why are movie trailers so

Have we lost the art of making movie trailers?

Studio Ghibli's decision to forego trailers for "How Do You Live?" has sparked a debate over how modern movies are often ruined by overenthusiastic and excessive trailers.


Last week, Studio Ghibli announced the long-anticipated release of veteran director Hayao Miyazaki’s next – and final – film, How Do You Live? But there was a twist: the film would be released without a trailer. Why? Because, as the producer Toshio Suzuki noted in an interview, ‘if you watch all [the trailers] you know everything that’s going to happen in that movie. So how do moviegoers feel about that? There must be people, who, after watching all the trailers, don’t want to actually go see the movie. So, I wanted to do the opposite of that’.

Suzuki is right: lately, I’ve taken to sitting in cinemas with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears as the trailers for films that I’ve been looking forward to start playing – a ritual that I only recently inaugurated following the release of the trailer for Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of SadnessAlready a fan of Östlund’s earlier films, my discovery that his latest feature had received an 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes left me giddy with anticipation. This was some six months before the film’s release. Over the next half a year, I avoided reading or watching anything that might give the game away – I wanted to see Triangle of Sadness without even a whiff of the film’s premise.

hayao miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to make one more film, How Do You Live?, which will not feature a trailer release

But then, a week or so before its release, I went to see another film at the cinema, where I was subjected to a two-and-a-half minute précis of Triangle of Sadness. The trailer itself is beautifully crafted – a work of art in its own right, perfectly edited and brilliantly conceived; a sort of filmic bait for otherwise on-the-fence viewers. But it’s also a chronological rendering of the film in miniature, from its satirical opening to its vomit-and-shit crescendo before its post-wreckage denouement. And while it’s no substitute for seeing the two-and-a-half-hour film, it leaves little to the imagination: all of the best gags and most of the narrative direction have snuck their way in. 

The Triangle of Sadness trailer leaves very little to the imagination (if you haven’t seen the film, it is strongly recommended not to press play). 

The trailer for Östlund’s film is no outlier: this seems to be the magic formula for almost all contemporary significant releases – and I’m not just talking Hollywood blockbusters. Because while you might expect such action-packed, spoiler-heavy trailers from, say, the latest Transformers film, Östlund’s non-English language, Palme d’Or winners have traditionally been made in the arthouse mould. 


READ MORE: Transformers: Rise of the Beasts review | Even the Maximals can’t save this tired sequel


What’s really strange about all of this is that these show-all trailers aren’t simply the byproduct of trying to cram too much material into too many minutes – the spoilers are intentionally placedNowadays, promotional work gets farmed out to dedicated trailer-making companies, who make several cuts and screen them for test audiences. It turns out most people actually do want to know what’s going to happen at the end. How did it come to this? 

According to film legend, the first trailer appeared in a cinema in 1913 – but it wasn’t for a movie. Taking advantage of a captive audience, Broadway producer Nils Granlund realised he could insert promotional material for stage plays between cinematic screenings. Using some basic rehearsal footage, Granlund strung together short promotional films and tacked them to the end of the main event – or trailed them after the film. 

That same year, film producer William Selig devised a similar strategy: drawing on the serialised cartoons and stories popular in newspapers since the nineteenth century, Selig began creating short, serialised adventure films for the big screen. How did he get viewers to come back? By trailing ‘teasers’ from the next instalment at the end of every movie. Before long, Hollywood had cottoned onto the promotional coup, and studios began assembling their own trailers for high-profile films. 


READ MORE: The Menu and Triangle of Sadness | We can’t eat the rich, but we CAN laugh at them


From 1920 to the 1980s, the National Screen Service distributed all theatrical advertising materials in the United States. In practice, this meant that until around the 1960s, most Hollywood film trailers followed a pretty generic formula: punchy title cards (‘The greatest motion picture of all time!’) announcing illustrious stars (‘starring Marilyn Monroe!’) to the sound of triumphant fanfare and overenthusiastic voice overs.

One early film to buck this trend was Citizen Kane (1941), with its almost four-minute trailer, a standalone ‘making-of’, which didn’t feature a jot of footage from the film itself. Instead, this documentary-style trailer showcases Orson Welles as auteur: not only the film’s director, Welles also co-wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, and the trailer bears the hallmarks of a man who wanted artistic control over every facet of his film. 

‘Lights!’ Welles can be heard shouting, Godlike, into a dark space, suddenly punctured by a shaft of hazy light (Welles is known for his beautifully lit shots). ‘Give me a mic!’ Welles orders, clicking his fingers—a mic swings into view. ‘How do you do, ladies and gentlemen? This is Orson Welles’. We can’t see him – but that’s because he’s behind the camera, doing the directing. ‘I’m speaking from the Mercury Theatre, and what follows is supposed to advertise our first motion picture’.

What follows is, in a sense, Welles at work: the camera pans, catching actors candidly walking around the set, while Welles orders more ‘light’ and ‘directs’ his cast to ‘smile for the folks’. It’s a deft bit of directorial flexing, a spectacle as well as a showcase, reminding us who the star of this show is, not only in front of the camera but behind it too.

My favourite film trailer of all time might be Stanley Kubrick’s teaser for The Shining (1980)It’s brilliantly simple: the camera is locked onto the hotel elevator (you know the shot). Tremolo strings provide a muted background sound, interrupted only by the occasional chime of a bell or plucked bass string. Nothing is happening. It feels strange, but we can’t quite say why.

As the captions scroll, the strings become more frantic and the chimes more frequent, mixing with the sound of chanting voices and synth stabs. There’s a mounting sense of sonic chaos, but the camera still holds on to nothing. And then, of course, blood gushes out of the elevator doors, filling the lobby and staining the camera lens as the music reaches fever pitch. We’ve absolutely no idea what this film is about, but it will be terrifying.

Around the mid-1980s, film trailers began to regress into something more formulaic: though more sophisticated than the National Screen Service promos of the 1940s and 50s, they were no less predictable. ‘In a world where…’ came the throaty sound of ubiquitous voice actor Don LaFontaine over the top of almost every trailer released between 1985 and 2002.

By the late 00s (around the time of LaFontaine’s death), the voiceover had dropped out of most film trailers, edits had picked up the pace (thanks to the switch from film to digital), and the tight synergy between sound and vision ushered in the era of the editor-as-craftsman. Yet, while trailers have been subject to changing fashions, one trend has remained on an upward trajectory: the tendency towards overexposure. 

For film lovers, then (and not just blockbuster fanatics), Studio Ghibli’s decision not to release promotional material for their latest film is like a breath of fresh air; a lovely, quiet acknowledgement of the Studio’s reputation, free from the rises and rug pulls and other tricks that make up the modern-day trailer trade. Of course, I’m under no illusions: Studio Ghibli hardly represents the film industry at large.

Nevertheless, the decision not to run promotional trailers has garnered international news coverage – and rightly so. Because surely we’ve reached saturation point with excessive, baroque and frankly formulaic trailers. Studio Ghibli’s bold decision reminds us that it’s time to start thinking outside the box again, to give the art of making movie trailers the recognition it deserves by reimagining what it can do. Can I look now? 


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