The Following Post Has Been Approved for All Audiences

Curator's Note

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 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.


Thanks, Matt, for the thoughtful post about movie trailers. Indeed, part of the fun of the summer movie season for me is all of the trailers that I'll get to see. Often the trailers--condensing the film's most moving, exciting, or funny moments--are far better than the films themselves.

I'm glad we're opening up the contemporary summer blockbuster to include these paratextual objects, since the blockbuster has been far more than just a movie for a long time. My post on Thursday will deal in part with the advertisements that they show in movie theaters before the trailers (not to mention, the feature). So that got me thinking about all of the behind-the-scenes "featurettes" and other promotional vignettes that are far more common (and easily accessible) now than in 1998. Sometimes they show these in theaters while people are waiting for the movie to start. Or they are available online. Peter Jackson has probably taken this the furthest with his "preproduction diaries" released on the Web many months before a film's debut. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about how this changes how we anticipate a film or react to a movie trailer.

Thanks for your comment, Tanine. It’s funny you should mention behind-the-scenes featurettes and/or preproduction diaries, as George Lucas & Co. made a bunch of mini ones for The Phantom Menace and put them online in the buildup to the film’s release. I spent umpteen hours downloading them and have the scars to prove it. Lucas, for all I know, may have been the one to start this trend. A number of them, if I remember correctly, even predated the first trailer. None of them, however, grabbed me the way the first trailer did. Perhaps that’s because behind-the-scenes documentaries are inherently deconstructive, while trailers, done right, are inherently constructive. One pulls back the curtain while the other invites you down the Yellow Brick Road. But I would argue that the order in which you encounter these things is important. Generally speaking, I find behind-the-scenes documentaries more interesting after I’ve seen the finished product. Trailers still do a better job of making me want to see something.

Thanks Matt, nice thought-provoking post. It also makes me wonder about the pleasures of what Jonathan Gay calls paratextual material in general, and the ways in which we might think about and analyze those pleasures in distinction from their overdetermined economic functions.

Thanks for this post, Matt.  There's definitely an increased trend by studios in the years since The Phantom Menace to make the release of certain 'event' trailers an event in and of themselves; however I don't know if the concept has ever reached the kind of fever pitch it did with that trailer release -- but we are talking about one of the most popular franchises in history here, not much else is comparable. 

I still think there could be a bit more analysis in our field on film trailers, as taken over a year, they constitute a significant amount of viewing time for those of us who see films regularly.  I've sometimes seen beautiful trailers for films that turned out to be much less than the sum of their "special" moments, and vice versa.  Conversely, in reference to the Kernan quote above, studios certainly do often request a certain direction for promotion and indeed design the way a film should be promoted via what they think the audience wants to see...the way a trailer is constructed can sometimes completely misrepresent the film itself (though purely for business purposes, of course!).

I would argue that there is indeed a somewhat 'lost art' to movie trailers, as in film posters.  They just don't seem to be as creative or humble as they once were, at least those generating from the Hollywood system; many do indeed seem to reveal the entire arc of the movie they are promoting in two and half minutes... 

I've often thought of attacking this subject a bit in a blog post...perhaps I will soon.

...As for another example of pre-production diaries that are far more fascinating than the feature film itself: I would put Bryan Singer's pre-production videos for Superman Returns (2006) in this catagory.

I think the enjoyment of trailers and the enjoyment of films are in fact the enjoyment of two different art forms by different artists. The trailer is rarely made by the same people making the film (the exception usually following to independent films). The trailer is created by the marketing department often before the film is ever finished and, I think, for the audience member is more closely likened to the enjoyment we feel by watching superbowl ads. The enjoyment of how effective they are in creating anticipation and desire in a span of a few minutes.

(apologies for super late response... I happened upon this while looking for something else. hope it is still useful.)

I have always hated trailers. I'm the one in the audience with my eyes closed and my fingers jammed into my ears, singing loudly to block out the sound. (I'm embarrassed to admit that I often sing "baa baa blacksheep". no idea why.) to me, trailers destroy the movie-watching experience completely. to condense the 4.5 good moments of an entire movie into a trailer is cruel. because then I find myself having to watch random stuff while eagerly awaiting those amazing moments they had shown me in the trailer. and when those moments occur, my reaction to them is not joy or excitement or anything even remotely positive. it's just: oh, there's that moment. if you show me the joke in the trailer, I'm not going to laugh when I see it in the movie. thanks for killing it.

the other thing they spoil for me is the visuals. especially with sci-fi movies for which this is an important element. I want to be surprised! thrilled! amazed! but if I see it in the trailer, the thrill is gone. 

having said that, there are some movies I know I'm never going to watch. and for these, thankfully, there are trailers. for example, sex and the city 2 - there was no way in hell I was watching that, so seeing the trailer was definitely more than enough. in this case, trailers keep me in the loop of what's going on in the world without having to pay the money and sit through hours of crap. 

I like your idea of trailers being the promise of something beautiful... it's a romantic notion. but it doesn't work for me.

while rare, there have been trailers that tease - I think this works better. a trailer should be something that gives you snippets but not the answers, not the punchline. something that whets the appetite, makes you want more, seduces you, and makes it hard for you to resist... as you noted, I want some of that fun anticipation ;)

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.