I first recall a film trailer having significant impact on me in the autumn of 1984. My father took me to a re-release of 101 Dalmatians, at what was then the ABC Magdalen Street, Oxford – a lovely Art-Deco one-screen cinema. The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and following the supporting cartoon shorts, the trailers began. Some of these intrigued me (especially Beverly Hills Cop, which looked hilarious), but then the trailer for Dune came on, and everything changed.
The imagery from David Lynch’s notorious science fiction flop captivated my imagination. Ravishing production design, leather costumes, giant sandworms, Sting’s red hair and codpiece… These visual delights flashed past my eyes in an epic three minute plus trailer, replete with voiceover man telling me I was “about to enter a world where the unexpected, the unknown, and the unbelievable meet”. I spent those three minutes desperately wanting to see the entire film. A part of me even believed for a fleeting second that the full film would follow the trailer, as it had promised I was “about to” enter this strange and surreal world.
During my childhood and teenage years, trailers were an integral part of the cinema experience. At a time when trailer reels were less machine-tooled to compliment the accompanying feature, they often proved hugely exciting and subversive. Today, a re-release of 101 Dalmatians wouldn’t feature trailers for films like Beverly Hills Cop or Dune, but in those halcyon days, a trip to the cinema meant an illicit glimpse into thrillingly dangerous world of grown-up feature film entertainment.
A year or two later, I went to the cinema with a friend and his father. The occasion is burned into my memory for one simple reason: the trailer for Jagged Edge. Oozing frightening atmosphere, the moment voiceover man announced “A crime so violent, a murder so well planned…” I was on the edge of my seat. This taboo peek into a dark and definitely unsuitable 18-certificate film deeply scandalised my friend’s father, who remarked that a trailer like that “had no business being shown before a children’s film” (whatever that film might have been, I’ve long since forgotten).
Throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I was thrilled by many a trailer. Some of the features they promoted ultimately proved disappointing; I didn’t much care for Independence Day, despite an astonishingly exciting teaser with the exploding White House. Others did not disappoint; I went to many films in the summer of 1991, purely for repeat viewings of the Terminator 2: Judgment Day trailer. When I finally saw the film, it more than lived up to the hype.
Most of the time, trailers could only be seen in full at the cinema. However, something curious happened in the mid-1990s: The Internet. The first trailer I saw online was for Goldeneye. Although intrigued, something bothered me about seeing the trailer for the first James Bond film in six years on such a small computer screen. To paraphrase Alfredo the projectionist in Cinema Paradiso when confronted with the advent of television, it didn’t feel right, didn’t smell right. Seeing trailer this way seemed too easy, and too small.
A few years later, when the teaser for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace broke download records, a significant milestone had been reached. Trailers were no longer an appetiser exclusive to the cinematic experience, but a marketing tool primarily aimed at online viewers. The last twenty years have cemented this truth, to the point that trailers have become devalued because they are so ubiquitous.
If one director understands this, it is Christopher Nolan. His first trailer for Tenet (due out on 12th August, Covid permitting) was shown exclusively in cinemas. Seeing this teaser in the cinema took me back to those thrilling pre-internet days, and got me thinking. Surely a good marketing strategy would be to give trailers a theatrical release window, much like feature films. If a film trailer plays in cinemas for a month or two first, it could then get an online release afterwards. It could prove especially attractive to cinema punters if said trailers were particularly creative in some way, or contained exclusive material.
Many of my favourite trailers have featured material that doesn’t appear in the final cut, but are mini-marketing masterpieces. The teaser trailer for The Incredibles featured a hilarious scene with an overweight Mr Incredible trying to put on his costume. The trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a hilarious sketch in its own right, with a producer auditioning various unsuitable voiceover artists. Of course, some great trailers have featured material that gets cut for more tragic reasons. The first teaser for Spider-man involves a stunning sequence with bank robbers making their getaway in a helicopter that gets caught in a gigantic web between the World Trade Centre towers. It remains one of the great teaser trailers, and I wish Columbia had been brave enough to include it on the DVD and Blu Ray extra features.
I still have a major soft spot for the classic Psycho trailer, where Hitchcock shows the audience around the Bates house and motel, dropping cryptic clues as to what took place there. (“You should have seen the blood…”) It’s an absolute masterclass in hooking and intriguing an audience, without really spoiling anything. I don’t think there’s a single frame from the actual film in the trailer either, not even that final shot of Janet Leigh screaming.
As with the Psycho teaser, great trailers know the importance of communicating the tone without spoiling the film. The original trailer for Alien is another fine example. No voiceover, no dialogue, no spoiler shots of xenomorphs, just a genuinely disturbing montage of sounds and images perfectly conveying the atmosphere of a horror classic.
Then there are behind the scenes trailers. Some of the best examples include the teaser for Sleeper, where Woody Allen is hilariously deadpan in his editing room interview (“There’s very little overt comedy in the film”). The interviews with Steven Spielberg in the Close Encounters of the Third Kind trailer are appropriately more mysterious and enigmatic.
With the financial damage Covid 19 has dealt to cinemas and film studios, not to mention the increasingly blurred lines between big and small screen release windows, some are predicting the demise of big screen entertainment. I still have faith cinema will see off these challenges, just as they adapted when television became a threat in the 1950s, and VHS became a threat in the 1980s. Perhaps cinemas and filmmakers are already rising to the challenge, with the kinds of exclusive extras I’ve discussed in this article.
Warner Brothers are planning a tenth anniversary re-release for Nolan’s Inception, in the run-up to Tenet’s new release date. It is reported the film will be accompanied by a sneak peek at Tenet, along with an exclusive reel featuring unseen footage of other upcoming Warner releases, including Wonder Woman 1984, Godzilla versus Kong, and – most intriguingly – Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune. I find it amusing and ironic that the prospect of glimpsing a new vision of Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece should lure me back to the big screen, bringing my love affair with trailers full circle.