The release of the second Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer opened the floodgates. Within days, we had new trailers for just about every event movie coming out this year. I’m going to order these trailers a little differently this week. They’re ranked in terms of how effective they are – by expanding a movie’s audience, fixing problems in an earlier trailer, or simply announcing a project. The biggest won’t always be the most effective. A small film doubling its audience to a million viewers means more to that film than a $200 million film adding several million more. So what made the biggest difference this week, Star Wars or Batman?
Trick question and, yes, this is cheating. It’s also the only time you’ll see David Hasselhoff on this list. His music video/trailer “True Survivor” does two amazing things: It makes Hasselhoff listenable, like a fuse between Gary Numan and Duran Duran, and it melds a hodge-podge of 80s and 90s retro-zeitgeist together into a hilariously schlocky and delicious stew. Kung Fury was already a Kickstarter sensation, but that only reaches so far. “True Survivor” is the kind of viral marketing that permeates Facebook and Twitter to advertise Kung Fury to groups oblivious to its existence. Now they’re keeping their eyes peeled for more, which makes this the most effective trailer of the week… even if including a music video is cheating. (For a retro mash of a different flavor, check out Canadian bike-pocalypse movie Turbo Kid.)
The first trailer for Tomorrowland was evocative. It identified the helplessness we feel when we watch the news and see suffering in a world whose governments and media we trust less and less. It acknowledged something vital and edgy that most event films avoid. Then the second trailer came along and gave us big action sequences that hung together too loosely. It failed to expand on the message of the first trailer, and couldn’t help but disappoint. This third trailer is successful because it takes that failing and corrects it. Centered around an early action sequence the same way Furious 7 trailers (read the review) focused on the airdrop sequence, it tells audiences why the action should appeal to them. Whereas the action before looked like it was trying too hard, it now looks like the clever viewer’s alternative to this summer’s more explosive movies. It focuses on small moments and struggles rather than the epic ones. Coming out a week after Mad Max: Fury Road and a week before San Andreas, Tomorrowland has already lost the battle to be this summer’s epic. This trailer returns the intimacy missing in the second trailer, and redefines for audiences what they should expect. It’s not about expanding the audience; it’s about shoring us up and fixing perceptions among potential viewers who are sitting on the fence.
Two important questions are answered here. One: Which Chris Pratt should we expect? The answer is the only Chris Pratt we’ve ever known. He’s cheeky and brash and talking about sex inside the first 30 seconds. That’s neither a surprise nor a disappointment; it’s a confirmation. He’s our anchor into the movie, and knowing he’ll play the type of character we’ve already come to rely on is reassuring. Secondly, we can begin to see why they’re going the route of slightly cartoonish dinosaurs that stop short of realism. The first Jurassic Park is essentially a horror film. The effects hold up because many of them are practical – Steven Spielberg had a life-size, animatronic Tyrannosaurus built, and the Velociraptors are lifelike puppets in all but the widest shots. Jurassic World isn’t going for the same realism – it’s squarely positioning itself as an action movie, not horror. Energy and motion are more important in action than realism is. Styling the dinosaurs a little closer to how a kid might draw them taps into our imagination. There’s less regard for a paleontologist’s accuracy. I’m surprisingly okay with that.
Star Wars trailers are fulfilling a twin objective. The first is to reassure us about director J.J. Abrams. Some of us are perfectly fine with him – you could do a lot worse than a career that includes Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, and Super 8. He’s as qualified as anyone to take over Star Wars, but some remain uncomfortable with him. By now, the trailers have shut up all but his most obstinate critics. The second objective is more complicated. It’s not to get butts in the seats. That’s already assured. It’s about implanting in our minds the iconography of the new film, so that we’re not asking ourselves if we’re going to see it – we’re asking ourselves how many times we’re going to see it. Making its release into a nation-stopping cultural event isn’t about one trailer, or even two. It’s about sustained iconography. It can’t be relentless or we’ll begin to get sick of it before it even comes out (Avengers: Age of Ultron is treading close to this), yet it also has to remind us of the Star Wars brand the second we let it drop out of our minds.
If I were talking about which trailer was most personally effective, this would be at the top. In terms of the industry, it remains to be seen. The truth is that The Little Prince has an upward battle to fight. Based on a classic children’s story and beautifully designed with a blend of CGI, stop-motion, and hand-drawn animation, it needs to be something parents want to take their children to see. The heavy nature of this trailer means that my generation will want to see it, but animated films based on sadness don’t have a reliable track record in terms of attracting families. Given a choice between this and something bubblier, many families will choose the lighter option. If it’s due a Fall release, that will help it get off the ground better with audiences looking for more serious options. Right now, no release date is set.
This ran before Unfriended (read the review) and, boy did it get the audience. It got me the first time I watched it. It shows how one effective scare can sell a movie, even when followed up by a more predictable jump scare. Even if the film looks bad or we’re not told much about it, the initial shot is identifiable. It can sell a microbudget horror movie to enough viewers that it’s assured of a profit.
One of the riskier propositions this summer is the new Fantastic Four. It may also end up being the best: I love the cast and Josh Trank is a promising director. Its trailers continue to present a dark yet engrossing filmmaking style. Where the first trailer announced the film as a potential surprise, this one begins to define its characters better. It’s still short of the mark, though, and it’s not exactly free from competition. A trailer like the Furious 7 airdrop or the above Tomorrowland example that focuses on a single action scene could help – we still don’t know what Fantastic Four is going to feel like as a viewing experience. Right now, even if it’s better than dozens of other superhero movies, it still looks too much like them to separate a less popular brand like this from the crowd. It has time, however. Expect us to get a better handle on Fantastic Four once some of the summer event movies have burned themselves out.
This won’t do that well here in the states. Very few Studio Ghibli movies do until they hit home release. When Marnie Was There will disappear in theaters in a summer as chock full of event movies as this one. It’s already done most of its business abroad. In North America, it’s really about the film’s DVD & streaming release. I’m excited for it because one of the critics I write with most, Vanessa Tottle, named this her animated film of the year when she saw it in Japan last year.
Compare this to the event trailers above. It’s a bad trailer; and if you’re going to show this much a year ahead of time, it can’t be cut this amateurishly. The sound editing alone is a disaster. It portrays a Batman so grimdark he feels more in line with a parody. Worst of all, it positions the film as a political allegory and Zack Snyder is not a director audiences are ready to trust with allegory (see Sucker Punch). Yes, the trailer got millions to watch it – it’s the biggest one this week that wasn’t Star Wars – but the response hasn’t been as positive as this sort of announcement should be. Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, and Star Wars all look bright and energetic. Fantastic Four looks like a more successful combination of dark and slick. The Batman v. Superman trailer got people to talk, but a year out you want broad interest, not choruses of doubt. After you watch what’s below, try this recut on for size.