You are six years old. The floor is sticky. You are in a vast, badly upholstered womb. Suddenly, pin-pricks of white light appear before your eyes and a gravelly American baritone teases the possibility that “Somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now….” Two minutes later you have lost your tiny little mind to a galaxy far, far away. You have also, though you probably didn’t fully appreciate it through the haze of cigarette smoke and your peaking Kia-Ora high, just been present for the birth of the teaser trailer in its modern form.
The Star Wars franchise changed the face of cinema in many ways. Its sequels, toys and merchandising altered the way movies were constructed. True, The Godfather had spawned a sequel in 1974 (and Jaws 2 would appear in cinemas long before the sequel to Star Wars), but if there were any tie-in Michael Corleone Pez dispensers or poseable Luca Brasi figures, they have been lost to the sands of time. Star Wars also boasted a wealth of jaw-dropping special effects. But special effects take time. So much time that the release for Star Wars was pushed back six months and a trailer was slapped together from whatever scraps the editors had on the cutting room floor. Though in retrospect a little ragged, the resultant teaser trailer was electric, creating a tantalising alternate universe from long stretches of star-studded space dotted with mundane close-ups, tame, unedited stunts and shots of people running along shiny corridors.
These days many movie teasers and trailers – for one reason or another – either feature little or no footage from the films they advertise. Some are portentous, obfuscating things that lurk in shadow before revealing a few brief, largely uninformative character shots and finally settling on a familiar superhero insignia. Others are near-wordless mood pieces like the recent teasers for The Revenant and High-Rise that pander to our achingly good taste and cinematic nous by hinting less at raw, plain narrative and more toward a stylized, textured world that we are being invited to step by dint of our aesthetic refinement. Some are mere placeholders, such as the recent proto-teaser for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – grandly billed by Warner Bros as an ‘Announcement Trailer Tease’ – which is no more than a fifteen second glimpse at a mock-up of the film’s logo. Anything goes these days, but while movie marketing has become more sophisticated and pervasive in the internet age, playing around with the form and content of teasers and trailers goes back a long way.
While the Fantastic Beasts squib can rely on the warm familiarity of a tagline that assures us that we will soon be re-entering “JK Rowling’s Wizarding World,” so Orson Welles could build on the brand recognition of his famous Mercury Theatre repertory company in the tease for 1941’s Citizen Kane. Joseph Cotten smiles affably and the leading ladies all radiate loveliness as Welles tells us a little about his cast and Kane himself – “a swell guy, a great American citizen… and a dirty dog!”. The gang’s all here, the trailer says – why aren’t you? Hitchcock chose to show off the sets rather than the stars when he took us on a wry stroll around the Bates Motel in his lengthy pitch for Psycho. Stanley Kubrick also knew a thing or two about harnessing the power of the promo, delivering unforgettable conceptual trailers for 2001: A Space Odyssey (‘Space is classy!’) and The Shining (‘Hotels are scary!’) in 1968 and 1980 respectively.
The movie-brat years of Hollywood’s golden seventies that separated these films might have been expected to inject some spunk and vigour into the medium. But while studio heads were happy to bend to youth and bankroll the films of Scorsese, Coppola and co, their marketing people had more entrenched ideas. The trailer for Taxi Driver is route one, old school stuff, with the narrator even listing De Niro’s notices for Mean Streets and The Godfather Part II. The 50s doughboy throwback promo for Rocky goes one further, promising us that star Sylvester Stallone has been “described as tough, handsome, talented, sexy…” (He’s also allegedly been compared to Jack Nicholson, but we are not informed as to whether said comparisons were favourable.) And while the aforementioned Star Wars trailer was more influential than it was artistically ground-breaking, it still had more going on than the gruelling, stilted, effects-free five-minute promo for Spielberg’s Close Encounters, which bafflingly pads itself out with stills of the producers and even its UFO technical advisor. Soon, however, the formula would be locked down tight.
The ‘80s was not a decade much given to subtlety. Cookie-cutter trailers and Voice of God “In a world…” voiceovers held sway here. But practical effects – explosions, car chases, animatronics – and exotic locations were still cinematic currency, meaning there was always plenty of raw material available for editors to cut together trailers that not only spoon-fed us the narrative but also served up a wealth of eye-candy. It was a cosy state of affairs and nobody was complaining, but in 1993 two films were released that would force the issue.
Bonkers Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero doesn’t get much of a look-in in articles like these, but its cartoony film-within-a-film self-reflexivity, knowing cineaste references and gleeful lampooning of the kind of movie trailers on which Arnie had built his career meant that a certain type of game was over. The film bombed but the point stood: in a world where Hollywood is inviting the great unwashed to mock the generic and recycled nature of its own marketing material, it’s surely time for a switch-up. The other film was Jurassic Park. Though it boasted a straight up-and-down less-is-more trailer featuring precisely zero digital dinosaurs, the film itself was a thrilling showcase for the possibilities of computer animation. This was clearly the future of big-budget filmmaking, and there would be no way back.
Jurassic Park’s wizardry completely changed the way films were made. Now directors needed to know as much about computer effects as they did about dealing with thespian tantrums. But the special effects are usually the last and always the most-time consuming piece of the puzzle for any film. Add that to the ever-dilating shooting schedules of modern movies (as an aside, John Carpenter’s killer-car Stephen King adaptation Christine took eight months from the first day of shooting to release; James Cameron’s Avatar sequels currently stand at six years and counting) and it’s easy to understand why, in an attempt to navigate the rumour-heavy, spoilerific, doom-mongering by-ways of the internet, marketing departments are keen to have a teaser to placate fans with at the earliest opportunity. Because the visual effects are usually a long way from finished, these teasers often involve a lot of black screen, heavy breathing and a flurry of box-ticking close-ups of the main players – as did the first promo for The Force Awakens. The explosions and car chases of the ’80s were shot on film that went straight to the editor. The effects for The Force Awakens exist as unknowable terabytes locked deep in a computer.
Sometimes these blipverts are less like actual advertisements for the film than proof of cinematic life: an assurance that somewhere in space this is happening right now. And one can hardly blame the studios for such jumpiness when so much money is involved, but one can always have too much of a good thing. The seemingly endless bespoke, jokey promos for Ryan Reynolds’ superhero spin-off Deadpool ultimately provoked a wearied backlash by the time the film’s actual release.
Teaser material can take all sorts of forms. Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Prometheus benefitted from a genius marketing campaign that featured Guy Pearce in character as Peter Weyland (of Weyland-Yutani fame) giving a TED talk, circa 2023. The form implies that anyone watching, anyone who ‘gets it’, is a cosmopolitan, Wired-reading progressive, while the content massages our cinefile egos, allowing us to bask in our foreknowledge of the Alien universe. Likewise, Tom Hiddleston living the mid-century modern dream in the stifling Clockwork Orangina of High-Rise flatters our taste buds into believing that we know all we need to know. Or enough, anyway.
We no longer need the Voice of God to tell us what to expect from a movie. Give us some heavy breathing, a bible-black screen and Loki losing it in a lift and we can piece the rest together ourselves.