Movie trailers have been dealing with some creative problems of their own in recent years, which might be saying something considering how many full movies have the same issues. While trailers have received complaints from being too overbearing in content and sound to being too long, the most glaring seems to be in giving away too many plot points. It’s a problem that seems to have found no solution since we keep hearing about how people feel like they’ve already seen a movie after watching a trailer. And it’s true some movies use the best scenes in a trailer, hence giving away elements of the story that should be kept quiet.
Entertainment Weekly conducted a poll on this problem last year and found that 32% of those asked said trailers give away too much information before the movie even releases. However, almost half thought otherwise. In that regard, it’s not necessarily a 50-50 split, even if a third of the movie-going public is a significant enough number to make a difference in box office.
It’s a problem that might be significant enough where major studios will want to start paying closer attention in the editing room. Can a trailer be done so it doesn’t give away spoilers in a time when perceptive audiences can scope out a by-the-numbers plot? This may have to start with the screenplay itself and then creating pivotal scenes that give you everything except what’s going to happen.
Working on Less Conventional Screenplay Structure
Screenplays may have to start being written in a way that avoids using standard plot templates we’ve all assimilated many times over. But because many of them are still written that way, it explains why trailers are revealing so much. While it’s challenging to mix up scenes in a trailer, many of them show a succession of scenes in chronological order so certain twists and turns are easily revealed. It only takes one shot without any dialogue for a viewer to scope out what happens to certain characters if they’re already familiar with the basic premise.
Regardless, even unconventional screenplay structure can give too much away. Should you throw people completely off the trail, or should there be a complete avoidance of using footage directly from the film?
The “Citizen Kane” Template
If you’ve ever seen the original trailer for “Citizen Kane” from 73 years ago, it’s still a master class in how to capture interest in a movie without giving away any pivotal moments. In fact, Orson Welles’ trailer for “Kane” gave the impression it was going to be a comedy rather than a sobering and haunting drama. It was one of the greatest movie deceits until Welles did his “F for Fake” project 30 years later.
While the “Kane” trailer was considerably longer than what’s allowed today, it actually was a mini movie on its own rather than screen clips from the completed footage. Would a similar structure work in trailers today?
Filming New Footage Just for the Trailer
Welles filmed an elaborate voiceover for “Kane” that essentially introduced each member of the cast. Even the few shots from the movie used in the trailer appeared to be outtakes designed for the trailer rather than the final film cut. This is an idea that might solve the spoiler problem for today’s audiences, despite studios perhaps balking at shooting wraparound footage for a trailer.
Then again, why shouldn’t they when it could easily be shot during the film’s production cycle? With only a few minutes of footage, having a character or a narration from the director would bring back a form of movie promotion that happened more than once beyond “Kane.”
One of the most creative is having a character from the movie narrate the trailer and filming special footage just for the trailer. This helps establish the story, gets the characters into people’s minds, and doesn’t use a single scene from existing footage to give away dramatic twists. You’ll have to be careful, though, and not make it look like a comedy when it’s clearly a drama. If Orson Welles managed to get away with it in 1941, an annoyance today is creating a trailer that makes a movie look like something it isn’t.
The only way to completely remove any possibility of guessing plot points is to have the director narrate the trailer and give a mini “making of” structure. It’s been done before and can bring the equivalent of seeing a book on a table rather than opening it up and reading every word.