[NOTE: This post about movie trailer spoilers contains spoilers for movies spoiled by trailers]
The balance between marketing a film and keeping story surprises secret is a tricky one – especially in an industry that is struggling to woo customers into theaters and away from the comfort of HD TVs. Cutting a movie trailer is tricky – even for highly anticipated films – and even trickier for movies that actually need a strong marketing push. However, in recent years, studios have (arguably) started tipping the balance: forcing out too much information over the chance that they might hold too much back. It’s understandable, given the amount of money that has been shelled out to produce a film, but what ever happened to selling theatergoers on a movie experience instead of its most climactic moments and biggest reveals?
Previously, following a spoiler-filled trailer for The Lazarus Effect, we put together a list of the Best Movie Scenes & Twists Spoiled by Trailers but after the latest Terminator: Genisys trailer left many fans wishing Paramount Pictures had showed a bit more restraint, it’s time to address the question directly: Is too much information in trailers spoiling movies?
Have Studios Always Been Reckless with Spoilers in Movie Trailers?
Marketing a movie is tricky – and, no matter, how good a film might actually be, there’s still a lot of pressure on studio PR departments to get word out. Yet, there’s no question that film trailers have, on average, become more spoiler-heavy when compared to their predecessors. Back in the days of trailer voice guru Don LaFontaine, previews often spelled-out a film premise through voice over narration, with out-of-context shots of action, comedy, and drama peppered in, but stopped short of revealing the movie’s biggest twists and climatic CGI moments.
For readers who don’t remember a time before spoiler-filled trailers – where surprises and eye-popping visuals were outright used to market a film – here are two classic trailers (one known for its shocking twist, the other for its ground-breaking visual effects) that took a less heavy-handed approach:
Compare the trailers for The Sixth Sense and Jurassic Park to the latest trailer for Terminator: Genisys, which outright spoils one of the film’s biggest secrets (John Connor’s hybrid man-machine) or even last year’s Transformers: Age of Extinction (where the third act reveal of Optimus Prime riding robot dinosaur Grimlock was the movie’s primary marketing image).
It’s also worth nothing that, in general, the length of trailers has increased overtime (going from roughly 2 minutes to 2.5 or even 3 minutes) – which doesn’t even include the countless “extended previews” that have become a staple of studio marketing strategy. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a mix of extended trailers and spoilery clips spelled out nearly every single twist, turn, and plot beat ahead of time (including Harry Osborne’s late-in-the-game transformation and Spider-Man showdown as Green Goblin) – ultimately summarizing the upcoming film, instead of teasing it.
Viewers will debate the fine line between spoiler and core plot – but it’s easy to argue that, at the very least, movie studios have shifted from a more restrained preview approach.
Why Do Studios Put So Many Spoilers in Trailers?
Even if moviegoers (especially cinephiles) agree that trailers show too much, studios clearly have sound reasons to promote their products (yes products) this way. If spoilery previews weren’t making films (and their respective producers) more money than non-spoilery previews, there would be absolutely no reason for studios to take this “more is better” approach to trailers.
Since many moviegoers, and even theater chains, feel strongly that trailers show too much, where is the disconnect? The truth: many film die-hards that try to avoid spoilers will go see a film anyway whereas eye-popping visual effects/brainy twists help woo casual customers who might otherwise have skipped a theater trip entirely.
On any given day, we see many of our commenters respond to spoilery marketing by replying with: “I wish they hadn’t shown [insert spoiler] but I’m totally going to see this anyway.” If those who prefer fewer specifics in trailers will still go see a film, in spite its spoilery marketing, what reason would studios have for being more subtle? Putting it plainly: They’re getting to eat their cake and have it too.
As much as movie fans like to think that story and character drama are still key ingredients in attracting an audience, with higher production costs, heightened expectations for event theater viewing, and an overstuffed market of movie options to choose from, drawing casual attendees with eye-popping visuals (“Optimus Prime rides a robot dinosaur? Wow!”) and in-your-face twists (“John Connor has been turned into a Terminator? What?”) is the safer bet – even if it comes at the expense of more dedicated theatergoers.
Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that most trailers are cut by a distributor or studio – not the film’s director. Select moviemakers have full control (or influence) over previews and marketing but most do not. For that reason, even if a creator makes a modern movie classic, it’s still up to studio executives to determine how best to market that film – and get as many viewers into theater seats as possible.
“I’m really angry at the trailers. I’m a director, I guess, so I always get pissed at them! The movie looks fantastic and the trailers look so hammily off. The posters are okay, they’re still neutral, but we’re trying to get the film out there so people don’t judge it by the trailer.”
Watch the “hammily off” Mirror Mirror trailer below:
The lesson here? If you think trailers for a film spoil too much – the director of that film is likely to agree.
Does Too Much Information Actually Spoil a Movie?
In a subjective medium, it should come as little surprise that movie fans disagree on what studios should show in trailers – and where to draw the line in marketing memorable moments and plot twists (especially prior to release).
Did the studio show too much and/or spoil moviegoer experience when they:
- Included Hulk catching Iron Man in The Avengers trailer?
- Showcased a standout scene of Koba playing ape to play with guns in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer?
- Revealed that Will Atenton is Peter Ward in the Dream House trailer?
- Broadcast that Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta are clones in The Island trailer?
- Featured Hiccup’s (presumed dead) mother in the How to Train Your Dragon 2 trailer?
Some will argue that movie lovers are just being overly sensitive – and that avoiding or accepting spoilers is part of being a film fan (especially if that fan closely follows movie news sites). Still, while some spoilers might “come with the territory” of consuming pre-release film marketing, there’s no doubt that, for many cinephiles, studios are not striking an acceptable balance between building excitement and maintaining surprises.
Bringing the point full circle, Terminator: Genisys isn’t even the first time that Paramount Pictures has played fast and loose with spoilers in Terminator trailers – marketing their prior installment, Terminator: Salvation, on the back of a major second-act reveal: Marcus Wright is (unbeknownst to him) a Terminator.
Check out the trailer for Terminator: Salvation below:
Interestingly, while the Marcus Wright reveal got a greenlight from the studio, Paramount was more prudish when details of the film’s original ending were leaked online – resulting in a different ending (and fate for both John Connor as well as Wright in the final act). Apparently, it’s okay if a studio chooses to spoil viewers for the sake of attracting casual moviegoers but not okay when viewers reveal spoilers to fans who actively seek out spoilers. Either way, too much information can spoil a movie – or, even worse, force filmmakers to stray from their original (and ofter superior) story.
In case readers are unfamiliar with the alternate Terminator: Salvation ending, here’s what director McG told EW about Internet reaction to the leaks:
There was talk on the Internet about an alternate ending where Connor dies and they take Connor’s likeness and put it on top of Marcus Wright’s machine body. So that it’s actually a machine that’s leading the resistance! And the Internet caught wind of that and people went, “That’s bulls—! We don’t want that!”
McG added that the actual ending was even darker – and its easy to see why many at the studio became weary of how the summer blockbuster would ultimately sit with casual viewers:
Connor dies, okay? He’s dead. And Marcus offers his physical body, so Connor’s exterior is put on top of his machine body. It looks like Connor, but it’s really Marcus underneath. And all of the characters we care about (Kyle Reese, Connor’s wife Kate, etc.) are brought into the room to see him and they think it’s Connor. And Connor gets up and then there’s a small flicker of red in his eyes and he shoots Kate, he shoots Kyle, he shoots everybody in the room. Fade to black. End of movie. Skynet wins.
At the end of the day, the Terminator franchise (or any other film) does not belong to the fans – no matter how invested moviegoers may be.
Understandably, fans are passionate, with very specific ideas of what should/should not be shown in pre-release trailers but studios are not fans, they are businesses – run by business men and women. When they think spoilers are going to hurt potential box office returns, they clamp down, and when they think spoilers will help get butts in the seats, they open the floodgates. As long as spoilers in movie trailers add to the studio’s bottom line, there’s no reason for a large shift in marketing approach.
What Can You Do to Avoid Spoilers in Movie Trailers?
Until things changes (and don’t expect it to happen any time soon), what can moviegoers do to avoid pre-release spoilers? We’ve previously written about How to Avoid Movie and TV Spoilers (read: Stay Off the Internet) but, in the specific case of film trailers, the only true way to combat cavalier studio marketing is to become more selective about which movie trailers you watch – and who you follow on social media.
If you already know that you’re going to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, decide whether or not the risk of being spoiled is worth being part of pre-release water cooler conversation. Some fans enjoy spirited debate and speculation in the run-up to a film’s release but that insight comes at a cost to surprises a moviegoer might experience in a darkened theater with little knowledge of what to expect.
Given that things are unlikely to change, every movie fan has to ask the same question, “What is more important to me? Reveling in the hype and buzz leading up to a film release or experiencing an unspoiled time at the theater? Fans who truly dedicate themselves to remaining unspoiled will, without a doubt, be navigating a minefield of marketing but being actively aware of what they do (and do not) click on is the first step.
After all, even knowing that movie previews are often chock-full of spoilers these days, how many viewers actually stop to think about whether they’re prepared to be spoiled when they click to watch a new trailer online?
Next time, take a second to make a conscious decision about whether you are willing to be spoiled – because the studios have already made their decision: spoilers sell.