How Trailer Spoilers Work

Contains spoilers for the films: Castaway, What Lies Beneath, Unbroken and Redeye (only as many as the trailers contain)

Spoilers are a frequent topic of discussion surrounding movie trailers, but what constitutes a spoiler? Typically people mention the money shots that are so incredibly epic, you can't help but think that a pivotal moment is being spoiled before your very eyes. I have mixed feelings about money shot spoilers, because if I like the editing, those shots make the trailer more fun to watch after I've seen the film. 

The reason why trailers continue to show so many spoilers is focus group tests. Mainstream trailers are often tested and optimized based on the shots and dialogue that elicited the most positive reactions. In the vast majority of those tests, the more spoilery trailers test better than ones that keep the story vague, and that's why Hollywood isn't going to stop any time soon.

 I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess this isn't the beginning of the film...

I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess this isn't the beginning of the film...

I'm very spoiler conscious when editing trailers; sometimes I've even had clients request more spoilery shots because I was being too conservative! It's important to be aware of how your audience might react, but it shouldn't be to the detriment of doing your job.   

During my PAX West panel about making game trailers, I asked my guest for advice to fellow game developers, and part of the answer was about spoilers

"In a shot that people are seeing when they don't know the entire story of your game, and they don't know the entire context... an audience member is just going to look and say 'that looks really awesome, I want to do that in the game.'"
- Jake Rodkin, Campo Santo

The most important word in that quote is "context." The conclusion I recently came to is:

The worst spoilers are answers to biggest questions posed in the trailer.

Trailers should give you a lot of unanswered questions so that you want answers when you're done watching. There are some basic questions you want to answer in a trailer:

  • "What is the premise?"

  • "Who are the characters?"

  • "What do they want?"

These need to be answered otherwise the audience won't be interested at all. What I think crosses the line is when the trailer answers the "How?", "Why?" and "What then?" questions.
Here are some famous and not so famous trailer examples that I think cross that line:

Castaway is a film about Tom Hanks getting marooned on an island. This premise naturally leads to:

Big Question #1: "Will he get off the island?"

At two minutes into the trailer we find out yes, he does make it off the island. This is a pretty cut and dry example of a spoiler trailer. There's literally ONE big question posed by the trailer. It's mind boggling that showing the end was even a consideration. 

Another Robert Zemeckis film that took a lot of flak for spoilers in its trailer was "What Lies Beneath."

In the trailer, Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer's daughter goes to college, leaving them home alone. Michelle Pfeiffer experiences paranormal activity that she believes to be a ghost. This is:

Big Question #1: Is there a ghost?

Entire films are centered around that premise, but we quickly find out the answer: Yes there is a ghost, and it might be the ghost of a woman Harrison Ford knew, which leads to:

Big Question #2: What is his connection with this woman?

Harrison Ford first denies any involvement, which makes us think that it's going to be a big part of the mystery, but then almost immediately after that, we find out he had an affair with her. This is followed by an action packed montage and the title card. Finally, we see that Michelle Pfeiffer is possessed by the ghost.

 Unrelated to spoilers, but this shot is used twice in the trailer as if it's two different scenes, when it's very clearly the exact same scene.

Unrelated to spoilers, but this shot is used twice in the trailer as if it's two different scenes, when it's very clearly the exact same scene.

I've seen the film, and this trailer doesn't actually spoil the entire story, but it certainly *feels* like it does. I think the audience will accept only so many "and thens" before they think to themselves: "Well I guess I don't have to go see that!" So if you're making a trailer, keep the "and thens" to a minimum.

Another one of my favorite examples of a spoilery trailer is the one for Wes Craven's thriller "Redeye." I find this trailer tremendously amusing on multiple levels.

The trailer starts with a fake out setup where it pretends to be a meet cute romantic comedy film between Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams, but it turns out it's a thriller where he's quietly holding her hostage on a plane. 

Big Question #1: Will she get away?

105 seconds in, the trailer is tense and intriguing, but in the following 15 seconds, she escapes the plane, runs through the airport, drives a car down the freeway, fights Cillian Murphy in an apartment, and then there's a rocket launcher for some reason???

I laugh every time I see it because that 15 seconds is the "Dude, Where's my Car?" drive-thru woman saying "ANDTHENANDTHENANDTHENANDTHEN!" To this day I'm amazed how quickly the trailer squanders all its built up suspense in a blipvert of spoilers.

One final example is Angelina Jolie's film "Unbroken" which has some problems in addition to its high number of "and thens."

The cold open is an American military plane that fires its machine guns at an enemy. We fade from the face of a soldier in the plane to him as a child. Every time I think of this trailer, I forget about this cold open. In fact, I feel like every time I finish watching this trailer I forget about the cold open. 

The introduction starts with the boy running and getting in trouble; he gets beat by his father for misbehaving. Later starts training to be a runner. At this point in the trailer I assume this is going to be an inspirational film about a boy becoming a great runner. 

Big Question #1: Will the boy become a great runner?

A shot of the boy fades to him training as an adult. At a minute into trailer he wins a race, and he's off to The Olympics. Five seconds later, he's won the Olympics.

Wait, what? Okay, I guess that question is answered.

 Seriously, they spend a LOT of time on the running.

Seriously, they spend a LOT of time on the running.

One second later we're back at the military plane. This dashes my expectation of an inspirational sports film, but when I re-orient myself we're onto:

Big Question #2: Will the man survive the war?

This sort of question is usually implicit in any war film. About nine seconds later the plane is shot down and they're adrift at sea. Seeing people adrift in a film usually asks:

Big Question #3: Will they survive being adrift at sea?

Seven seconds later, they're picked up, which answers that question. Now they're imprisoned in a Japanese camp!

Big Question #4: Will he survive the prison camp?

 This shot makes me wonder how much of the film they're adrift for, but in the trailer it's only given mere seconds before it's over.

This shot makes me wonder how much of the film they're adrift for, but in the trailer it's only given mere seconds before it's over.

The final 60 seconds focus on the prison camp, but the trailer also reiterates themes introduced earlier with a montage of scenes from before his capture. Since we know how those past events resolved, those shots have no power, suspense or mystery to them, it feels like trying to entice someone with the scent of food when they've already eaten it. 

The last shot is a Japanese officer challenging Louis to lift a large piece of wood over his head, which he then does. This is the last "and then" of many in the trailer. The other problem I have with this trailer is the proportions of time dedicated to each story beat.

Why do they go back to Louis as a child? Forty seconds of the trailer is dedicated to him growing up, training, and then winning the Olympics. That's a full 25% of the trailer; it's longer than a TV spot. It makes sense to show him as a child in the film because it's reinforces how all his life he's persevered.

 Oh, that was fast.

Oh, that was fast.

But the problem with showing it this way in the trailer is it gives us a disproportionate idea of how much of the film will be dedicated to this one story point. There's SO much time spent on the running that I forget the cold open by the time he wins the Olympics. Then after all the build up, it's quickly resolved and we're onto to the next "and then."

A trailer feels spoilery not only by answering big questions, it's from taking a really long time to set up a question, which elevates its significance, and then answering it almost immediately.

For better or for worse, there's no actual way to know for sure whether spoilers affect a film or game's performance. Castaway's trailer spoiled the ending of the film, but the film made over $400 million anyway. So what's the takeaway?

Robert Zemeckis himself said this about trailers:

“We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It’s just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don’t. What I relate it to is McDonald’s. The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu.”

 This is literally one of the last shots in the film. The only way I'd justify this is if most of the film was about what he did after surviving the island.

This is literally one of the last shots in the film. The only way I'd justify this is if most of the film was about what he did after surviving the island.

My guiding philosophy on spoilers is that it's more important to avoid *appearing* like you're spoiling the game or movie than actually spoiling it. Think of what questions you're posing to the audience, and to what degree you're answering them, if at all. The more screen time you devote to the question you pose, the bigger the spoiler will feel if you answer it.

How much context you give or withhold affects the audience's experience. Balancing the line between telling too much or not enough is extremely tricky, but dancing on that line is what makes for the most engaging trailers.


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 Oh no, spoilers!

Oh no, spoilers!