Ahead of Damien Chazelle’s First Man debuting an extended preview for IMAX cinemas, we take a look back at Christopher Nolan’s IMAX ‘prologues’.

Last week, the film world celebrated the 10th anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In a piece focusing on the film’s then-pioneering use of IMAX 70mm film cameras, Polygon’s Jordan Hoffman pointed out how Nolan’s film and its use of the large format caused a paradigm shift not only in that 3D wasn’t the only way to ratchet up the immersion of the cinema experience, but also in how trailers became these events anticipated today as much as, if not more, than the films that they promote.

Back in December of 2007, Nolan and Warner Bros. attached the opening six minutes – fully shot on what’s widely considered the highest quality image capture format ever devised – of The Dark Knight as a trailer to prints of I Am Legend. The studio and filmmakers encouraged Batman fans to seek out screenings of Francis Lawrence’s film in the IMAX format to get a preview which was not only extensive, but exclusive – you wouldn’t be able to see it anywhere else until the full film came out the following summer. Of course, this was the first film to have footage filmed with these cubmersome cameras, previously only used on documentaries; such a preview of what the IMAX format can do when fully unleashed in a narrative feature had its own intrinsic selling point in this regard.

The Dark Knight IMAX Prologue, as presented on the Batman Begins DVD and Blu-ray release.

As Hoffman describes, this preview “[stirred] up a pre-show frenzy the business hadn’t seen since the first trailer for The Phantom Menace played in front of Meet Joe Black”, a moment widely considered a defining one in what we consider film’s ‘trailer culture’. Back then, while trailers and previews for upcoming films launching online did have a certain level of anticipation from the dedicated fans, it wasn’t nearly on the same level of today – where studios launch multiple trailer teases counting down the days until the release to drum up the hype.

The notion of trailers considered ‘exclusive to cinemas’ wasn’t particularly new either, as unlike today, studios weren’t under the pressure from overzealous fans bootleg-recording these ads at cinemas and then ‘leaking’ them online. Trailers just premiered as they would placed with a certain film and the studio would release it online if they saw fit (That being said, the Wachowskis did famously attach a first look at The Matrix Revolutions as a post-credits scene on The Matrix Reloaded – a strategy Marvel Studios would later crib for The Avengers in 2011). Nolan’s ‘IMAX prologue’ for The Dark Knight arguably changed all that: not only bringing back an ‘event’ status to trailers on the big screen that wasn’t seen since that Star Wars launch – which was years before platforms like YouTube even existed – but also being the start of the current trailer anticipation culture as we know it today. You wouldn’t just come across a preview while sitting down to watch a movie, you would be actively encouraged to seek it out (if you are a fan). Given the extensive nature of these previews, it was also an opportunity to generate more genuine word of mouth from fans and press, that was based on something that was closer to the final film itself, as opposed to a trailer that is specially cut for the maximum possible attractiveness, impact and reaction from audiences around the world.

A scene from The Dark Knight Rises featured in the ‘prologue’ shown off at an IMAX dome theater. Julio Cortez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Nolan would go on to put together and launch an identical sort of prologue to The Dark Knight Rises in December 2011, which was special in two ways. Firstly, in a move which was at the time seen as unnecessarily restrictive but in retrospect incredibly wise, this prologue would only play in IMAX venues outfitted with their 15-perf 70mm film projectors. While the period of 2008 to 2012 was one of much debate over what was ‘LieMAX’ (IMAX’s smaller retrofit screens) and ‘real IMAX’ (traditional purpose-built venues), as many as 150 such venues globally were in operation at that time – with that number only declining from that point on with the transition to digital and the introduction of the laser projection system. And secondly, due to the preview being attached to prints of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (which also filmed select scenes with IMAX film cameras), this was also a moment when other studios with such IMAX-utilising releases in the pipeline took note and did ‘prologues’ of their own. The following winter, Paramount attached the opening 10 minutes of J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness (too, filmed with these cameras) to IMAX screenings of Warner Bros.’ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – which kick-started a wider proliferation of such cinema-only previews that were widely promoted to get audiences to check out a different film.

How rival studios approached this concept, in particular for films not utilising or even being released in IMAX, varied. Warner Bros. stuck with their tried-and-tested formula by placing the first 13 minutes of 300: Rise of an Empire with IMAX screenings of the RoboCop remake. Marvel Studios, who regularly use their upcoming films as a marketing launchpad for another – be in by way of a post-credits scene or a trailer placement – took it one step further with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, attaching the extended San Diego Comic-Con sizzle reel exclusively to Thor: The Dark World shortly after the first trailer premiered online, and the opening 11 minutes of the film to Need for Speed internationally early the following year. And that’s not to mention Disney regularly showing off extended footage from their upcoming films – Marvel or otherwise – at their theme parks. To mark Skyfall being the first James Bond film released in the format, IMAX commissioned an alternate trailer to play with The Dark Knight Rises and more recently, they have started pushing unique behind the scenes looks at upcoming films such as Mission: Impossible – Fallout in a similar manner. To some extent, this experimentation somewhat diluted one of the selling points of Nolan’s ‘prologues’: showing off something more representative of the final film itself, exclusively in its intended environment.

Fan recreation of Interstellar‘s IMAX museum trailer.

And yet with his next IMAX-shot-and-released films, Nolan, too, experimented with the format of the ‘prologue’. Interstellar is his only IMAX film to not have one, but what his team and WB did put together is a special trailer for museum-based IMAX locations equipped with 70mm film. In truth, it doesn’t even include much footage from the film at all – the first two-thirds of the preview are comprised of soundbites from various notable individuals from the space industry – from JFK’s iconic moon speech, to the late, great Stephen Hawking, to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Elon Musk and others. But when the film footage does kick in, it does so with full force – with every shot taken from scenes filmed with IMAX cameras, filing the full height of these screens. And Hans Zimmer’s soaring score (this was one of the only trailers for the film to actively feature it) tops it all off in glorious fashion.

Just over two years later with his Dunkirk ‘prologue’ attached to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Nolan didn’t simply show off the opening of the film, but what he later described as a “short film version” of his World War II epic – a 5-minute sizzle based on moments in the film’s first act, introducing the ‘land, air and sea’ triptych structure of the final film. Again, all filmed and presented in full-height IMAX and accompanied by Zimmer’s intense score and sound design. The filmmaker also changed the release strategy of the piece: he reportedly had hoped for people to discover the preview ‘naturally’ without any announcements from the studio or IMAX. However, after showing solely at London’s BFI IMAX before a midnight showing of Rogue One, a full venue list did go up the following day. Later, the preview screened more widely throughout early 2017, not only in front of the likes of La La Land and Kong: Skull Island but also at various industry events such as CinemaCon, as well as touring select cities in the United States and Europe closer to release.

Fan recreation of Dunkirk‘s IMAX prologue.

In both these cases, the goal that Nolan seemed to have in mind was still achieved, even as these ‘prologues’ were closer editorially to regular trailers – more faithfully present the film in question to audiences. And while many trailers try and make the film they’re promoting seem different than what it actually is to try and appeal to audiences, the case of Dunkirk was the exact opposite. After it hit IMAX screens with Rogue One, many have praised how much better the extended preview sold the film compared to the trailer that landed online only a few days before; the subsequent final trailer and TV spots ratcheted up the intensity from there on out. Although it should be mentioned, when the piece played as a ‘surprise’ attached to 70mm prints of Wonder Woman close to release, some audience members have found themselves perplexed.

While studio marketers may be talking about moving away from trailers altogether as promotional materials, and that’s not to mention the various ‘optimisations’ to online-released first looks that us cinephiles seem to hate but nonetheless benefit wider audiences (looking at you, five-second ‘bumpers’ giving away all the money shots and square/vertical cropping), Nolan’s ‘prologues’ are a reminder of where trailers began and are still often seen by audiences: the big screen. They not only remind us that you can create effective marketing that feels of a piece with the film that it’s promoting, but how trailers and such previews have really become events in their own right.

Nolan’s ethos – as elitist as it may be seen by some – throughout this recent stage of his filmmaking career has been about bringing audiences back towards not only the big screen, but the biggest screens in the world and the best presentation formats available right now. And that ethos is very much felt throughout the marketing campaigns for his films, in every poster and trailer released, but none more so than his ‘prologues’. While, aside from runtime, we may not know much about what First Man‘s IMAX preview may entail – a similar ‘prologue’ or something else – it seems like Damien Chazelle and Universal have been borrowing from the best and applying that same ethos to not only putting together (the film was partly shot on the very same IMAX film cameras used by Nolan) but also getting word out there about what is sure to be one of the best filmgoing experiences of 2018.

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