Film trailers and their newfound cultural currency
Last Monday night, a legion of “Star Wars” fans tuned in to ESPN and waited. We logged into Fandango and prepared. We loaded up the official “Star Wars” YouTube channel and turned on auto-refresh extensions. The trailer for “The Last Jedi” was on its way. It would be followed by tickets for the highly anticipated sequel to “The Force Awakens” going on sale. This would, in turn, inevitably be followed by the crash of Fandango’s servers. It’s tradition.
“The Last Jedi” isn’t the first trailer to become a cultural moment in and of itself; for the past several years, movie previews have become just as full of anticipation as the films they advertise. For evidence, look no further than the much-derided “trailers for trailers” that pop-up in the days and weeks leading up to the release of new material. It should be nothing more than an insane marketing gimmick, but instead, it’s become a genuine tactic for building hype among fan bases and potential audience members. How and why did this shift happen? When did we as filmgoers become almost as excited for a new trailer as we are for a new movie?
Part of this has to deal with what a trailer does in the first place. The immediate answer is obvious: when I asked a friend the question, he answered that in the best-case scenario, it simply gives us an idea of what we’re about to watch. From the preview, we can decide whether or not a movie is “for us” or not. There are some exceptions — Darren Aronofsky’s controversial “Mother!” for example — but this is true in most cases.
But for “Star Wars,” everyone who is going to see it already knows they’re going to see it before the first trailer drops. Still, five of the twenty most viewed trailers within twenty-four hours of their release advertise films from the legendary saga. This taps into the second reason trailers and previews can become so awaited: modern internet culture.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the internet in the past few years, especially on pop culture sites and the like, has to have noticed a tendency within the websites to analyze and overanalyze every bit of information. Trailers are a virtual treasure trove of this. Viewers can film their own reactions. They can post frame-by-frame analysis of every single shot. They can record theory videos, trailer reviews and more.
And as this side of the internet has grown, the number of views on trailers has continued to increase. It’s no coincidence that the record for trailers receiving the most views within twenty-four hours of their release has changed hands seven times in the last three years — three times for “The Force Awakens” alone. It’s also no coincidence that every movie in the aforementioned top twenty comes with its own pre-programmed fan base ready to scrutinize every shot a trailer drops into their lap: “It” is based on one of the best works of one of America’s most prolific writers, and films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe feature prominently, as do even those previews advertising the inexplicable smut phenomenon “Fifty Shades” series. The way the internet thinks of trailers has changed as the way the internet thinks of movies has changed.
As pretentious as it sounds, trailers can become lauded simply because they can offer a piece of entertainment separate from their film. The editing, the music, the hints of the story can all come together to make a memorable viewing experience even when the movie it advertises isn’t memorable or is memorable for all the wrong reasons. I’m far from a fan of last year’s “Suicide Squad,” but its “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer ranks as one of the best of its kind in recent years. We have our own criteria for what constitutes a good trailer: not too much story given away but not too little. We have editing houses specifically for handling trailers. Trailers can become cultural moments in and of themselves simply because they are themselves art.