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