‘I Ain’t Afraid of No YouTube’: When Hollywood Trailers Become Unhitched From Their Films

Key scenes in trailers are briskly propelled before our eyes like a Willy Wonka candy-machine set to rapid-fire auto-spoiler by some sucrose-soaked Oompa Lumpa Tony Montana.

I like a good film trailer. More specifically, I like a good film trailer for a movie I don’t have any particular interest in. I’m glad that Sandra Bullock is still getting work; I’m happy that I’ve heard a track that the youth are into, because it will be my only reference point for the next six months; and I’m grateful for the free waterworks and pyrotechnic displays, but nope, I’m still not buying what’s being sold.

Conversely, when I see a trailer for a film I am really looking forward to, I don’t especially appreciate an unrelentingly frenetic disgorging of pre-emptive film facts all over my shell-shocked face. I’ll return to Ghostbusters (2016) later, but that moment in the trailer when an elevated apparition vomits gloopy gunk all over Kristen Wiig’s paranormal investigator, Erin Gilbert? That’s how I often feel when I see trailers for films I already planned on watching. As Gilbert says: “That stuff went everywhere by the way; in every crack. Very hard to wash off,” and I totally get that: I’ve still got many weeks left to eradicate the stain of the dirt-bike from Star Trek Beyond’s trailer from the crevices of my mind.

Unfortunately, slow and selective trailers aren’t a common phenomenon in Hollywood; they’re far more likely to be compressed, crammed, and kind of compromised as they all have one objective: to sell you everything in 2.5 minutes or less before the message self-destructs and you get ownership of your retinas back. Here, an advertising campaign might hit its first hitch because every one of us has differing expectations from a film trailer. So, while I’m in the metaphoric bathroom, scrubbing my hands like Lady Macbeth, you might actually want to know that super-critical twist in Terminator Genysis before you even step foot in the cinema. That’s okay because the Hollywood trailer is not a subtle creature in trying to please everyone with everything.

Trailer plots for Hollywood films are usually laid out for us like intricate bank heist blue-prints reduced to a Spot the Dog children’s book. “Where’s the love of your life hiding? There he is! He’s in the zoo, two-dimensionally avoiding your passive-aggressive need for intimacy!” The key scenes are often briskly propelled before our eyes like a Willy Wonka candy-machine set to rapid-fire auto-spoiler by some sucrose-soaked Oompa Lumpa Tony Montana. “Say ‘Hello’ to where we spent the budget, even if it does negate the dramatic force of the film” he might improbably be heard intoning.

The leading cast, bless them, are unwittingly paraded around like show ponies in dressage, edited to some insta-mood, tempo-altered cover-song, cajoling you to throw your hard-earned, crisp dollar notes in the direction of their prime-time twerk-stage. There may also be inexplicable, percussive metal clangs resonating in tandem with fades to black, as though the ruptured birthing of each shot being cannon fired into the world was heralding a blue-filtered End of Days, but don’t let that distract you from the omniscient, unseen narrator firmly assuring an entirely silent cinema audience that the film is “hilarious” because some fashion magazine you have never bought said so.

It’s easy to get swept up in the comedy cavalcade of advertising tropes, but as Lisa Kernan reminds us in Coming Attractions: Reading Movie Trailers: “Trailers are a specific, persuasive kind of attraction: while they continually invoke a heightened presence through their display of spectacular images, essentially the announcement (of a not-yet-seen film) is the event.” (pg. 17-18) Still, with this announcement — the impact of which will have been undoubtedly rendered less effective by news outlets, months in advance — must come sensational, sizzling images that sell the idea of the movie. It’s not enough to have an advert in the local newspaper saying “New Avengers film born today. Mother and Stan Lee are said to be happy”, we also need to be given secondary “events” alongside the announcements, culminating in moments like Spider-Man crotch-shot-ing his way into our hearts and minds like a Lycra-clad cherub for the Mountain Dew generation in the trailer for Captain America: Civil War.

These unfurled revelations and strategically selected reveals have a vital purpose in Hollywood marketing strategies. As Tiiu Lukk explains in Movie Marketing: Opening The Picture and Giving It Legs: “Trailers are one of the film-makers’ best chances to seduce a captive, demographically desirable audience into seeing their film when it comes out.” (pg. 217) Film trailers then, seem to be the Mrs. Robinson of promotional techniques, and while that may be satisfactory for many, it does come with its own set of problems: namely that the people that are most “desirable”, or feel that they are in this “desirable” demographic, will have their own culturally acquired expectations. (For example: “Star Wars: The force Awakens must have Han Solo in it…”)

However, this butts up against a potential film trailer paradox: this same group might want to have an idea of exactly what will be in the upcoming film without having the film spoilt for them by the trailer (“… but I didn’t want to know that Han Solo was in it…”), and if changes to their projected expectations are made (“…and why is that Stormtrooper a black man?”), then “fans” might express their dissatisfaction with a trailer’s “events” based on a sense of directorial self-entitlement that is encouraged by the film studios but never actually theirs to own — it’s still predominantly a marketing ploy to sell tickets.

Film trailers are a critical part of the movie maker’s advertising arsenal, yet unless you go to the cinema regularly it’s not really that difficult to avoid them, and I’m not so sure that audiences are kept “captive” by them so much anymore. Rental DVDs and Blu-rays (with their unskippable trailers) are on the decline while “digital distribution options like VOD and electronic-sell-through options including iTunes, and subscription VOD options including Netflix [and Amazon]” are on the up, and given that the digital environment is supposed to be one of convenience and instant on-tap gratification, they’re not as militant in keeping you from the content that you’ve paid good money for.

This doesn’t mean that the internet is free of film promotion; it’s just present in numerous other ways. In Understanding Audiences and the Film Industry, Roy Stafford writes about push and pull. If traditional advertising means include posters, tie-in products, and film trailers which are “pushed” towards prospective audiences, then digital worlds offer more opportunities for “pull”: domains in which the individual might find themselves gravitating for more extra-textual information, such as official/fan sites and blogs, and online information repositories, such as the IMDB, iTunes Movie Trailers, and YouTube.

Online information can still be “pushed” – the constant barrage of banner ads, flash ads, email ads, and (auto-playing) video ads are a persistent reminder of that, and let’s not forget social media ads, which come in the form of paid for targeted advertising (using demographic data sold on some shadowy, unseen media cattle market), and the constant, competitive twittering of entertainment news outlets, who are more than happy to run Game of Thrones spoilers before I’ve watched the latest episode.

This distinction between “push” and “pull” is critical though, because as Stafford suggests: fans who actively “pull together information about new releases” or “Someone who seeks out and selects a trailer or a website for a new film could feel differently towards the film than if they had felt compelled to watch the film following months of paid promotion.” (pg. 164-165) It’s not lost on Stafford how “pull” may largely be another form of controlled “push”, but the tangential point I would like to emphasize is how the encouragement of “pull” by movie studios might encourage fans to take ownership of their own experiences through greater interactivity with the aforementioned idea of the movie, even if it does still primarily emanate from marketing contrivances dispersed prior to the release of the movie.

For example, as Keith M. Johnston points out in Trailers in the Digital Age, with film trailers being released online and now far more accessible than they have ever been, “This increased level of control promoted the trailer to a high position within fan culture, which could now scrutinize the montage of imagery laid out for them, and share their findings with other fans.” Fans have always deconstructed and pooled supplementary information, but in the digital world, the gap between the audience (and their own “pulled” expectations) and the publicity machine (with their own “pushed” expectations) is significantly reduced, with media sites such as YouTube sometimes becoming the bloody battlefield where the two invested parties meet.

Which leads me to recent events.

The GHOSTBUSTERS – Official Trailer (HD) video was released into the wilds of YouTube on 3 March 2016 to advertise an upcoming reboot of the Ghostbusters films from 1984 and 1989. At the time of writing this article, the video has nearly 34 million views, with just over 250,000 “likes” and almost 880,000 “dislikes”. Despite the small percentage of negative votes when compared to views (and keep in mind that this data is all easy to manipulate), when the video hit 600,000 dislikes, multiple news sites started to simultaneously report on how the trailer was the most “disliked” piece of film content to be uploaded onto YouTube in its 11-year history. It’s almost like an interested party had sent out a press release to drive traffic to their website.

Reading the overwhelmingly negative comments section yields diverse opinions and reactions to the Ghostbusters trailer. Responses include Logan Ranew’s resistance to change: “not a fan why are you introducing all this new bullshit to ghostbusters”; Alyssa P’s misguided assertion that “making an all female cast remake for the sake of feminism is really dumb imo”; Meta E.’s backlash to the backlash of the backlash: “I kind of wanted to see this, until the people who made it started saying bad things about their potential audience”; and Jay Jeckel’s belief that “all four of [the actors] are very talented and funny” followed swiftly by the trailer based observation that all hope for a good film “ended when the trailer showed an imitation of the library scene from the original and they had shoved a barf gag into it. That was unnecessary and lowbrow, showing the nothing that this reboot will add to the franchise.”

I don’t intend to debate the arguments that have been encircling the new Ghostbusters trailer like a hungry Jaws around a boat full of bubbly teenagers (as in: there’s some merit to both sides of the evisceration); I’m primarily concerned with how the YouTube video is being used as a site of contention for much more than a film that hasn’t even been released yet. YouTube doesn’t hold its viewers “captive” like a cinema theatre, and as a public forum it isn’t interested in people keeping their feelings to themselves, but with the multi-million-dollar marketing machines flirting closer and closer with the film-going public and their vocal opinions, responses need to be anticipated and advertising campaigns need to flex accordingly.

The second trailer for Ghostbusters featured a pointed joke about racial and sexual prejudice, but one wonders if in being reflexively hip to the YouTube debacle, the trailer is pushing even further from Ray Parker Jr.’s empirically derived observation that bustin’ makes one feel good. This just makes me feel sad inside.

Back to the first trailer, with the constant “pushing” and “pulling” of information, secondary “events”, and ambiguously contextualized shots (which prompted the accusations of potential racism), the idea of Ghostbusters, more than anything, has now become the taut rope in a tug-of-war over reboots, female casting, race issues, expectations of Hollywood films, expectations of Hollywood junkets, and the now seemingly mythical “desirable audience”. In many ways, the trailers could be seen as a failure because the buzz that’s currently surrounding Ghostbusters has been almost entirely populated by discussions of the negativity surrounding its advertising.

As an interesting comparison, the Beauty and the Beast Official US Teaser Trailer video was published on YouTube on 23 May 2016 to whip up interest for a reimagined tale as old as time (circa. 1991), based on Disney’s earlier iteration of the public domain classic Beauty and the Beast. On YouTube, the video currently has 16.5 million views, with a comparatively meagre 6,000 “dislikes”, but of more significance is the fact that spanning all of its cross-platform media outlets (such as Facebook, Twitter, websites, TV commercials, etc.), the video “has broken the record for views of a teaser-style trailer” having been “watched 91.8m times in the first 24 hours of its release, taking it ahead of the 88m views garnered by the second teaser for The Force Awakens in 2014.”

Ghostbusters and Beauty and the Beast are both based on pre-existing properties, and will both presumably feature strong female leads ensconced in an exorbitantly lavish CGI setting of supernatural phenomena, yet their trailers have been received in very different ways by fans, and discussed in equally divergent ways within the media – both social and journalistic. Only once Ghostbusters has been released, the dinero has been stored and counted in a Scrooge McDuck money bin (I’m speculating this is how Hollywood works), and the spectral miasma has settled, will we be able to start properly discussing the significance of what any of this means, but it does return me back to my original thoughts: I like a good film trailer for a movie I don’t have any particular interest in, because when it comes to films I’ve already committed to seeing, things can get very complicated, very quickly.