Disclaimer: this article includes spoilers and speculation from trailers for Game of Thrones Season 8, Star Wars: Episode IX, Frozen 2, Toy Story 4, and Avengers: Endgame.
Trailers have been a staple of the movie industry for decades. They are meant to pique your interest in upcoming releases in order to improve box office performance. Originally, they were hardly more than commercials, but over the years they have developed into an art unto themselves. Should they breeze over the key scenes of a film so that you know what you’re getting into? Should they be choppy and exciting, highlighting all the effects and action sequences in a film? Or should they be more laconic, saving spoilers for the theater itself?
Generally speaking, trailers have shown some of the key highlights of a film in order to entice viewers to come see the rest of the movie. However, recently they have become much more circumspect. Why is that?
2019: A Year for Closure
Last week, Star Wars News Net posted an article stating that the Star Wars: Episode IX trailer will be released in April, featured alongside Avengers: Endgame. The film title has not even been revealed yet, but we know when the trailer is going to be released.
Episode IX isn’t the only final installment coming out this year that is so close-lipped. With Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe all releasing their “final” installments (excluding spinoffs), we still have very little information about any of them. Star Wars (release date: December 19, 2019) has a little more time to tease audiences, but Avengers and Game of Thrones are both arriving in April.
The Game of Thrones Season 8 teaser doesn’t have a single piece of new dialogue, instead reusing lines from previous seasons. It seems like they actually filmed an additional scene for the purpose of a trailer rather than risk releasing spoilers. The only new footage released is five seconds long from a general HBO promo also focused on True Detective, Watchmen, Euphoria, and other shows.
Take another recent example: Toy Story 4. The first two trailers for the Pixar sequel contain footage that doesn’t look like it’s even from the film. The second took a cue from Deadpool and instead has toys breaking the fourth wall to talk about the Toy Story 4 trailer. The only one that looks like it has footage from the actual film is the brief Super Bowl spot. That one shows a single scene with Buzz Lightyear (and a related cutaway to Woody and Bo Peep) in a single setting from the movie. Most of the characters are not shown in the trailer at all, and it gives no indication of the film plot save for maybe part of it taking place at a fair. Where is Andy? Or Bonnie? When did Bo Peep start wearing pants (the Delores vibe is real)? If you want to find out, you’ll have to cough up $20 and see it in theaters.
In the Avengers: Endgame trailer, Tony Stark’s first monologue to Pepper takes up half of the trailer. Thanos is hardly even seen. Marvel has been getting trickier about selective editing in the trailers, such as when they shopped Thor’s eye back into scenes in the Ragnarok trailer to maintain the surprise of that part of his battle with Hela. There has been speculation for Endgame that the images Bruce Banner is looking at of who got snapped away (i.e. Shuri) could have been altered for the trailer. Perhaps the most spoilery part of the entire trailer is not even film footage, but the Avengers logo reassembling itself at the end.
The original Frozen trailer from 2013 was a much more traditional Disney spot with upbeat, fairy-tale music and voice-over narration introducing the main characters and conflict and TONS. OF. OLAF. JOKES.
The recently-released Frozen 2 trailer is decidedly different. It has an intense score overlaying darker visuals, and next to no dialogue (Elsa whispers the word “okay”). There is no indication who the villain of the film will be or even where the characters are at the beginning of the movie. What has happened since Frozen 1? How much time has passed? To be fair, this trailer doesn’t need to sell people on the movie the same way that the first installment did. In 2013, Frozen was an unknown commodity but became such a super hit that Disney could probably drop it unexpectedly and without any marketing and still sell out theaters worldwide.
These trailers are very different than they used to be. Not only do they reveal much less of the plot, they also focus less on dialogue and big showy action scenes. Why is that?
The Danger of Spoilers
The evolution of technology has changed trailers. Now we don’t have to wait to see them in the theater, as they are first posted on YouTube. The ability to review them in great detail, on your own time, has also necessitated changes in their content. First of all, they just need to be better. When you only saw trailers in the theater, it was a quick flash and either made an impression or didn’t. Now that they can be reviewed and critiqued ad nauseam, fans have much higher expectations for what can be in a trailer.
Take for example the 2003 trailer for the final Lord of the Rings film Return of the King. To quote the trailer itself, “The board is set.” Not only are the character arcs quite clearly laid out, but it is laden with spoilers! Eomer is shown holding Eowyn’s “body,” and Aragorn’s final inspiring speech from in front of the gates of Mordor overlays the end of the trailer.
These days, you can’t get away with showing key spoilers in trailers because there is a zero-percent chance that the fans will miss it. Let’s revisit the Avengers: Endgame trailer for a moment. Time magazine’s analysis includes links to leaked set photos and a second-by-second breakdown of footage including screencaps. The original article was published in December, but it continues to be updated as new information is released. Actors have to be much more careful now in interviews because fans will pick up on the smallest hints.
Compare the 2012 Avengers Super Bowl spot versus the 2019 Avengers: Endgame Super Bowl spot. The first has tons of footage of antagonists and the final battle of New York and includes the famous first Avengers group shot. The 2019 spot focuses on character moments: Captain America grieving, Bruce Banner reeling over who has been lost, followed by a quick, unclear shot of the group gearing up to do… something?
This trailer breakdown analysis is not unusual anymore. The more intense the fandom, the more detail they seem to try and wring out of every single second of footage that they are given. If any spoiler is hinted at, the masses will pick it up, analyze it to death, and be sure to tell everyone they know about it.
Do We Even Need Trailers for Established Franchises?
Many of the trailers listed here have absolutely rabid fanbases. Many have suggested that Game of Thrones doesn’t even need to release a trailer for this season because of their established fanbase. If you aren’t aboard the hype train by this point, is a trailer going to change that? Or should studios value secrecy above marketing, especially in sequels?
Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules. Despite being an immediate precursor to Avengers: Endgame, the first Captain Marvel trailer is a classic superhero origin trailer: tease a mysterious past, offer a glimpse of their badass powers, and introduce a heretofore unknown villain. But overall there seems to be a trend towards more laconic and secretive trailers in the film industry, at least for those franchises that are already well-established.