Do Movie Trailers Show Too Much?

Creating mystery, "the catalyst for imagination."


“Just let it in.”

Let it in I did: the official trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens hit every feel-good bone in my body.

The stirring music, dynamic camera movement, and epic vistas triggered a rush of emotion that had me counting down the days until the film’s release.

Seriously, it’s true, all of it:

But there’s something else at play, here, too… A disturbance in The Force that fed the mounting anticipation that swept the internet last fall.

Namely, for all its nostalgia and grandeur, the trailer does not reveal the film’s plot. Audiences were treated to two minutes of mystery, sparking frame-by-frame dissections and endless story speculation, upon which JJ Abrams and his team refused to comment.

As the director put it in a TED Talk: “mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” Intentionally withholding information “is much more engaging” than divulging it.

Visual CliffsNotes

Fast forward a few months, and the trailer for Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, arguably one of the most anticipated films of this year, drops:

It’s extremely well cut – from Matthew McConaughey’s character Newt Knight pulling a trigger to a massive explosion; from lynched men to a funeral procession – but why bother to see the movie? We just did the visual equivalent of reading the CliffsNotes.

Personally, I would have loved to experience the film’s first act wondering what the inciting incident will be. Instead we witness the death of a young man that presumably pushes Knight over the edge. I would have loved to experience the surprise of the funeral ambush. Instead it’s featured in this whirlwind summary of the story. The difference between the trailers for Free State of Jones and The Force Awakens is night and day.

Tease or Tell?

At present, the world of the movie trailer is divided between trailers that tease and trailers that tell.

To understand why, let’s look at the history of the movie trailer through the lens of, yes, Star Wars:

In a nutshell, Hollywood’s blockbuster era built on the straight sales pitches of the 1920s with Voiceover Guy, who “explained plot details, introduced characters, and just generally sounded really fired up.” The point? Get people back in the theatre. Today, the paradigm has shifted away from Voiceover Guy, but his exposition is done by “fired up editing” that tips the film’s hand.

Historically, the approach works. It sells seats. In the words of Screenrant’s Ben Kendrick:

As much as movie fans like to think that story and character drama are still key ingredients in attracting an audience, with higher production costs, heightened expectations for event theater viewing, and an overstuffed market of movie options to choose from, drawing casual attendees with eye-popping visuals (“Optimus Prime rides a robot dinosaur? Wow!”) and in-your-face twists (“John Connor has been turned into a Terminator? What?”) is the safer bet – even if it comes at the expense of more dedicated theatergoers.

That said, it’s interesting to think on how franchises accommodate a shorthand that facilitates mystery, per The Verge’s video above.

For example, when we see the Marvel logo, we know we’re in the Marvel world. When we see the Lucasfilm logo, we know we’re in a galaxy far, far away. These settings and their characters are imprinted in our collective consciousness; they require little explanation, so we have room to experiment that can encourage creative risks.

Lesser-known stories are leaning into the impressionistic direction, too. So we have the teaser-trailer for Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant –

– the form of which faithfully suggests the film’s visceral, poetic journey.

More recently, we have the trailer for Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

– a mesmerizing suggestion of the film’s tone and satire. Granted, both films are based on books, guaranteeing a presold audience, but they’re not nearly on the same level of brand recognition as our juggernaut superhero and space opera franchises.

Other examples abound. In particular, the pulse-pounding teaser for David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) – parodied by The Muppets (2011) – and the immediately gripping mini-drama of the trailer for Gravity (2013) come to mind.

Their Number Is Legion

One thing is certain: trailers are here to stay.

Last year, “people watched 35 million hours of movie trailers on YouTube just on mobile devices in the first six months of this year” – an 88% increase over the same period in 2014! To keep up with the demand, trailer houses are proliferating; where there were a dozen fifteen years ago, there are more than a hundred today.

I, for one, hope that Star Wars has helped awaken another paradigm shift in the trailer-editing industry, moving us away from CliffsNotes and toward mystery, that catalyst for imagination.

What do you think? Do you want more or less in your film trailers? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with

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