A few days ago, the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, a thriller entitled Contagion, was released around the world, and immediately a certain amount of buzz began to build. It wasn’t over the storyline about a global pandemic quickly growing out of control, or the stellar cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Laurence Fishburne. No, within a few short hours of its release, the web was working overtime to lambast the decision to reveal one of the movie’s major plot points. In case you haven’t heard, we will put up the traditional SPOILER warning, but since this fact is also the main focus of this piece, it seems rather moot. Toward the tail end of the preview, as things are growing more and more desperate, Damon learns that his wife, played by Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, has died from the disease.
Shock! Horror! A major star actually succumbs to the main plot point. While we don’t know the particulars, including when exactly this happens in the narrative and whether or not Damon is actually being told the truth (could be one of those ‘secreted away for experimentation’ ruses), many in Messageboard Nation couldn’t believe that a major motion picture selling itself on subject matter and star power would eighty-six one of its important leads in such a pre-release manner. After all, all the Gwyneth fans out there are probably fuming that their favorite is predestined to buy the farm - remember, at least from the trailer’s viewpoint - while others in the cast are going to live (again, supposedly).
More rabid are those who use the slice of media hype to once again berate the studios desire to “give away” everything in their marketing campaigns. Ever since Robert Zemeckis spilled the bad guys beans in his trailer for What Lies Beneath, audiences have had to put up with killer and victim identifications, important twists and turns in the plot, and enough suggestion and inference to more or less explain the experience. Hollywood has defended said practice, arguing that fans want to know the basics of their upcoming experience, and giving away “some” details allows them to make a more informed decision. Of course, “some” ends up being almost every good joke in a comedy, every shock or scare in a horror film, or every action beat in a big budget popcorn spectacle.
It’s a stupid rationalization. Granted, mediocre motion pictures with nothing more to offer than below average entertainment value definitely need to be sold and sold well. Hinting that something hilarious or horrific is going to happen is a smart way of fooling the otherwise uninformed film fan. But what about someone like me, who understands the ins and outs of the business? Is it fair to the true aficionado to endure trailers which ruin the overall experience? It is right that a movie that makes its entire case based on a single story signature presents said element up front for everyone to see?
Take 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Along with the ludicrous tagline (provided by those agents of arch hyperbole, horror film websites) promising an experience scarier that The Exorcist - apparently usurping The Blair Witch Project‘s position in such a discussion - the trailer outlined everything to expect: first person POV camerawork; bump in the night shivers; a zaftig heroine strutting around like a zombie (that is, when she isn’t whining incessantly to the camera); and most tellingly, a shot featuring someone or something being hurled at a stationary camera. Over and over again, on every TV channel and before every big film, Paramount pushed this little indie that could, eventually opening it to massive box office returns and, what looks like, the start of a new fear franchise.
Except…that shot of someone or something being hurled at the stationary camera remained relevant. As I sat in the press screening, ready to be as freaked out as I was when I saw William Friedkin’s demonic possession classic four decades before (I wasn’t by the way), I kept remembering that moment. As the movie dragged on with little or nothing happening, as the characters complained and then lost their minds over the most minor noises in the night, the shot remained stuck in my creative craw. By the time the movie hit its final few minutes, I wondered if the sequence was one of those “saved for DVD” alternatives - a deleted scene or a different take of something we’d seen before. No such luck. As the last shot set-up, I recognized the routine. I waited. I waited. And then it came, the advertised jolt.
No, it wasn’t scary. How could it be? For nearly 85 minutes I had fully anticipated it. It sat in the back of my brain like a link to a previous memory, making itself known over and over again. Girl kills guy, gives lens a devil’s smile, then black screen. Ho Hum. Now, this happens quite a bit. While I have tried to minimize my contact with the studio pitch position, it’s hard not to settle into a night of relaxed flatscreen scanning and not be bombarded with trailers, ads, TV spots, and other attempted tie-ins for upcoming efforts. Even worse, the “me first” nature of the World Wide Web has every genre website spoiling everything they can, posting the results on Google+ and/or Facebook and then basking in the glow of their sacrilegious scoop. As a result, moments from many movies are laid bare, expressed and experienced without the context the filmmakers wanted or the support the narrative provides.
Long ago, artists like Alfred Hitchcock mandated that previews for his films give little or no story elements away. A good example is the “No One Will Be Seated…” campaign begun with Psycho, done to guarantee that the (SPOILER) death of leading lady Janet Lee could remain a solid stunner. Similarly, the Weinsteins acknowledged the import of The Crying Game‘s big reveal by using it as a marketing ploy. It even produced posters making those who’d seen the film feel like part of an exclusive club, suggesting they not tell others what they knew and, instead, let the clueless experience the surprise themselves. In 1960 or 1992 this might have worked, but today, someone’s cellphone camera would have the entire shower scene posted all over Youtube, while social networking sites would be arguing over the size of Dill’s penis.
So Gwyneth dies. Big deal. Soderbergh is an auteur who, at this point, deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe her passing inspires her husband in a significant way. Maybe it leads to another important plot point (a cure? insight into the disease itself?) Maybe it’s just an unfortunate truism of Tinseltown circa 2011. Whatever the case, spoilers have become part of the creative conversation, as much a part of contemporary cinema as stunt casting and ridiculous visual gimmicks. Should film fans be concerned that an upcoming movie by a celebrated director appears to have been ruined by those in charge of selling it to the public? Perhaps. Should they be surprised? Not really.