When I was about ten I became obsessed with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the whole Peanuts comic strip. I still have a library of those paperback compilation books that I haven’t had the heart to part with.
One of the recurring scenes was of Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, standing in front of her class for a ‘show and tell’ session, when she had to bring in something interesting from her weekend or holiday and explain why it was so interesting.
I was talking to a primary school teacher last week. She told me that the fashion in schools these days is not ‘show and tell’, but to teach children to show without telling. They have to find ways of letting a story speak for itself, of letting a drama unfold, of leading listeners to a place where they can reach a conclusion or draw a moral for themselves.
It’s good that advertising executives in the film industry are learning the same lessons themselves, and realising that it is better to tease people in the trailers than to tell them everything about the forthcoming film. As Jane Graham writes:
[Until very recently] the vast majority of studio-financed trailer-makers have played it safe, their audience-tested trailers following the basic three-act rule of set-up, jeopardy and emotional- or action-based blow-out. Now, however, thanks mainly to that feral little monster, the internet, and one of its most recent and riotous offspring, the viral, there are strong signs of a creeping rebellion in trailer-making…
JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield trailer, released in July 2007, was a brilliant example of the latter. Shown in US cinemas before the blockbuster Transformers, this teaser used footage from what looked like a home movie featuring screaming, running crowds and explosions in New York. Flying in the face of the first commandment of film promo (consistently supported by market research) that the more the trailer explains and reveals, the more commercially effective it is, it was devoid of information and untitled – only a release date and the name of JJ Abrams appeared onscreen.
As David Stern suggests, the most significant impact that Rance’s “improv” virals have had on trailers has been to free them from a commitment to plot information. The best online trailers don’t go beyond “teaser” territory, needing only to intrigue, or even confuse, to set film fans off on a detective’s quest. This has allowed for some genuinely innovative and smart promo work, like the fake news report on Dr Manhattan that formed part of the alternative Watchmen universe, and the Coraline trailer in which Neil Gaiman gravely described the effects of koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, which set the tone for his script.
It’s better to tease than to tell. And it might mean that I don’t have to close my eyes and hum during the trailers to avoid having the plots revealed.