By Jerry Chandler
So, I was talking to a friend about ideas for an indie film project he may be involved in and the topic of the film’s trailer came up. An aspect of what one proposed concept for the project would involve having it almost jumping genres in the last third of the film. Something we both agreed on was the idea of not showing anything from the final third of the film in early trailers. Word of the twist would certainly get out once the finished film, should this concept be the final one, started doing the festival circuit, but why give away the game before anyone sees the film? In the discussion, I brought up a film we’ve both cited for longer than we’ve known each other as an example of trailers giving away a great surprise long before the opening weekend. That film is 1994’s From Dusk till Dawn.
Out of the films I’m going to mention, From Dusk till Dawn may be the one with the most forgivable reason for giving away the twist in the film. They wanted to promote it as a horror film and target it largely to the horror genre audiences, so they sort of needed to showcase the vampire scenes in the trailers. But, occasionally, I get in conversations about the film where I question whether it would have been better and cooler if they hadn’t done so; especially given the film’s release in a world largely devoid of the pervasive internet spoiler machine we have today.
From Dusk till Dawn rode into theaters at an interesting time for all involved. Director Robert Rodriguez was a hugely buzzworthy name at the time and riding a substantial wave of praise from fans and critics alike for El Mariachi and Desperado. Quentin Tarantino was riding high as a film lover’s darling thanks to being both the writer and director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and for having writing credits on True Romance and Natural Born Killers. As such, billing him as the screenwriter of the film (based on the story by Robert Kurtzman) was no small thing. Between the two of them, advertising the film as a charismatic bad guys on the run type of affair would have garnered the project no small amount of interest given the fact that this genre would have fallen neatly into the type of project they were most widely identified with. Add to that sales pitch the celebrity power of George Clooney (one of the biggest stars of that moment thanks to his role on ER) as the star of the film and you already have a film that’s likely going to draw an audience. Throw in names like Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, and others on top of that and you’ve just got icing on the cake. Certainly I’m going to see that film even without the hint of the first vampire in any of the prerelease advertising.
Now, the idea of not promoting the film using any of its horror elements until after the release weekend may seem like a tough sell to some of you, but let me set the stage for my questions to you. It’s the last couple of months of 1995. You’re a fan, perhaps a really big fan, of Tarantino and/or Rodriguez. You start seeing ads and trailers for a new film directed by Rodriguez, written by Tarantino, and starring George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Salma Hayek, and Quentin Tarantino with scenes in the trailers also showing some familiar faces from their other films as well as some longtime genre names. The movie appears to be a down and dirty story of bad guys on the run who are trying to get across the border to safety, and in the process of fleeing the authorities they take a vacationing family hostage. The ads and trailers use snippets from some of the best scenes and best lines from the film’s first half to three quarters.
Would you have gone to see that film?
If yes, let’s take it a step further. You’re sitting in the theater on the opening weekend, popcorn and soda in hand, watching the story of the Gecko brothers and the Fuller family unfold before your eyes up on the big screen. You’ve learned that Seth has a code and seems largely trustworthy when it comes to the promises he’s made the family, you’ve learned that Richie is a freaking nutcase who could go off at any wrong moment, and you’ve started to feel the appropriate levels of sympathy for the Fuller family and their plight. You watch as our band of travelers cross the border and make their way to Seth’s destination, a trucker bar/strip club in the middle of nowhere named The Titty Twister. They’ve gotten inside, they’ve taken their seat, Seth is celebrating, the brothers are waiting for their contact to arrive, and the Fullers are waiting for the moment to come when they can return to their lives. You’re wondering as you’re watching where everything is going from here. You’re wondering how all of this resolves itself before the end of the film. Suddenly, something goes wrong and the trouble is about to start. Just as you’re bracing yourself for the expected turn of events, the unexpected happens instead and you’re suddenly in the middle of a vampire massacre.
How freaking awesome would that have been? How amazingly and coolly disorienting would those first few moments have been as your brain tried to reset itself and get the train back on the tracks after expecting a crime movie styled bash up and instead you had Mexican vampires coming out of the woodwork in droves?
From Dusk till Dawn was one of those films that had the ability to surprise audiences on its opening weekend. It was one of those films that had the ability to throw a curveball at the expectations of the genre audience and to create a wildly different feeling movie going experience for those first weekend audiences.
I for one would have loved that. A part of why I would have loved it was the word I used just a moment ago. That moment where the film shifted gears and everyone suddenly realized they were watching a horror movie break out in the middle of a badass criminal road film would have been an experience. Sometimes a good filmmaker (or even just a gimmicky one) can make a movie an experience for the audience, and making everyone in the theater as momentarily confused and shocked as the characters on screen, making everyone in the audience largely in the first few moments of the vampire reveal feel some of the same sensations and emotions the characters are supposed to be feeling, is turning a movie moment into a bit of an experience.
Now, From Dusk till Dawn is an extreme example of where a movie could benefit from saving some surprises for the film during the ad campaign. That would have been a film completely jumping genres and more than a few studio bigwigs may have seen withholding that fact (if the idea of not revealing the vampires in the early ad campaign was ever even brought up) as a somewhat risky idea. But there have been a lot of semi-recent to very recent films where it may have been nice to not have had some things put into the trailers and TV spots.
2008’s Quarantine caught some grief (even from people who hadn’t already seen [REC]) by literally putting the last scene of the movie into the trailers and TV spots. The last scene of the movie is also the final fate of the lead character. As more than a few people I knew said after seeing it; it became obvious what was going to happen to her the closer the film got to its ending as the scene from the ads hadn’t yet occurred in the film. But the issues with the ad campaign for Quarantine could be chalked up to many behind the campaign simply being boneheads.
Two slightly more recent (and obvious once the films are named) examples that had me feeling a little bit cheated in the surprise department were Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok.
The Marvel films have largely been on fire with fans and with making huge bank at the box office. The first weekend audiences were largely set and ready to go long before the release of the films. With Captain America: Civil War, there probably wasn’t a huge number of people in the first weekend audiences who decided to see the film just because of the last minute trailer featuring Spider-Man. I would have loved to have been sitting there in the theater watching the film and suddenly been caught by surprise by seeing Peter Parker (or, if the filming was done differently, Spider-Man at the airport) up on the screen. Likewise, and it would have been easy to do and required no change at all to the film, it would have been amazingly cool to know nothing about Hulk being in Thor: Ragnarok until he exploded through the door and out into the arena.
I would have loved to have been sitting there watching Rogue One while knowing nothing about Darth Vader showing up for the final act until the final act was playing out on screen.
This can be done. Hell, it was done recently. I won’t blow the surprise here since so many people still have not seen M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, but the film was a pleasant surprise for more than just being an M. Night Shyamalan film that was once again a really enjoyable M. Night Shyamalan film. He delivered a surprise, something that was familiar to movie goers from outside of that film, that was never even hinted at in the ad campaign and was literally a jaw dropper of a twist.
But the studios do need to be smart about doing this. It was actually attempted recently with a major studio film that many in Warner Brothers are hoping to see make epic box office figures for them, but it was perhaps the dumbest film to attempt it with. The Justice League trailers were notable for many things, but one major thing was the noticeable absence of Superman. This would have been a great thing to do had it not been made clear that the film was going to showcase the return of Superman, had Zack Snyder not been teasing the return in early 2017, had there not already been set photos released, and had they not had Henry Cavill doing the prerelease promotional tour for the film.
Think back to the American Godzilla from a few years ago. Think about the ad campaign. They played very coy with details on the monsters Godzilla would be facing; rarely letting us catch any real glimpse of them in ads. They even played it coy about letting us see Godzilla in any great detail in the ad campaign. Between that and a fantastic internet ad campaign using a website designed to look like the info dump resource of the agency tasked with tracking the monsters, they created a nice sense of anticipation, and many were pleasantly surprised by what they finally saw on screen even though they knew walking in that they were going to see Godzilla and a monster that was not a traditional Godzilla foe. Think about Kong: Skull Island for a minute. What was the big buzz moment after the first weekend that many were talking about as much or more than the movie itself? Many people (who weren’t plugged in to geek info networks) were excited by the after credits stinger surprising them with the images of three of Godzilla’s most legendary sparring partners.
Give us more surprises. Movies are entertainment, but a part of that entertainment can in fact be making movies something of an experience again. One way to do that is by legitimately catching audiences off guard and surprising the hell out of them. Sometimes that can be as simple as having a Planet Hulk gladiator version of Hulk showing up in the middle of a Thor film. Sometimes that can be through catching the audience totally unprepared by shifting genres on them and having the audience feeling as momentarily confused and surprised as the film’s characters are supposed to be at that moment. Hopefully, when done right, it’s also the kind of thing that would get more people wanting to get to the theaters on the opening weekend.
I’m going to use a wrestling analogy here, because, of course I would. WCW was entering the mid-nineties getting stomped in the ratings by the WWF. Even the move to create a sense of competition didn’t actually help them much at first. When they launched Monday Nitro to compete with WWF’s Monday Night RAW, there was no real competition going on if you went by the ratings.
Then they did two very important things. The first doesn’t actually have any great relevance here other than allowing them to capitalize on the second thing. They took advantage of being a live show vs WWF’s taped show. They pushed the idea that anything could happen with a live show, and you had to tune in to see what might happen. But, hey, that taped show already had its results on fan forums days before it aired. It was old news before the show even started on Monday night. In a way, this might actually apply if only to the concept of convincing people to get into theaters on the opening weekend to see what happens before it’s spoiled by word of mouth.
The second thing they did was essentially the genesis of the n.W.o. and much of the early appeal of Nitro for fans. Scott Hall came in, but he wasn’t brought in in typical fashion. He was an outsider who came in through the crowd and laid down a challenge to WCW. The thing was, no one knew he was even a free agent. No one knew he had left the WWF. Then Nash showed up with him in much the same way. Unlike having the first Nitro do this with Lex Luger and then not really continuing to make fans take notice, this started to become the norm on Nitro for a while. The word of mouth amongst wrestling fans was that you had to watch Nitro, because, if you didn’t, you were going to miss something surprising and unexpected. You had to watch, because if you didn’t you would be left out of the watercooler talk the next day about whatever wild surprise or twist happened the night before.
For a while, in wrestling circles, this made Nitro must see TV for wrestling fans the night it aired and not as VHS fodder to be viewed the next day or later in the week. You never wanted to miss the experience of being surprised as well as entertained that night. You might tune in one night and have nothing of that nature happen, but you still knew (for a while at least) that the odds were good that, on top of a what had become at that point a genuinely entertaining show, you would get an “OMG” surprise moment that would be the watercooler talk at work the next day with fellow wrestling fans.
I’d kind of like to have that experience again with movies. I’d love to see trailers that aren’t giving away too much, and I’d love to see movies marketed with the idea of hiding those types of “OMG” cool moments in the ad campaign at least until the Monday after the release of the film. I’d love to go into the theater, enjoy a really entertaining film, and then, on top of that, have the experience in the theater of the filmmakers pulling a rabbit out of their hats and making everyone in the theater do an OMG double take at the screen.
It’s really not too much to ask for, and it’s the kind of thing that, if it started becoming a regular occurrence with some studios or franchises, would probably get more people to get to the theaters on the release weekends. They’ve already gotten fans to sit through the entire credits in the hopes that they can see a minute or less of “OMG” cool surprises (vs Captain America telling you that sometimes things just aren’t worth the wait) as it is. I think then that it’s by no means farfetched to think that many fans that were already planning to see the film at some point during its release would make the effort to see it on the opening weekend if the studios got into the habit of saving some surprises for the movies. It might even get some people to shift their decision from “rent/stream” to “theater” on films that are part of franchises that do this more regularly.
In a way, it’s a concept that’s a bit like the ballyhoo gimmicks of old. It’s an idea that simply might make seeing the films in the theaters and on opening weekends just a little more fun.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as the horror host. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast and regularly talking horror films on the Assignment: Horror Podcast.