Spoiler Alert! Watching the Trailer…

The release of blockbuster trailers for films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) or 50 Shades of Grey (2014) is now a media event, featured on news channels, distributed and discussed via movie and fan websites, and widely shared across social media. Yet despite the enduring appeal and apparent popularity of these ‘coming attractions’, very little is known about what audiences actually think about trailers, how they use them, and – a particular popular stigma – whether the trailer actively misleads or deceives the audience.

I’ve been researching film trailers for over a decade now, and in 2013 (working with colleagues Ed Vollans and California-based researcher and trailer writer, Fred Greene), we set up an initial survey to start to investigate these issues. We published the first round of results on www.watchingthetrailer.com, and continue to blog there about those results, and trailers more generally. In this blog for FTM, however, I wanted to give you an overview of those first results, and what they might tell us about the audience for film trailers.

As the first large-scale non-industry study of the general trailer audience, we found people had strong opinions about trailer content, particularly around repeated claims that trailers were too spoiler heavy or misleading.

Not surprisingly, our research showed that over 60% of respondents now watch trailers online, and they were driven by a desire to keep ‘up to date’ with the big tent-pole film releases. The dominance of online viewing was also part of the preference to ‘repeat view’ trailers – breaking away from the traditional notion that a trailer was ephemeral, and only seen once. It is also clear that the ‘repeat viewing’ idea is supported and fed by many media websites who quickly offer scene-by-scene trailer breakdowns when a major trailer arrives.

We also found that the trailer audience for those big franchise films could be split into four discernible ‘types’:

  • The Fan, who describes eager anticipation, excitement, and the desire for repeat viewings of the ‘tantalising glimpses’ the trailer offers;
  • The Non-Fan, who uses emotionally charged language (‘terrible films’, ‘pretty rubbish’, suggesting the content is too juvenile) to disparage the film and trailer
  • Neutral respondents, who largely describe a lack of emotional investment, and position themselves as indifferent to marketing
  • Trailer ‘haters’, who actively oppose viewing trailers for franchise pictures, for fear of being spoiled

The idea that trailers are too spoiler-filled was addressed by many respondents, but the split was not as clear-cut as you might expect. Instead, we saw a range of answers, from “It showed far too much of the storyline” to “All different aspects of the film shown – a great taster” (both responses to the same trailer, for The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. It seems clear that one person’s spoiler is another person’s acceptance narrative revelation, and this is something we’ll be exploring more in our next bit of research…

On the other big issue – that trailers might actively mislead – there was more agreement, with 80% of respondents claiming they had been disappointed with a film having seen the trailer. However, with only 40% saying this happened ‘often’ or ‘frequently’, it was also clear that this may not be true across ‘all’ trailers. Or, that there remains a broader spectrum of opinion: from those who don’t think trailers should be a perfect facsimile of the feature film being advertised, to those who would prefer a clearer fidelity between promotional trailer and finished film. Your own personal preference likely ends up somewhere in the middle.

And, at the end, it is clear that people still like the trailer – in some cases, more than the film itself. While a range of trailers and films were mentioned, several respondents focused on two specific films: Man of Steel and Prometheus. The former was seen as having ‘a better story, better pacing, better use of music, and stronger emotions than the film did’ while the trailer for Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel ‘was wonderful in its own right, and did a brilliant job of showcasing something that promised to be thoughtful, spectacular and exciting’. In these instances, for these viewers, the trailer was clearly a preferable viewing experience.

What did we learn from all this? Not surprisingly, that audiences are multiple, varied and unpredictable. Trailers can be popular, challenging, problematic, loved, hated, but it is very rare that they elicit no response at all.

If you’re interested in contributing to the second trailer audience research survey, please complete the survey at http://www.watchingthetrailer.com/audience-survey-2.html

By Dr Keith Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television.

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