May 2, 2016

Want to Know if a Film's Story Really Works? Don't Watch the Trailer

Want to Know if a Film's Story Works? Don't Watch the Trailer First
When was the last time you saw a movie you knew almost nothing about?

Outside of the film festival circuit, going to a movie without watching the trailer first has become exceedingly rare for most moviegoers. Even if you do actively try to avoid trailers, autoplays bombard you all over the internet from banner ads and newsfeeds.

But if you really want to see if a film’s story works, don’t watch the trailer first.

I should admit this right now: I love trailers, especially on the big screen. When they do their job well, trailers make me want to see a film without revealing too much about the story.

But once I know I want to see a film, I actively avoid all trailers and clips. Why spoil even the smallest detail?

One of my favorite films last year was Ex Machina. I went to see the film purely based on its print ad in the Sunday New York Times, knowing nothing else about it. No trailers. No film stills. No in-depth reviews from critics.

'Ex Machina'

As a result, I got to experience the story of Ex Machina exactly how it unfolds for the protagonist, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson). I couldn’t see around any corners. I had no idea what to expect next. More importantly, the story was so captivating that my writer's brain actually shut down and simply went along for the ride. Afterward, I kept thinking about the film for days because every aspect of the story was still fresh in my mindnot something I had seen ad infinitum for the previous six weeks.

Can you imagine seeing the next installment of Star Wars without seeing a single frame or hearing a single line of dialogue first? Leaving all the overwrought analysis and frame-by-frame trailer dissection behind, and simply enjoy the movie?

Is that even possible anymore?

From a screenwriting perspective, watching a movie without any preconceived notions gleaned from watching a trailer can give you a unique look at how the story unfolds onscreen. You can truly determine how well the film introduces its characters, sets up the story, reveals its inciting incident, and takes you on the journey without wondering when that joke is coming that is no longer funny or if something is lurking in the closet because you’ve seen it a hundred times in the trailer.

So here’s your homework assignment:

  • Pick a movie based solely on its title, poster, and/or genre, or a friend’s recommendation (as long as your friend doesn’t tell you what the movie is about)
  • Actively avoid the trailer
  • Watch the movie
  • After watching the movie, think about how the story unfolded. Focus on character introductions, how and which information is withheld and revealed, and key turning points
  • Consider the following questions:
    • Could you follow the story?
    • Is the story missing something that would make it more complete?
    • Is there any part of the story that you would cut out to streamline the film?
    • Did the story ultimately deliver an ending that you felt was earned and worked for the film? 
  • Extra credit: track down the film’s shooting script and figure out what changed from the shoot to the final edit

How do you analyze the effectiveness of a film's story? Do you actively avoid trailers and clips? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.     

Your Comment

22 Comments

Many modern trailers spoil the story by introducing the protagonist and the antagonist and exposing the most dramatic moments of the film. Add all the extra info and making-offs that surface online, meticulously prepared by the distribution companies, and there is nothing left to discover in the theater.
Today's audiences are very sophisticated, having consumed thousands of narratives, so they can figure out immediately everything that is missing from the trailer. Plus, most of the modern films do not take any risks, so it all ends to be a popcorn-and-coke consuming business...

May 2, 2016 at 3:15PM

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Stel Kouk
Filmmaker
3171

I feel that audiences aren't only sophisticated but also risk-avoiding too. Most of them watch movies based on something (comic, book, sequel, prequel, reboot, remake), original stories have a smaller place in cinemas because there is a preference to watch 'known stories' that's why all the publicity of making of and more are so successful.

May 9, 2016 at 10:27AM

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Abi Stricker
Student
323

thats so true

June 26, 2016 at 9:48AM

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Lucas Brothers
Director,Producer,Screenwriter,storyteller,Editors
96

Hello there, i can't post.. apparently i won't get a mail to confirm user name.. Anyway to fix this?

May 2, 2016 at 6:04PM

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toufek
Lighting cameraman
90

Can't avoid them in the theater.

May 3, 2016 at 1:42AM

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Henry Barnill
Director of Photography
699

You can go in late

May 3, 2016 at 1:45AM

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Matt Nunn
Amateur
506

I love the questions. My wife and I watched The Bridge of Spies the other night. Since I am old enough to remember the era, some of it was no surprise. I immediately noticed the anachronistic cars (1960 and later model cars supposedly in 1957). Later, we criticized the casting - both Hanks and Alda were too old for their roles. But then we tried to think of an actor younger than Hanks who could have carried that right-down-the-middle lead, and could not.

May 3, 2016 at 9:42AM

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Curtis Polk
Principal
232

I avoid trailers these days to the best of my ability. Smaller films its easy, bigger films, I just choose certain films I'm really excited for to have a blackout on. If I"m in the theater I'll leave the room or act like a child and close my eyes and cover my ears. Its hard to get back to that childlike wonderment of a fresh film. Every time I succeed its been beyond worth it. Films truly surprise and invigorate when you have no context, or even a subconscious thought of where it may be headed due to frames/dialogue/entire scenes. Films are scarier, funnier, and all around a better experience sans a full length trailer. Granted Teaser trailer. I'm all about. those flashes and get your imagination going and excited for whats to come in a very unique way as well... I get it, I'm a dork about all this, but Ive been spending the past 2 years trying to find a balance between the media overload, and my own personal experience and enjoyment of films.

May 3, 2016 at 10:56AM

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Seth Evans
Editor
391

Between trailers and ads, I saw one of the funniest parts of a movie twenty times before seeing the movie. That killed it. A punch line doesn't work without punch. So I avoid everything, including posters and reviews. Friends know not to talk to me about movies I haven't seen.

Modern trailers are horrible. After revealing most of the movie, they pile on another minute or two. Really, what's the point, other than how desperate studios are? Look for The Shining trailer (the original, but also watch the excellent, three act parody trailer), a thirty second dolly shot, with no characters, while the announcer lists the genre and director's name.

The best way to pick a movie is with a trusted recommendation. I was ready to eject the DVD during the opening shaky cam and staccato editing of 21 Grams. Luckily, a friend recommended it. Result: I saw a great movie I would have missed.

Short of that, consult http://www.rottentomatoes.com. Keep in mind, the rating is the percentage of positive reviews, not a rating scale.

During trailers, I wait in the lobby. Ask theatre staff how long. Last night, I was told eight minutes, so I entered as the studio logo started playing. Everything about the movie was fresh.

May 3, 2016 at 11:41AM

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Charlie K
1377

When was the last time I saw a movie I knew almost nothing about?

Yesterday. Because that's how I try to see every movie that I watch.
I like to "go in clean". I don't want to read about it ahead of time, I
don't want to see trailers. If I see a trailer then I anticipate when
scenes from the trailer will take place. And I know ahead of time
what the characters will say. If I want to read a book that has an
introduction I don't read that until after I've finished reading the
book itself. I don't want to read a book with someone else's
conception of that book filtering how I take it in.

With a sequential artform like movies, I feel like it's imperative for
me (as much as possible) to let the sequence unfold as intended.

May 3, 2016 at 1:30PM

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Sean Bokenkamp
Animator
347

I've done this a lot - especially good for theaters - I'll check a RT rating to make sure I'm not wasting my money - if it's 80% or higher - don't read a review or trailer and walk in.

Saw Edge of Tomorrow that way and Mad Max Fury Road.

May 3, 2016 at 1:31PM, Edited May 3, 1:31PM

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Exactly what I do. No trailers and just RT ratings (or friends recommendations, though it's surprising how wrong friends can be!)

May 3, 2016 at 10:32PM

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Movies I had seen without any prior knowledge:

Drive
Ex Machina
The Voices
The Bridge
The Sound of Insects

I honestly don't think these movies would have been half as enjoyable had I seen even one trailer. Drive and Ex Machina are easily two of my top 10 favourite films.

May 3, 2016 at 2:12PM

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Kellen McCann
Writer/Director/Editor
81

I tried this recently with Batman V Superman. Little did I know what I had put into motion. I couldn't wait for the movie! Snyder might've slipped up with Man of Steel but surely he could nail down Batman! The characters have existed since before my great grandparents were banging! So I closed my eyes and sealed my ears till the big day! My friends would post the trailers or comments about the film on facebook so I deleted them and their family! I couldn't risk this! It's batman afterall! Finally the day had come! I had bought the tickets back in July! While in line, dressed as batman, I saw a little boy ahead of me with a batman cape. I smiled remembering when I was a child seeing Adam West on big screen as- just then the boy pulled out his batmobile! The little bastard! He spoiled the batmobile! One of the coolest cars to look forward to in every batman movie! I hid myself from light to avoid spoilers and there was this stupid kid! So I walked over and picked the car out of his hands and threw it in the street where a car ran it over. I laughed and his mother looked to me horrified as she took off with her son. I yelled "Maybe you teach that kid not spoil shit!"
Finally! I was sitting in the theater! Then the worst happened! Batman murdered people who were screaming for their lives! Who's Social Network supposed to be playing? Lex Luther!? THIS IS WRONG! If only I saw the trailer I could've avoided this filth! I yelled "NOOOOOO!" Just then I saw the little brat again with his mom, this time they brought the police! I got up, my cape was caught on my seat choking me. The cop ran over and grabbed my wrist. I swung and missed his face. Another cop grabbed me! I started to yell and scream. Everyone watched me kick and scream in my sweaty batman suit. I watched the screen as Batman yelled "Martha" I screamed to the audience "MARTHA!" as I was marched away by the police.

May 3, 2016 at 3:26PM

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Filmbaker
Writer/Director
445

Personally, I hate trailers as 90% of the time they seem more interested in telling you a condensed version of the film than teasing you in. One of the (many) benefits of living in Japan is that rarely, if ever, do they show even commercials on TV for films, so I can actually go into a movie knowing literally nothing about it, except what might be on the poster.
For me, that is how I discovered films in the first place, as a kid. Removing trailers - or any knowledge, because I don't read reviews either - keeps a sense of wonder.

May 3, 2016 at 10:31PM

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I find it interesting that people, "involved in the business", seem to completely over think things. It's amazing you can enjoy film at all. I appreciate your personal preferences.. IE: I don't want to see the trailer, but I'll rely on RT...como! ..., but as a whole, the movie going public LOVES trailers .... what to they say.."the customer is always right" Cheers

May 4, 2016 at 8:16AM, Edited May 4, 8:16AM

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I watch very few trailers, actually. I prefer to avoid them and base my choices on other factors. It's just a personal way of approaching movies. Furthermore, there are more and more badly done trailer that don't represent the movie in the best possibile way, and many trailers that spoil major plot points or even the ending. Trailers are meh, I can happily do without them.

May 4, 2016 at 3:04PM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1273

It's absolutely possible, I don't know what you're talking about. I *never* watch trailers. Online it's not an issue at all, and in cinemas it means you must came in late -- but then I rarely go to cinema these days.

In any case, I hate trailers. There are basically no good ones at all. They are not made by the director but by marketing people. Overdramatized pieces of shit that mislead all while revealing way too much.

May 6, 2016 at 3:42AM

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zetty
Filmmaker
778

Rotten Tomatoes ruins it for me sometimes too...

May 8, 2016 at 10:35PM, Edited May 8, 10:35PM

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Christopher Evans
Video Artist
428

I try to do that with every film, I didn't know that it is so common to see every single thing of the movie before watching it. Most of times I read the synopsis, and maybe one trailer. The last time I watched a movie without any kind of previous info was at bafici, I ended up watching a very good Spanish documentary about and old man that is part of a summer cycle of cinema that goes through all the small towns of Spain. I thought I'd would be boring or awful, but actually it was very good. I don't know if I would've watched it if I saw its trailer.

May 9, 2016 at 10:43AM

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Abi Stricker
Student
323

So I shouldn't be sending strongly worded e-mails to my local film festival for only having a schedule with film titles on it (no trailers or even synopses), even though I might drive 45 minutes to see something I really didn't want to see? I get what you're saying and it's an interesting assignment, but some information gets people interested in the film also.

May 9, 2016 at 1:41PM

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Thomas Prill
Soon-to-be Producer
163

I love watching trailers and getting excited for upcoming films. My only peeve is when they are released way too early and we have to wait forever for the movie (Episode 7). If the trailer has all of the good parts of the movie then it isn't a very good movie in my opinion.

May 12, 2016 at 12:42AM, Edited May 12, 12:43AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
737