The big movie teaser trailers that aren’t being released online

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Both Birds Of Prey and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet have released cinema-only teaser trailers this year – is this the slow start of a new trend? Abi investigates.

This year, many cinema-goers have been treated to the happy surprise of a 2020 release being teased, apropos of nothing, as part of the pre-show trailers of titles like Hobbs & Shaw and It: Chapter 2.

Viewers that forked out in the foyer for the universal pleasure of The Rock’s pectoral definition, highway explosions, or the promise of Pennywise’s gory tricks, got more than a bang for their buck when snippets of Christopher Nolan’s looming summer tentpole Tenet and DC’s February-billed Suicide Squad spinoff Birds of Prey also popped up.

With overarching plots and narrative details still as elusive as that last bit of popcorn that always slips between the seats, the teasers did what they do best. They treated unsuspecting audiences to sudden imagery of the most tantalising kind.

For Tenet, a minimalist glimpse of a wired-up John David Washington and the cryptic tagline of a ‘new protagonist’ sent heads spinning. Where could the mind behind Inception and Interstellar take us next?

Meanwhile Birds of Prey surprised It: Chapter 2  viewers with a brief but dazzling coup of swagger and gunfire: Harley Quinn – played by Margot Robbie, of course – was reintroduced, back and brasher than ever, in a new neon get-up amongst an equally grungy but hopefully far less plot-holey dystopia.

These are two very different kinds of blockbusters, but they both share the now rare trait of first-looks that are exclusive to theatres. They’re both too Warner Bros productions, and its marketing department has been backing the idea of the cinema-only trailer.

The first question of course, is – what’s next? Birds of Prey has already now given the world a digitally rendered glimpse of it’s style (albeit reserving its substance), but if these films have broken the contemporary trend of online orientated marketing, where it might stop?

Could there, one day, be a film — well-funded and containing famous faces  — that exists only in a cinema from the very start of its advertisement campaign all the way to its release? In the world of streaming and tablet watching, those who yearn for the focus on fully immersive, transportive theatre experiences  may be best pleased by the return of trailers and treats reserved for theatre-goers.

But the main question arises – is this ‘old-school’ ad technique worth the gamble?

It does, in many ways seem a risk. After all, the rise of streaming is arguably less down to public rejection of the cinematic and more because the price of attending a cinema showing is expensive for the average guest.

What’s more, over are the days when it made sense for trailers to actually appear according to the implications of their name. A century ago — ever since movie-houses screened a preview for The Pleasure Seekers musical — teasers and their longer counterpart of trailers followed the main event and were more of a polite reminder that new entertainment was on its way. It was footage that worked like a tap on the shoulder and a ‘see-here’ as audiences collected their coats.

It was easy, then, for movie theatres to tease the interest of an already captive ticket-bearing audience. Trailers were palatable precisely because they rode the coattails of a successful theatrical feature. They swept into a welcome space to offer up new releases in a There’s-More-Where-That-Came-From flourish.

But times have changed.

If most people get their media hits from the sofa, studios may be risking the inadvertent opposite of their intention — disinterest. Any missed chance to reach a viewer, even one, in a film’s initial swing for attention means ignorance, which means apathy.

This year, DC wanted to get the rumour-mill running about their comic-busting Harlequin heroine, and they started the murmurs in the foyer itself. But have they forgotten perhaps the biggest initial box office draw for its franchise predecessor, Suicide Squad? The iconic Bohemian Rhapsody teaser, which choreographed the film’s many CGI and fight sequences into a fabulous, Freddie Mercury-backed collage. The impact of that promo was sizeable. Here’s a refresher…

From the minute it was dropped online in full form, it became a global hot-topic. It still reigns supreme (despite the feature film’s middling success) as one of the most viewed teaser-trailers, with 90 million plays since January 2015. A viral, instantly accessible and familiarising element such as this gives any film an edge when it comes to drawing your audience to cinemas in the first place. Today, if it’s trending, it’s thriving, and the anticipation of an upcoming feature cannot necessarily go viral in the same sweeping click-and-share measures if its grand entrance is behind a ticketed wall.

Or can it?

If we’re talking specifics, Nolan and Cathy Yan (the director of Birds of Prey) and the marketing teams behind their films may have gambled, but they are smart. They’re gambling with a straight flush already up their sleeve. If there were any 2020 releases that can afford to experiment and take risks with their marketing, it’s a Nolan sci-fi epic with Robert Pattinson in top billing (a cult-favourite auteur working in one of the most popular genres with a beloved leading man) and Birds of Prey (a DC tentpole in the golden-age of comic book movies, starring golden girl Margot Robbie as the breakout scene-stealer in what is her first lead comic book outing).

And not to mention, the studios chose their audiences carefully. It’s no accident that purveyors of adrenaline and spectacle (Hobbs & Shaw) were tasked with spreading the word of the Tenet sneak peek they witnessed. Or that franchise sequel It: Chapter 2 was also set as the stage for a DC teaser. The filmmakers could be sure that there would be plenty of people in attendance,  and that these plenty of people would be engaged enough with the offered material to become town-criers for it; ramping up excitement-by-proxy with their breathless reporting, and shaky stolen footage.

Secondly, the taboo thrill of hard-to-come-by or surprise glimpses of up-coming blockbusters such as these can cross over into the viral in a different way. Rather than the trailer itself, it’s the mere idea of the thing floating around that gets people buzzing. It’s the Oz effect, where the myth outgrows the maker. Footage of a film that is, at least initially, mystically off-limits, is way more interesting than something handed over on a plate.

In this way, when you can at least be sure that the audiences will recognise, and respond appropriately (i.e. excitedly) to the trailers, then it’s worth the unique release process. This unorthodox marketing campaign may just be the secret key to the way in which Birds of Prey has managed to retain so much buzz after its origin Suicide squad somewhat bombed —  standard hot anticipation is racked up a notch to enflamed, burning eagerness. Eagerness to get in on the rarefied cool-kid club — be in the know — and set our sights on whatever elegant mystery lies behind the theatre curtains.

When teasers for Tenet and Birds of Prey did, at long last, arrive online (not always officially), they did so not just with confidence but with calculated precision. Instead of carrying the full responsibility of kickstarting cultural hype, their ads entered into an already full-fledged forum-wide discussion. There they can ride the wave all the way to glory (or – alternatively – the YouTube trending page, and maybe a Vanity Fair article).

If a project already has its blessings — namely, an in-built audience and safe bets in its billed cast and crew — then it can do the ‘old-school’. For these titles, the taboo thrill of hard-to-come-by glimpses, and the widespread influence of a viral campaign do not have to be mutually exclusive.

As for smaller, more modest films? Then it remains best to hedge your bets with the wider consumer pool and stick to digital teaser-drops. Then cross your fingers that, somewhere along the way, it all ignites…

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