Researchers at the University of East Anglia have have released the results of a survey that shows film audiences are tired of trailers that reveal too much plot or misrepresent the films they are marketing. The survey is the first large-scale non-industry study of the general trailer audience, revealing a range of information about audience viewing habits, likes and dislikes in relation to trailer content, and strong opinions on the ‘spoiler’ nature of the modern trailer.
Lead researcher Dr Keith M. Johnston from UEA’s school of Art, Media and American Studies, said: “The release of a blockbuster trailer like The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies is now a media event, featured on news channels, distributed and discussed via movie and fan websites, and widely shared across social media.
“Yet despite the enduring appeal and apparent popularity of these coming attractions, modern trailer releases arrive with a perceived popular stigma – the presumption that they actively mislead or deceive audiences.
“Our research confirms this complaint. But we also found that audiences are aware of those issues when they watch a trailer, and find trailers enjoyable despite the expectations that a marketing campaign might set up.
“The key message to trailer producers, however, is that audiences want to be excited and teased about forthcoming films, to be emotionally engaged without feeling pummelled by excessive narrative revelation.”
The study revealed that more than 80 per cent of respondents were ‘disappointed’ with a given feature film after having seen its trailer. Viewers are regularly frustrated with trailers as a result of perceived ‘spoiler’ information and ‘deception’; audiences are strongly irritated by the revelation of crucial plot details including surprises, narrative reveals and plot outcomes – despite decades of industry research that indicates audiences are more likely to see a film the more they know about it in advance.
Speaking to Filmoria, Dr. Keith M Johnston added “There were two surprising things: one was the confirmation that trailer viewing is done online, almost entirely. Cinema was still coming up the next biggest, but with 60 plus percent saying that online was the way that they were accessing trailers. It points to one of the findings that people like the online option because they can revisit; so the idea of re-watching and sometimes watching multiple times became a key concept [for the survey].
“I suppose the next big thing was that there was a much more complicated spectrum of people’s attitudes to the trailer. So even though 80% said they had been disappointed with the feature having viewed the trailer, only about 40% said that this happened often, which we didn’t expect.
“The Hobbit was the highest recurring trailer that was mentioned, then 12 Years A Slave. Everyone was mentioning individual films, but there was definitely a cluster around the blockbuster releases like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy and Man of Steel.
“The respondents demonstrated that there is an expectation that trailers might be a bit misleading. And there was some general concern over the fact that they’d go and see a trailer, and the trailer might suggest a comedy, and the final film might not be as comic as they were expecting. But there were a lot of people saying that they understood that the trailer is selling us something. In at least of quarter of responses there was a sense that people knew that the trailer has a particular purpose and that they weren’t expecting to get the full truth, but they still hoped they would get something that would tease and excite them in someway. And that became very important, that belief that even though the trailer might reveal more than you want, the important thing was that the trailer tease them in someway and give them a sense of expectation. And if that anticipation could be built, that seemed to get past some of the concerns about how much information they were getting.”
“A lot of the time what people were responding to was not that they felt misled by the trailer, so much that the feature film didn’t live up to that trailer. So I think that one of the issues here is expectation setting, because the trailer is suggesting something impressive and exciting, and the feature film sometimes comes off quite badly in respect of that. One of the dominant [films mentioned] was Man of Steel, with people claiming that the trailer has set a particular tone that they responded to; they felt an emotional connection to the story it was laying out; and they liked how it looked – the aesthetics looked pleasing. And then there were a lot of negative responses to the film. The expectations had been raised and the trailer was offering something that was very different that what [audiences] actually got.
“Twenty years ago if I’d gone to the cinema I would have seen three or four trailers and then I would never have been able to see those trailers again. So I couldn’t compare. But there is a danger now that people can go back and revisit the trailers on Youtube or Apple, or wherever. But I think that trailer makers are aware of this. Trailers are much more visually layered than they were twenty years ago, because they seem to expect that frame by frame analysis, particularly for the big films. You know that the Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer that came out a couple of weeks back was designed for that. You know The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies trailer will be designed for that.
“There were several respondents who were basically saying that as soon as they see a future film that they know is coming that they’re interested in, they stop watching any marketing. At that point they say I don’t want to see clips, I don’t want to see marketing, I just want to go in pure. And there were also people saying that there is a certain sense of fatigue sometimes. One of the examples given was The Wolverine campaign that featured a Vine trailer, a teaser trailer, an online trailer, a main trailer. There was a sense that the committed fan still wants that, but the casual viewer there is a sense that they don’t need as much information as that campaign gave them.”
Watching the Trailer: general responses:
- Almost 60% of respondents now watch trailers online, and only 25% in cinemas, confirming a shift in trailer viewing that has occurred over the past decade
- Nearly 81% indicated that they regularly search for specific trailer titles online
- Such viewing was strongly driven by peer recommendation and the desire to keep ‘up to date’ with tent-pole film releases and the associated audio-visual marketing materials that featured in online articles and across social media
- Audiences responded positively to trailers that presented cast, story, music, imagery, and use of special effects. The desire for ‘repeat viewing’ of the trailer was pronounced (evidenced in regular trailer ‘breakdowns’ found on entertainment websites and blog posts)
- Viewing of trailers was frequently described by respondents as ‘entertainment research’ – confirming the choice of what to see, providing factual information (release date, cast, director)
- Trailer viewing was linked to the pleasures of a well-known franchise (such as The Hobbit), notably around narrative content or continuing emotional connection
- Negative reactions were seen around the production style of large-scale film adaptations, namely perceptions of ‘accuracy’ in visual and narrative representation (for example, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug trailer was criticised around the HD look of the film, its perceived reliance on cameos, and wider issues of how the book had been adapted).
- On the key issue of whether trailers reveal too much, respondents offered a range of reactions, including:
- ‘It showed far too much of the action and storyline’
- ‘Trailers frequently give a distorted view of the film’
- ‘It dramatically built up the hype for the film without revealing the whole plot’
- ‘All different aspects of film shown – a great taster’
- In terms of influencing audience behaviour, trailers elicit distinct reactions, broadly dividing along the lines of existing fans, existing ‘haters’ and some generally neutral observers:
- Fans described eager anticipation, excitement, enjoyment, interest in a known franchise, ‘tantalising glimpses’, and the desire for repeat viewing
- Non-fans used emotionally charged language to disparage: ‘terrible films,’ ‘fake’, ‘pretty rubbish’ or deriding films for skewing too young in tone, approach or style
- Neutral respondents noted their indifference to marketing materials, describing a lack of ‘emotional investment’
Watching the Trailer: Trailers as ‘Misleading’
Despite decades of industry research that indicates audiences are more likely to see a film the more they know about it in advance, survey respondents voiced strong irritation at the revelation of crucial plot details, including surprises, narrative reveals and plot outcomes:
- Over 80% of respondents stated that they were ‘disappointed’ with a given feature film after having seen its trailer
- But only 40% qualified that disappointment with trailers as ‘often’, ‘frequently’, or ‘too many times’
- Research revealed regular frustration with and dislike for trailers as a result of perceived ‘spoiler’ information and ‘deception’
- Misrepresentation was a key word here, with audiences displeased at what they see as a difference between what is sold, and the finished film
- Man of Steel (2012) was listed by many respondents as an example of a trailer that had a strong emotional and narrative hook, but where the final film was described as ‘disappointing’ in comparison
- Respondents explicitly linked this displeasure to how trailers create individual expectations that feature films are unable to meet.
- Indeed, a recurring refrain through this research was that despite the negative tone some respondents adopted, the trailer was often hailed as better than the feature film:
- ‘the [Man of Steel] trailer had a better story, better pacing, better use of music, and stronger emotions than the film did’
- ‘The trailer for Grand Budapest Hotel was much more entertaining than the film itself’
- ‘The Prometheus trailer was… wonderful in its own right, and did an absolutely brilliant job of showcasing something that promised to be thoughtful, spectacular and exciting.’
- Yet respondents were also clearly able to distinguish between the function of a trailer and the finished feature film, noting that the trailer’s job was to ‘sell’ or ‘convince’ (not be a completely accurate representation)
Despite this range of responses, however, it remains clear that the bulk of respondents agree that audiences want trailers that excite, tease and leave them emotionally engaged, without revealing excessive narrative (or ‘spoiler’) information.
For regular updates and commentary on these results, please see the regular updates to www.watchingthetrailer.com.