When is the optimum time to arrive at the cinema? If you answered: “Exactly 10 minutes before the advertised start, so I can be seated in time to catch all the trailers,” then, congratulations. That was the correct answer 15 years ago. These days, if you make it to your seat before the BBFC’s rating card you are in risk of seeing something you might not like.
Sonic the Hedgehog, Cats, Last Christmas, Doolittle: 2019 has been a banner year for bad trailers. None of the above titles have even reached the multiplexes yet, but their promos have already been comprehensively dissected and dissed online. First there was Paramount’s upcoming video game adaptation Sonic the Hedgehog, whose creepy CGI hero, complete with worryingly human teeth and legs, appalled and terrified Twitter. Sonic was followed by another stomach-churning rollercoaster ride into the depths of the uncanny valley in the form of the now-notorious Cats trailer, and its nightmarish half-human, half-moggie hybrid creatures. Doolittle added a condensed tour of the UK to its CGI weirdness, care of Robert Downey Jr’s bizarrely roaming accent, while the trailer for Emilia “Daenerys” Clarke’s upcoming film, Last Christmas, was criticised for seeming to feature a dead giveaway of the film’s presumed third-act twist (“Dead” being the operative word).
Are trailers actually getting worse? Or are the above simply casualties of the social media age and its tendency towards relentless over-analysis? Certainly, online reaction to bad trailers is having an impact. In May, Sonic director Jeff Fowler responded to criticism by pushing back the film’s release date and vowing to re-jig Sonic’s look until every last 90s Sega-head was happy.
For proof of the growing significance of trailers, one only needs to head to YouTube, where reaction videos have become a sub-genre of film criticism in their own right. Among the most successful practitioners is Grace Randolph, who recently trended with her Star Wars: Episode IX trailer breakdown. Randolph did not cover trailers at first, “but my viewers started asking me to do them, so I gave it a whirl – and wow! There’s such excitement about trailers!”
Randolph’s professional tastes range from schlocky horror to prestige drama, but when it comes to what she does not like, she is unequivocal: “The worst kind of trailer is the one nobody talks about, good or bad.” In this regard, Cats and co might be purring on opening weekend. “Watch all those movies [with bad trailers] do well at the box office! I’m totally serious! Cats is so bad it’s a must-watch to be part of the trash-talk. And, hey, movie tickets are movie tickets, even if they’re bought to hate-watch.”
Indeed, far from being a historically bad time for movie trailers, the industry is booming like never before, and supposedly “bad” trailers are the proof. Social media’s multiple platforms mean more trailers being made for a single movie release (the “teaser”, the follow-up, the “red band” R-rated trailers edited for YouTube, the Instagram story, the “trailer for the trailer” etc), more people watching, more people making them, and more innovation – if also more imitation. The gravelly “In a world … ” voiceover is not heard quite so often, but new cliches are constantly emerging. Doolittle’s take on What a Wonderful World offers a notably obnoxious example of the vogue for moody song covers.
Perhaps the greatest measure of the trailer’s current critic-proof confidence is the Golden Fleece award given out annually since 1999 at movie marketing’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Golden Trailers. As awards co-founder Evelyn Brady-Watters puts it, this is to celebrate “the trailer that does a brilliant job selling a not-so-brilliant movie”. Trailers can only be nominated by their production companies with the permission of the film studio. “We’re pleased that the industry has had such a great sense of humour,” Brady-Watters adds. “This category is a highlight, as it is truly the highest form of the art of crafting a great trailer.”
So good trailers can also be bad trailers, when they unjustly raise audience expectations. And “bad” trailers are actually good trailers, if they play well online. It is no wonder that we are both more entertained and more confused than ever. What time should we get to the cinema again?