It’s hard to overstate the frenzy the first trailer for The Phantom Menace whipped people into when it appeared in November of 1998. I was so excited I recorded it off Entertainment Tonight on to a VHS cassette and downloaded it from StarWars.com over a 56k modem. People who were more masochistic bought tickets to Meet Joe Black, The Siege, or The Waterboy just to see it.
Millions of people believed they were in for the greatest cinematic experience of their lives.
Six months later the movie opened.
Now, two months before that, The Matrix opened. Ask someone today where they were when the trailer for it came out and you’re likely to get a blank look. Yet the response to The Matrix was, if not initially then eventually, more rapturous than the response to The Phantom Menace.
I suspect that most people, given a choice, would prefer the latter to the former, i.e., tepid hype and a good movie to fevered hype and a bad movie.
For me, however, seeing The Phantom Menace trailer and seeing The Matrix were both thrilling, memorable experiences. Why should one rank higher than the other? If anything, the delirious buildup to the ho-hum Phantom Menace may have been more enjoyable than seeing the jaw-dropping Matrix. With movies, as with sex, anticipation is part of the fun.
In her 2004 book Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers, Lisa Kernan argues that people like trailers partly because they can project their hopes on to them. She writes, “The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see, from faces to car crashes, with a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—we desire not the real film but the film we want to see.”
This might also explain the scorn for trailers that give too much away. People like to imagine what may be.
If the past is any indication, most of the movies you see this summer won’t live up to the expectations you have for them. But that’s okay. Try to luxuriate in and hold on to as long as possible the optimism you felt after first seeing their trailers. The pleasure of living in this space is no less real, and often much more intense, than the pleasures of the movies themselves.