Knives Out, and the rarity of a big marketing campaign that doesn’t spoil the film

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Movie trailers are back to a point where they’re giving away sizeable spoilers – but the success of Knives Out proves there’s another way.

With a global box office take of $125m and more ceiling room to come, Rian Johnson’s new film – Knives Out – has been a flat-out treat for the end of the year. The movie cost $40m to make, and has been building up word of mouth off the back of its festival premieres in the autumn.

But also, it’s been steered to the screen off the back of a marketing campaign of real skill. It’s also, I’d suggest, been a campaign that has a flat-out level of respect for its audience. Given that the film is a whodunnit, it walks a very fine line between teasing the movie, and not actually giving anything of substance away. In fact, one of the many pleasures of the film is just how unspoilt I realised I was when finally sitting down to watch it.

The promotions tell us the basics. We’re getting a murder mystery in a big house. That Daniel Craig is the lead detective (and what a lead detective). That’s there’s going to be some woolly attire. That there’s an ensemble cast full of suspects and amazing actors.

And, remarkably, watching the trailers back after seeing the full film, the promos really tell you precious little more than that. That’s not to say it doesn’t show stuff that takes place outside of the first third of the film. It’s just the footage is chosen so well, that there’s no clue you could take from it.

Here, as proof, is the first trailer we saw for the film…

It’s moderately depressing though, by way of countering that, that such a marketing campaign is worthy of an article of its own in the modern era.

Most of us are long used to the way a movie of size is now promoted. That we get three trailers as a rule – invariably called the teaser, the full trailer and the payoff trailer. With each comes more footage, and with each, more of the metaphorical game is given away. Hollywood goes through swings and roundabouts on its spoiler-y trailers, but occasionally, it goes through a real fad of showing way too much in the previews.

Terminator: Genisys (pictured), back in 2015, infamously gave away a major twist in the movie in its trailer, much to the chagrin of its director, Alan Taylor (I discuss this in a podcast episode, here). How To Train Your Dragon 2 had a reveal of such significant in its trailer, that animators at DreamWorks were reportedly very unhappy it had been included. Films such as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Prometheus­, through their trailers, clips and still image releases, had given us a sizeable chunk of the respective films before they’d made it to a cinema screen.

This year, it really feels as though things have regressed again.

In particular, the promo for Jordan Peele’s eagerly awaited Us at the start of the year seemed a flat-out masterclass in what not to do. I’ve not embedded the trailer in question in the article here for fear of it being clicked on by somebody who’s not seen the film. If you haven’t, avoid the trailer at all costs. If you have, check it out and marvel at just how much story currency is traded off in exchange for trying to get people through the door. It’s bewildering it was allowed out.

It’s not the only one of this year’s films to spoil things in advance. The remake of Pet Semetary was teased with a trailer that effectively gave away a big twist in the film, for instance. There have been one or two more recent examples too, and as studios have struggled more and more for hits, it seems more and more of the game is being given away again. Perhaps it’s a trend, that it varies across the years. I don’t recall last year’s trailers being as spoiler-y as this, for instance. But right now, spoilers feel rife again.

There is a counter argument to all of this, of course. Those who cut trailers tell us that they have to make the best of the footage they’ve got. That we’re in an era where the movie trailer is the prime, most pertinent and effective piece of marketing that a film can get. As such, there’s little point holding back the most impactful material – which oftentimes of course falls in the last third of a movie – when competition at the box office is so intense. I don’t agree with that, but then I don’t run a major movie studio, and my Christmas bonus isn’t linked to the box office take of a movie I greenlit.

But I am a customer. I do go to the cinema, I happily pay my ticket price, and when I’m presented with a bunch of trailers in advance of the main feature, I don’t think it’s a big ask that the films being teased manage to keep key plot points in tact.

Intriguingly, the promo that I saw over the weekend for Sam Mendes’ new film, 1917, takes a very different approach altogether. Effectively hosted by the director, it’s less a tease for the film’s story, more a mini-DVD extra in advance. The trailer – that’s currently playing in UK cinemas – details the behind the scenes challenges of the film’s ambitious attempt to present a movie in one or two continuous flows. It’ll be intriguing to see if the promotion continues that focus, over explaining the narrative in more detail.

I live in hope, though, that Knives Out – whilst highly unlikely to be any kind of turning point – at least offers proof positive to Hollywood that not only is it possible to cut trailers that respect the audience and don’t blow big moments before the audience has even settled down for the film, but that also, the film in question can still hit big.

There have been plenty of factors that have built to the success of Knives Out. It’s bloody good for a start, the word of mouth has been terrific, the reviews strong, the knitwear on display peerless. But also, a marketing campaign that manages to tease a film, that captures its tone and gives you the basics of what it’s about, but leaves the film’s surprises to be discovered only when you stump up for a ticket.

I live in hope that it’s an approach that catches on.

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