmmaker, I would cut trailers in such a way that each trailer would suggest a different plot. Then I would indulge in reading all the “cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria” comments on the web. Search Youtube for “the shining recut” to get a sense of what I mean.