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Are Trailers Spoiling Our Movie Experience?

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Mar 09, 2011 | 7:00am EST

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I had three very different experiences this week with watching movies after having seen (or in one case, not seen) their trailers to no end, the combination of which is now making me wonder if I should finally do what I’ve been threatening to do for a while and stop watching trailers entirely.

Source CodeWe’re only a few days away from the SXSW festival, which means the press screenings in town for the fest have started to roll in. The first one I decided to go to was Duncan JonesSource Code. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything (I’m not even allowed to until the embargo is lifted opening night) -- this is purely a discussion of trailers. When the Source Code trailer hit months ago, I couldn’t help but watch it immediately. We’re talking about the new sci-fi movie from the director of Moon, after all, so there’s no way I’m not going to sneak a peak at what he’s up to. I dug it, though the shortform plot synopsis did make it sound a little too much like Deja Vu. No big deal, though, it’s just one trailer months ahead of the film’s release...

But then around the time of the Super Bowl, new trailers and teasers and TV spots for Source Code began cropping up everywhere I looked, and it became impossible to avoid them. Fortunately, they all more or less showed the same footage from the movie, so it wasn’t a campaign of slowly dishing out spoilers, but by the time I sat down to watch the film proper, I couldn’t help but recall every image or every line of dialogue, keeping a watchful eye for the key scenes. I didn’t want to constantly think about the marketing while watching the movie, but thanks to Summit’s bulldozer of a sales campaign for Source Code, it was impossible not to.  While this hardly crippled my enjoyment, it was a passive distraction I’d rather not have while watching a movie for the first time.

Source Code was immediately followed by Insidious, a film whose trailer I had been intentionally avoiding (I wouldn’t even let myself see the teaser for it). All I knew is that it was a haunted-house flick from James Wan and that everyone I know who caught it at Toronto loved the hell out of it. That was good enough for me; I don’t need trailers giving away the film’s plot points or specific scares. I didn’t even want to see what the visual tone of it was, I was so paranoid of having the marketing buzz around in the back of my brain while watching. Afterward I came home and watched the trailer to see if it would have ruined the movie for me, and I was thrilled to discover that it’s cryptic enough and doesn’t tell the real plot or tip off too many of the film’s scares.

Battle: Los AngelesAnd that brings us to Battle: Los Angeles, the film that may finally push me toward abandoning watching trailers entirely. Last summer the first teaser “trailer” (it was really just a clip) hit the Internet, and it was brilliant. It was only 11 seconds long and all you could really tell was going on was that the U.S. military was firing off a ton of missiles at something. Of course, Sony didn’t continue to play its cards close to its chest, and over the next few months the Battle: Los Angeles ad campaign became bolder and bolder. But unlike the Source Code trailers, Sony did start dishing out more and more visual spoilers with each trailer. By the time the studio released the final trailer, it felt like a half dozen of the film’s biggest money shots had been prematurely blown. And I’m just tired of feeling like I’ve seen a movie before I see a movie.

But what kills it for me is that I actually love watching trailers. I’ve obsessed over them since childhood. Hell, I watched the trailer for Starship Troopers so many times when I was younger that I could tell it was going to be the next trailer on a VHS tape just from the delay between the Green Band and the footage fade-in. I remember downloading that trailer on school computers and watching it any chance I got, each time grabbing whoever was nearest to me and declaring that they need to “Watch this shit NOW.” It was a piece of marketing, sure, but in retrospect I can point to it and realize it sealed my fate as a film geek.

I was also a lot younger back then and wasn’t the well-versed film geek that I am today. Now when I watch a trailer, I can tell how much of the movie is being shown to me, and since -- much to the surprise of movie marketers -- I don’t have the memory of a goldfish, I’m going to be thinking of everything I’ve been shown while watching the movie. And that’s just starting to rob all of the fun out of seeing summer blockbusters.

Yet I keep telling myself I can’t give up watching trailers just because some studios spoil their entire movie months in advance. For every Skyline or Battle: Los Angeles marketer that puts the money shots in the trailer, there may just be one trailer that does get my blood pumping; that will once again make me feel like a giddy kid who can’t wait for school to end on a Friday so he can go see the latest movie. Those experiences are so rare these days, though, that I just no longer feel like the risk is worth it.

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