The Golden Age of Trailers

From the first shot of Warner Bros.’ first official trailer for John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, I knew I was hooked. The opening notes of Perfume Genius’ “Otherside” set a powerful, ethereal tone, with Roger Deakins’ signature and stylish cinematography guiding the viewer through the same journey. Ansel Elgort’s Theo Decker gives a cooling narration, and it was like walking into the film itself, down the very hallway filling up my computer’s screen.

As “Otherside” remained a constant echo with a melancholic beauty throughout, intelligent yet tender editing rendered a trailer that weaved the tale of young Theo and his coming-of-age story. Emotional, artful, and haunting, the trailer did exactly what it was supposed to do: it sold me.

As I’ve joked since first watching the trailer, the trailer is my favorite film of 2019 thus far. It may be a wisecrack, but the fact that I was so enraptured by a single trailer, more so than I have any film I’ve seen this year, becomes an innocuously provocative idea. Trailers today have become a new form of art, a new medium in film-making in some way, by taking an entire film and creating something distinct from it, allowing them to become just as powerful as films themselves in some ways.

No one has to look far to see some of the most classic examples of well-regarded trailers to see the artfulness that they can achieve. Alien is perhaps the most renowned of all trailers; an absolute classic across all fronts. Eerie cuts, ambient scenery, and ending on a killer tagline that still exudes terror today: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Alien‘s trailer is one of the first examples of how a trailer can serve as art, a deliberately designed piece distinct from the film itself that is powerful and enthralling in its own right.

However, just as the products in the cinema have changed and evolved with the years, the trailers have as well. Especially in more recent years, dramatic covers of classic songs and melodramatic glows over a film’s star-studded cast have become staples in modern editing, creating staggering amounts of drama in the trailer to make the film appear as enticing and provocative as possible. This can all be pointed back to the iconic The Social Network trailer, known best for its inclusion of the cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” that remains as captivating today as it did years ago.

The differences between the trailers for Alien and The Social Network are clear, yet what remains as connective tissue between the two is their artistic nature. Deliberate decisions to heighten drama, killer conclusions, and both possessing an ultimate artistry behind their editing and creation that allows them to stand apart as unique pieces of work against the films they advertise. They’re comparable to other forms of art, similar to paintings inspired by the works of historical giants, but are individual works with their own ideas and challenges. Trailers take on their own life and are appreciated in their own light – one separate from the films they’re derived from.

Thus, this is where the conceptual battle over whether the trailer is better than the film itself or becomes wildly different from the final product stakes its first claim. Many films fall victim to this phenomenon: a trailer can be so powerful that when the film it markets hits theaters, the resultant effect is one that ultimately hinders the finished film and further heightens the legacy of the trailer.

One of the best examples of this is Prometheus. Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise utilized a teaser trailer aping the trailer from Alien; one which yielded excellent dividends. A haunting, dreadful teaser in its own right, there are clear similarities between it and its predecessor, which could explain why it’s so effective.

However, while it ultimately comes down to personal opinion, in a general sense, Prometheus is widely regarded as disappointing in comparison to this excellent trailer. A divisive film that never reached the widespread acclaim that the early films in the franchise and the trailer itself welcomed, Prometheus‘ trailer and its relation to the film can ironically represent the story of Prometheus in Greek mythology in regard to this aspect of the film industry.

In the myth, Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to the humans. Though, while the humans enjoyed fire and having a power equivalent to the Gods, the Gods forced Prometheus to suffer for the rest of eternity for his faulty choice. Prometheus ironically faces a similar fate, giving humans an incredible trailer whilst alternatively solidifying the idea that a trailer that can be greater than the film it advertises, giving legitimacy to the idea of trailers as a distinct medium. However, in order to do so, Prometheus had to suffer just like its mythological counterpart, and its mixed reception from viewers is the punishment it must face for creating the conceptual divide between trailer and film.

Though due to their unique nature, trailers also have the power to paint an image of a film that is wildly different from the actual final product, further demonstrating the divide between film and trailer in today’s world. Suicide Squad‘s captivating Comic-Con reel from 2015, which offers a dark, twisted superhero film, was beloved and received widespread fan acclaim. Yet, the final film’s reception was disastrous, with many claiming that the original trailer’s tone should have been the direction the filmmakers should have pursued as opposed to the quip-based, stylized fashion that was employed in the final product. Suicide Squad is one more film that comes to represent this conceptual battle; the divide that has come to characterize the modern culture surrounding trailers and the cinema today.

Needless to say, it’s quite apparent that trailers have truly come to hold their own in film culture. However, this is not a particularly probing revelation. It’s clear that trailers, especially in recent years, have become increasingly significant to movie-going audiences. Trailer announcement videos, official releases garnering 100 million views; everything points towards a strengthening bond between trailers and society. It is this very idea, the changing DNA of our society, that is leading to a change in the way we view trailers.

In a world that is today characterized by short attention spans, an irrational level of appreciation Vines, and videos that succeed the shorter they are, trailers are more significant and powerful than ever. They’ve become the new cinematic experience for those that don’t want to take two hours out of their life and spend all of it concentrating on a film in the cinema; a theory that explains why many trailers today seem to force in extra exposition and “give away” the film. The minds behind the trailer know their audience; their viewers are watching the trailer to experience the totality of the film itself, producing the new wave of overstuffed, plot-heavy trailers. The trailer has become, in some ways, the new film.

Thus, this points towards the increasing significance of trailers and why they’ve evolved to evoke such experiences as my profound, revelatory experience with The Goldfinch’s. More and more, trailers, rather than giving a quick tease of a film, mirror the film itself. Trailers have evolved to match modern society, extending in length to give the full cinematic experience to our short-circuited minds without forcing us to spend two hours in the cinema.

Trailers are no longer beholden to the film they’re cut from; they exist in their own right, their own medium. Just as I’m addicted to film, I’m addicted to trailers, and more so than ever, these are two separate conditions. As such, given their newfound power, cinematic nature, and artistic characteristics, we’re currently living in the golden age of trailers, and it’s time to give credit where credit is due and appreciate the work in front of us before it passes us by. As a collective society, we tend to look past true beauty and only appreciate it when it’s gone. Let’s not do this with the art before us today; we’re getting the best trailers we’ve ever gotten today, and to discount them and not give them their full recognition as artful works of skill would be just one more instance of failing to recognize something special right before our eyes until it’s too late.