Be Careful What You Tease For

The teaser (contains Star Trek III: The Search for Spock spoilers!)
The other day I glimpsed the shocking image of the starship Enterprise falling out of the sky, a stunning memento of last year’s Star Trek Into Darkness teaser, where the vessel crashes in all the digital particle glory one cannot possibly imagine. It’s a visual spectacle but while it surely underlines the dark tone the campaign is aiming for and its edgy “world falling apart”-rhethoric, I found it to be somewhat self-important and, frankly, not quite as moving at all. Compare the smoking starship with Tony Stark’s struggle in the Iron Man 3 teaser campaign on the right.


Both posters focus on what are some of ILM’s greatest visuals, but I find myself invested in the character of Tony Stark on the one hand and spoiled by a stunning turn of events exploited for a shock-and-awe tease on the other. I want to see what Stark will do in the next Iron Man film – and his suit getting smacked is a series staple, not a major spoiler – but am quite indifferent to the Star Trek poster. It already familiarises me with a dramatic turn of events that I am now fully prepared for – despite having avoided everything (except for the very first teaser).

In preparation for J.J. Abrams’s sophomore Starfleet epic, I reviewed the OST movies (1979-91) and was awed not only by the characters’ grappling with retirement and obsolence, but how ILM’s marvelous rendition of the Enterprise’s destruction in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock not only holds up extremly well today, but was concisely predicated on the characters’ disposition: seasoned, aged and battle-worn, their (final) realisation of defeat and loss was overwhelming and captured in this signature shot from Leonard Nimoy’s 1984 directorial effort.


Most importantly, the destruction of the original Enterprise was an event that in 1984 the average film-goer was completely unprepared for, so the emotional impact on the characters and audiences was mutual. And therein lies the problem of modern marketeering.

Campaigning for an upcoming motion picture – a product whose singular selling point is telling a story visually using images, sounds and events unseen before – must not reveal the finished product to the point where audiences are effectively ahead of the characters all the time. The first viewing will otherwise strangely seem like the umpteenth repeat on a cable television due to the awkward familiarity with the plot.

Take Kathryn Bigelow’s much-coveted Zero Dark Thirty: scores of trailers were telegraphing the entire film in advance. The filmmakers’ and marketeers’ pride in the finished product is as palpable as it is ruinous to the filmgoing experience. It’s not simply the resolution, which is well known in the case of ZD30, but the various set pieces which were distinctly laid out: the shots, angles, colours, framing, seriously deflating the first viewing experience. People walk into movies knowing what sequences are about to be projected these days. Everything marketing throws at you nowadays prepares everyone for what to expect: an unsettling common occurrence these days. Let us consider a teaser campaign for one of last year’s major tentpoles, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in greater detail to elaborate on the problematic teaser situation.

The feature: Exposing set pieces and cornering Prometheus
I shall discuss the pre-release buzz surrounding Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to give an example of how detrimental early, impatient pride can have on a motion picture release and its public reception.

Trailers must master the art of mystique. Answers shall be asked but never answered. Over decades, trailers’ almost exclusive habitat used to be the movie theater, whence word of mouth hastily sketched a description of images that was as fuzzy as it was individually inclinated. Such controlled form of distribution favoured a trailer’s primary function of placing a name and a release date in people’s minds. The internet changed all that: it was well established that a new Alien was in the works, a fact overwhelmingly substantiated by 2010’s Alien Anthology BD set, in which a sideletter by Sir Ridley Scott announced his return to the legendary sci-fi series he had put on the screen in the first place. This is quite a positive advantage of the web, people started talking about a film that hadn’t even been filmed yet.

The downside of the Internet rears its ugly face once watchable media is flooding websites: ubiquity and frame-by-frame playback render any well-conceived tease an instant spoiler rather than a treat. Careless proliferation of various trailers eviscerating the same film further exacerbates the conspicuity of web contents. Prometheus is a frustrating but formidable example.

!!! SPOILER ALERT !!! if you have yet to see Prometheus do not, repeat, do not read any further!

The Prometheus teaser released in December 2011 reveals the following pieces of information, listed in no particular order:
(1) A desperate voice over reveals that things are not as the characters had expected them to be
(2) Eponymous space craft entering atmosphere
(3) Flamethrowers throwing flames
(4) Vehicles exiting hangar
(5) Crewmember’s helmet melting
(6) Lab tests on a strangely familiar “head”
(7) Crew members running towards the camera in terror
(8) Huge explosion in the atmosphere
(9) Massive and very familiar alien craft dropping out of the sky
(10) Crewmembers in awe / bewildered
(11) Crewmember screaming, red lights flashing
(12) Strange contraption rising out of a very recognisable platform…strange looking, bio-mechanoid fellow looking on
(13) Crewmember in great pain, begging for mercy
(14) Crewmembers running from dropping alien craft
(15) Brilliant starmap sort of hologram
(16) Big storm flushing crewmember off screen
(17) Crewmember in pain, screaming, transforming
(18) Crewmember entering escape pod
(19) Crewmembers entering huge room filled with ampules being watched by a massive stone head sculpture
(20) Blonde guy lifting gooey stuff out of said ampules

The Prometheus teaser is excellent. The announced film clearly must be epic, great terror is involved and questions will be answered. It also appears to be the legendary Derelict from the original Alien, for it’s lodged in almost the same position as the vessel seen in the 1979 feature.

So something explodes that makes the ship – whose iconic “chair” we see rising out of a platform here under the watchful eye of an unspecified giant – drop out of the sky. Are the crewmembers investigating that ship? The corridors seem awkwardly familiar at least. Has the ship arrived because the humans triggered an alarm? Whatever happens, we humans seem to get soundly beaten/smashed/transformed.

Good teaser.

Naturally a web user points out a few days later that the screaming cap wearing dude may be headed for a collision course with said alien craft. Hence the screaming and blinking red lights. Good point. Why did they show this crewmember surrounded by blinking controls in the teaser?

Meanwhile, director Ridley Scott announces that he wants “audiences to be scared shitless” and that Prometheus “is going to be very tough”.

March comes along and with it the Prometheus release trailer. It looks superb, the visuals are astounding but:
(1) Some guy is desintigrating next to a waterfall
(2) Something throws crewmembers to and fro inside a hangar
(3) Lifeforms are detected, move, kill, need to be cut off
(4) Prometheus visibly crashes into alien craft
(5) Alien craft lies hidden underneath the surface of the planet the humans are investigating
(6) Alien craft is revealed to be headed for earth to kill us all: that’s why the lead character is “so sorry” in the teaser

Bad release trailer.

Months before the film proper opens, marketers deem it wise to hand to the public, free of charge, the very huge story beat that the Prometheus is at some point put on a collision course with the fabled Derelict, which is just taking off on a mission to destroy Earth. Unless all of this is happening in the film’s first fifteen minutes, 20th Century Fox just gave away several major plot points that had been envisioned as great dramatic developments.

Before a single cent had been spent at the ticket booth, Prometheus was arguably deflated by the very studio promoting it. Whatever surprises the mission had in store for the ship’s crew is known to the audience beforehand. In particular, all the drama of the film’s turning point was lost on filmgoers.

The subsequent launch of tv spots went even further by claiming to tease the “ultimate terror”, revealing the grisly death of one of the crewmembers practically in its entirety. Unfortunately, it’s the only grisly death scene and therefore also grossly misleading.

Visually, Prometheus had also spent its entire cartridge of creativity before it even premiered. In addition to plot points being revealed, every setpiece is painstakingly detailed by the trailers, to the point I was far too familiar with the production.

As a consequence, I vowed never to watch a trailer for a film I desperately want to see. Given that Star Wars Episode VII is jumping out of hyperspace in the not too distant future, that is quite a tall claim to make. I succeeded doing so, for instance in the case of Skyfall, which I found greatly entertaining, in part or precisely because I had only known its title and the posters depicting Daniel Craig.

The payoff

Despite squandering rich story beats like the King of France in its marketing campaign, I like Prometheus a lot and have watched it a number of times and continue recommending it. I still cannot help thinking that a greater subtlety in marketing the film would have afforded it greater success, as Idris Elba smartly suggested when he praised the teaser trailer for its coyness.

I hope the summer of 2013 will indeed make good on its tease of great and surprising things…and that Abrams’s Enterprise at the very least crashes at the beginning of Into Darkness to keep the spoilage levels to a minimum…

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