Trailer comparison: Hidden Figures and Fences.

I saw Hidden Figures back in early January at a preview screening at Odeon. Since then I’ve been bombarded by trailer after trailer for the film.

This wouldn’t be a problem if it were a teaser we were talking about, but no. The final Hidden Figures trailer is the most tragic case of spoiling an entire film since we saw the same thing happen to Room around this time last year. These aren’t isolated cases, either. Trailers for Batman vs Superman and Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic were the other major culprits from last year, and I could list more if I wanted to spend time thinking about it. The unfortunate mentality of sheer desperation – of studios and editors thinking the only way to get audiences to pay for a film is by showing everything to them beforehand – is currently one of my biggest problems with the film industry.

Honestly, this is a case of a film blowing its entire load prematurely – and yes, the analogy to an overeager, desperate man unable to contain his excitement for the payoff is entirely appropriate. Within the Hidden Figures trailer – having seen the film and liked it very much, I can tell you for certain – we see brief clips from every major scene in the movie, beginning to end; we hear literally every relevant piece of dialogue, swiftly cut together at speed so as to fit it all in; and the overarching theme of the film is thrust upon you with virtually no sense of subtlety.

I’m going to put the trailer below to help illustrate my point. However, I will say this: if you have not yet seen this trailer and plan to see the film anyway (it is actually worth your time, hence my frustration), don’t watch it. Don’t ruin it for yourself. I know if I had seen this trailer beforehand, I likely would not have enjoyed Hidden Figures as much as I did. But then, I like to be surprised when I watch a film; perhaps you see a cinema trip as more of a risk and like to know absolutely every detail you’re going to see, in which case go ahead and watch this trailer. We’ll just continue to not understand each other.

There is a clear stopping point for me in that trailer – or rather, a point at which it becomes obvious they’re giving away too much. It is the line “I don’t know if I can keep up in that room”, as the general tone shifts to not-so-subtly make it clear that ‘hey, this is a film with a serious message you know’. Tonal shifts like this should be the film’s domain, not its trailer. But again, the trailer is too focused on squeezing every possible detail into two minutes, to let you know you might like this movie, if you liked its incredibly condensed version. It’s not too difficult to decipher, as well, that there is likely an agenda at play with the trailer for this film, if not the film itself. However, I’m going to save this part of my analysis for another article on each of the nine Best Picture nominees.

In contrast, the first trailer for Fences, another Best Picture nominee this year, is a much better example of a well executed trailer than the fast, desperate cutting of the Hidden Figures equivalent. If you watched the one above, now check out this trailer, and observe the clear difference between the two. Note there has since been a second trailer, similar to this but with only a few extra details added, though I haven’t seen that version shown in UK cinemas.

We’re left in no doubt from the Fences trailer that it also tackles some interesting themes and social issues; but it communicates this in much less words than the Hidden Figures equivalent, and does it without spoiling many of the film’s major scenes. In fact, this trailer communicates its message through clips from (seemingly) two major scenes, showing only brief glimpses of a few others while leaving the rest to the imagination, in effect building anticipation for the overall film. I think Hidden Figures could have achieved this too, though perhaps not to the same effect (there aren’t many actors with the screen presence of Denzel Washington, after all).

Bear in mind my comments here are not directly related to the quality of each film; rather, I’ve focused entirely on critiquing their trailers, though to do so is important as the quality of a trailer does correlate with how many people are going to see the film in question. I will be giving my thoughts on the films themselves when I give my breakdown on each of the nine contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in a separate post, to come soon.


Why (some) trailers suck.

If there’s one thing I haven’t liked in the lead-up to the new Star Wars movie, it’s the furore that surrounds every new little piece of footage or plot detail divulged before anyone’s had a chance to actually see the film.

A lot of us would agree that spoilers are annoying. What’s curious though is the contradictory way that many people react to trailers. In the case of The Force Awakens it’s not the trailer itself that bothers me – marketing has actually been handled quite slickly for the new movie, with little offered to spoil the overall experience – but rather it’s this culture of ‘needing to know’ as much as possible before going in. It perpetuates the ‘geeking out’ notion in the immediate aftermath of release, meaning a lot of people will end up having the experience spoiled for them by others – and they accept it willingly. The rest of us have to do our best to avoid that for as long as we want to enjoy it for ourselves, to form our own thoughts and reactions rather than having them forced onto us via preconceived conceptions.

But what’s the difference between this, and reading or watching a review before seeing a film? Oh yes, I have heard that response before. These two things are not the same, providing the review is doing what a review should be doing, but the ethics of that I will get into in another post. Suffice to say, a review in basic terms is meant to inform you on whether or not you might enjoy a product; essentially whether it’s worth spending your time and money on.

The marketing department is not so much interested in that kind of thing. It wants your money by any means necessary, and is going to make itself appear as attractive as possible, to start as many hashtags as possible and make it seem as cool as possible, in order to work its way into your wallet.

A trailer’s job is to sell you the film; I understand that as well as anyone. The kind of criticism I have for trailers is often greeted with flimsy explanations along the lines of “this is just the way things work”. Yes indeed, that’s exactly right. I don’t disagree.

People want to know what they’re getting and don’t have the time – or more accurately, the inclination – to actually put thought into it for themselves. They’d rather be spoon-fed the information. To search out a decent review or even look at a synopsis takes effort. A lot of people simply can’t be bothered doing any research on new films or video games, and the only information they receive for new releases is that presented to them in an attractive, cleverly edited fashion.

The reason we’ve got to the point where trailers need to show you an entire ‘movie in a nutshell’ in order to get your ass in the seat is because we’ve given studios the impression that we’re fine with it. There’s an undercurrent of indifference; of “let’s just have casual fun” because none of this actually matters in the grand scheme of things. With so many important issues seemingly competing for our attention in today’s society, we need to know everything about the film now. This is the way the industry works because of our flippant attitude towards it; they didn’t just come up with the idea on a whim one day.

Consumers often make ill-informed decisions based purely on marketing, mistaking that marketing for critique that tells you whether or not something is worth paying for. A trailer wants to make you think this thing is worth paying for, whether it actually is or not. And protesting ‘that film was terrible’ isn’t a valid excuse for a refund afterwards, so once they’ve got you in, it’s job done.

Furthermore, perpetuating this problem is the fact that people don’t seem to care. As long as they’ve had a good time with friends, mission successful. The cinema is not for the movies, but for sitting next to someone who makes you feel like your life has meaning. You’re important because you have people to hang out with. Supporting bad movies is fine in that case; that part doesn’t really matter after all, does it?

No I suppose not… if you’re not interested in enjoying good movies, or in experiencing one for yourself rather than relying on others to validate your thoughts and opinions.

So far, so very cynical, you might be thinking. What sparked off this little rant? Well two things actually, on rather different ends of the cinematic spectrum.

Here’s one case. While in London back in October I caught a screening of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which was showing as part of London Film Festival. It’s an excellent film that intrigued me because I had bothered to put a little research into what was on around that time. The synopsis sold it to me – it sounded interesting. A powerful, emotional movie, it turned out to be one of the top five films I’ve seen in 2015 and looks set to be a major player in awards season early next year.

In the past few days I unwillingly saw the trailer for Room, and it made want to punch the screen in frustration. Why? Because had I seen that trailer before watching the film, there would, frankly, have been little reason to see the film at all. The trailer was the film. It had the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a 2 minute 30 second package. It made me feel almost sorry for those unfortunate enough to see this trailer before experiencing the film for themselves.

On the other hand we have the trailer for a film many more people will be going to see, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This one is interesting not only because the most recent trailer for the film, released last week, spoils the first, second and third act, but also because there was no real need for it to do so. This movie finds itself in a similar situation to Star Wars in that it already has an established fan base and audience that will be going to watch it – in a sense, those people don’t need to be convinced. Even those who expected the film to disappoint would still go to see it out of curiosity.

Yet the second half of the trailer gleefully shows you everything, from surprise appearances to a previously unseen enemy to the (perhaps rather obvious) reveal that Batman and Superman will end up working together to defeat a greater enemy. Now, fair enough, they may still be holding certain things back and it’s always possible that this trailer represents some kind of red herring. But this is a major Hollywood studio we’re talking about. Their pocket books don’t deal in subtlety.

This side of the film industry is firmly in the hands of studio executives who don’t truly care about the experience of film in a movie theatre; that much has never been more obvious. They’re interested in one thing: your money. They let others deal with the creative, artistic side of the business. I don’t hold that against them. I do hold it against the people who continually support this cycle; who need a trailer like the one for Room to even consider going to see such a gem, or who geek out at the various reveals in the Batman v Superman trailer to the extent where they’ll leave little to be desired from the film itself when it’s released next year.

I look forward to watching The Force Awakens and giving it as fair an assessment as possible. I hope others can do the same and call it how it is. Please stop giving movie studios the impression that they’re the ones in control around here.