This article contains spoilers for Southpaw, Terminator: Genisys, Jurassic World, Star Trek Into Darkness, Terminator 3, Terminator Salvation and even Rocky V
I’ve seen Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie Southpaw. It’s okay, kind of like a grittier version of Rocky V if instead of just going broke Rocky also lost custody of his son and had to start boxing again. The actual boxing on display is possibly the most realistic I’ve ever seen in any boxing movie, and Gyllenhaal looks like a beast in the ring. Shame about [spoiler] dying.
Wait. What the heck am I talking about? I haven’t seen Southpaw. It only feels like I have because I watched the trailer when it dropped 3 months ago, and now that Southpaw is in theaters all the reviews confirm that the early trailer truly was a condensed version of the full movie. Rachel McAdams, playing Gyllenhaal’s wife and mother of his daughter, dies a third of the way into the movie, but she’s dead less a minute into the trailer. It’s the instigating event that derails Gyllenhaal’s life and ultimately sets him on the path toward redemption. However, did they really have to spoil that in the trailer?
Doesn’t this argument sound awfully familiar by now? It feels like we have been complaining about trailers giving away too many spoilers for at least a decade. Southpaw is the example of the moment. Around a month ago it was Terminator: Genisys. A couple of weeks before that it was Jurassic World. Last summer it was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. If you go even further back, both Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator 3 (2003) gave away their big twists in trailers.
But why? Why do studio marketing departments feel so desperate that they need to give the plot away for free? According to the various production houses which actually make the trailers, it’s because their focus testing consistently shows that we want to be spoiled. Speaking to EW, one of the execs responsible for the Southpaw trailer admitted, “There was a lot of discussion internally about whether to show the wife’s death. But as much as people complain, the more of the plot the trailer offers, the more interest it gets. People have felt burned in the past.”
The logic is that we have become weary of trailers not because of spoilers but because of how many times they mislead us. Trailers always want to shove movies into a neat little recognizable box, but that’s tougher to do now that so many movies are made outside the studio system thus freeing them to straddle multiple genres. In my own personal experience over the past couple of years, it’s been remarkable how many times I have watched an indie comedy that turned deadly serious. I have come to expect it at this point. It arguably makes for more interesting movies with recognizably human (i.e., flawed ) characters, but marketing those types of movies is a real bitch. So, a dark drama with some comedic elements (e.g., August: Osage County) will be sold to us a comedy, but then we’ll walk out complaining, “That wasn’t funny at all.” However, if a trailer gives away more of the plot we’ll at least feel more assured that we know exactly what to expect from that movie. Or so the argument goes.
Dan Asma, co-owner of trailer agency Buddha Jones, told EW, “We prefer to be mysterious. But testing consistently says that numbers spike when you give away more.” Even if it gives away too much, that predictably sets off a renewed round of arguments about spoilery trailers which means plenty of articles which will have to mention something like Southpaw and thus remind people that Southpaw is a movie they might like to see in theaters right now.
I don’t know how much I personally buy the argument that we might want to be spoiled more because we’ve been burned too many times by misleading trailers. I’ve always assumed spoiler-heavy trailers were made as acts of desperation to stand out in an increasingly crowded market. After all, those movies whose box office prospects are on better footing, like anything Pixar or Marvel Studios makes, don’t have to stoop to that level. But maybe the more desperate trailers really do stem from what they find out in early focus groups.
There hadn’t been a good Jurassic Park movie since the first one over 20 years ago. So, Jurassic World kicks off with an instant conversation-starter: Holy shit! Is Chris Pratt going to control Velociraptors in this movie? The early Genisys trailers didn’t seem to move the needle much in convincing people to give another Terminator movie a chance. So, Paramount figured why not give away the big spoiler to get people talking the same way Terminator 3 let it slip that Arnie would go from good to evil and Salvation proudly announced the main character was a Terminator who thought he was a human?
A non-Rocky boxing movie hasn’t made significant money since maybe The Fighter. Why not reveal that Southpaw’s version of Adrian dies early on? Oh, that makes it stand out a little more.
It comes at a cost. When you already know the plot twist it can almost be comical sitting in the theater and marveling at how much the movie wants to surprise you. That’s why directors Colin Trevorrow, Alan Taylor and Antoine Fuqua have had some unkind things to say about the marketing campaigns for Jurassic World, Genisys and Southpaw. However, Fuqua told EW, “I had to roll with it. The audience, I guess, needs a little more.” That belief might be why some people have stopped watching trailers entirely.