In the space of a month, Disney has launched the first looks at two of their most anticipated releases of 2019 – Aladdin last month, followed by Toy Story 4 earlier today. Despite all the excitement surrounding these trailers, both have had some surprisingly similar reactions on parts of social media in regards to how little they showed.
While more negative or mixed reactions to these may come for a variety of reasons – people not finding the footage appealing, or skepticisim surrounding the film itself – the above responses, particularly the final one, do lend themselves to a discussion of how online audiences consume trailers today. How does the fact that as many, if not many more, people will be seeing these online as opposed to as ‘intended’ – on the big screen with big sound – affect how such first looks are put together and how much they show?
A perfect 21st century example to illustrate this is the first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which premiered in theatres first in the summer of 2007, followed by a number of bootleg leaks and, eventually, an online release. The clip features no actual footage from the film, essentially just the iconic Batman logo with some dialogue. To an audience sitting down to see The Simpsons Movie and/or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in 2007, to see this without necessarily knowing that 1. this is a teaser for the sequel to Batman Begins and 2. that there is a sequel to Batman Begins that’s out the following summer, such a look does its job in an effective way. Yet, if this were to be released online today, you’d see a lot of the same reactions that Aladdin and Toy Story 4 have been getting.
The ‘limitation’ of a trailer only being viewable by the public in cinemas – where you not only have to sit through fifteen minutes-worth of these before a film, but you don’t know what this trailer is for until the title comes up – is something that studios have taken advantage of for decades. You cold have a Dark Knight-esque ‘announcement’ like The Fifth Element or you can actually be creative with it: such as introducing a fakeout. The most notable example of such a teaser is Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and this is a trailer strategy that has been used for comedies even as recent as this decade.
However, we fast forward to today and find ourselves asking – out of the big blockbuster first/teaser trailer launches, how many of them actually tease, like the above look at Dunkirk which the studio chose to not even call a teaser trailer? In similar fashion, Marvel and Disney chose to not promote the first look at Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (which played theatrically with Doctor Strange) as a ‘teaser trailer’ but merely a ‘sneak peek’ – with director James Gunn later going on social media to claim that this wasn’t, strictly speaking, a trailer. While, what ended up being released as the ‘teaser trailer’ was…certainly a lot more than just a teaser.
You can even take a look at Warner Bros. and DC Films to see what difference a year can make in trailer strategy. The first look at Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived just under a year prior to the film’s release date and was very much a teaser – the studio and Snyder also made a point of having it seen on the big screen, the trailer launch was initially planned as a series of special screening events in IMAX. Watching this footage with surround sound certainly makes a point – the cut from black to the darkened Superman statue makes an impact, the dialogue snippets in the opening half whip all around the room. These are effects that may be lost when watching on a phone or a laptop screen.
Just over a year later, the studio released the first footage from Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman at San Diego Comic-Con. The timeframe relative to release date is similar to BvS, but the contrast in just how much this trailer shows – both in runtime (nearly three minutes) and in how much story and visuals are packed in – is clear. Moving forward, all of the studios’ DC universe films opted for these more substantial first looks: for films like Aquaman (the first SDCC trailer for which only came 5 months out) a skimpy teaser may not have been appropriate at this moment in time, but did Shazam! need a 3-minute ‘teaser trailer’ 9 months before release?
The often film-fan-lambasted usual optimisations for YouTube/social media release aside, there is even a trend towards (subtly, but still) outright different versions of trailers released online by the studio vis-a-vis in theatres. Take a look and see if you can spot the difference between the general online and theatrical versions of the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald teaser trailer:
When you take all of the above examples through different points in time together, one can see a picture coming into perspective – the teaser trailer as we traditionally know it is becoming increasingly more rare. Especially, the more clever sorts of teasers that are bespoke – that may not have a single frame of actual footage. In today’s age of spoiler paranoia, one would think that these more-restrained such looks at upcoming films would be more beneficial, as more audiences start to care about not having their experience of seeing the full film for the first time ruined.
But as more and more parts of the audience also become fans – following online news on the latest developments and not necessarily learning for the first time of, for instance, the next Avengers film when they sit down to watch Aquaman next month, a teaser’s job of solely letting people know that something is coming becomes not enough. Especially when people are viewing such looks on their phone, laptop, or – god forbid! – a smartwatch. In other words, where they know what they’re about to watch is a Toy Story 4 trailer, as opposed to just getting it out of the blue in front of one’s screening of Ralph Breaks The Internet.
All is not dire, however, for fans of great (in this film fan’s perspective) teasers and trailers. Filmmakers with greater creative control over marketing materials, such as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and James Mangold, and instant-sell franchises such as Star Wars or James Bond 007, still push for first looks that don’t just do their job of getting people to come out and see the films, but work as iconic pieces of art in their own right. In fact, these are great examples of how teaser trailers can still be satisfying for those that already know the film is coming and want a glimpse of what it’s actually about, while still getting everyone craving more (and the film’s release itself, naturally) by the time they finish watching it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s solo hero films – Captain Marvel included – still opt for the more traditional teaser trailer, instead of jumping right off with a more substantial look. And when a studio manages to get a good old tease out for an increasingly-rare sort of film like Red Sparrow or Blade Runner 2049, well, that’s the icing on the cake right there. And that’s not to mention independent distributors such as A24 or Annapurna knocking it out of the park in this regard.
As wisely pointed out, today marks the 25th anniversary of an unusual teaser trailer: the first look at Disney’s original The Lion King, which presented the film’s iconic Circle of Life opening scene and song. One would hope that next month – which is when we expect the promotional campaign for Jon Favreau’s live-action/CGI remake to begin – Disney take a cue from this look which proved to be both satisfying in its own right as a preview of the film, as well as a good tease. This whole balance between creative/artistic and business imperatives is what makes following and discussing trailers, as well as film marketing at large, so fascinating and interesting.
Woody has always been confident about his place in the world and that his priority is taking care of his kid, whether that’s Andy or Bonnie. But when Bonnie adds a reluctant new toy called “Forky” to her room, a road trip adventure alongside old and new friends will show Woody how big the world can be for a toy.
Featuring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts and Joan Cusack, Toy Story 4 is released June 21 in the U.S. and the UK.