Are We Killing the Element of Surprise in Cinema?

Star Wars The Force Awakens

It is always fascinating to observe the stunned, and at times perplexed, looks that come my way when I admit that I still have not seen the latest Star Wars teaser trailer. You know the one that not only marks the triumphant return of Han Solo to the franchise, but has also caused many around the globe to squeal with the same delight as pre-teens at a One Direction concert. The response to such a confession is usually either “oh man, the trailer it is so good” or “how have you not seen it?” The latter of which is often uttered in such a way that the thinly veiled “get with it old man” tone cannot be ignored.

While the fact that I have not seen the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice teaser either may suggest otherwise, I have not been stuck in a Captain America style block of ice for months. I am simply making a conscious effort to recapture that genuine element of surprise that once made the cinematic experience so magical.

Naïve as it may sound, I miss the days when one could walk into a theatre, with very little knowledge about a film, and be taken on a truly eye-opening ride. There was actually a time when you needed to see Jurassic Park to find out which dinosaurs are friendly and which are deadly. Nowadays we are being be told months in advance that Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady will being teaming up with Velociraptors to fight an even greater foe in Jurassic World.

This is not to say that I am anti-trailers by any means. They are a valuable promotional tool that, while at times divulging too much information, is often a key deciding factors for audiences trying to figure out how to best spend their hard earned dollars. Granted, I will never understand why some theatre chains show spoiler filled pre-show behind-the-scenes featurettes for the film you are actually there to see, but I digress… In my humble opinion, trailers are most effective when they provide exposure to, and sell audiences on, films that might have otherwise gone under most people’s radar.

Jurassic World

The problem with films like Star Wars, Jurassic World, and many of the big brand franchises, is that they are already well-known commodities.

It is not enough for studios to simply release one or two trailers to whet the public’s appetite. Companies are now turning teasers trailers into their own mini comic con style events. All of this even before the three full trailers and several television spots are released. Like trained circus animals we have been taught to celebrate the commercials for the commercials. It has gotten to the point where teasers trailers are being dissected and discussed as much as, if not more so, than the actual film themselves. If you factor in the number of “first look” click bait exclusive images, casting announcements, and other film related news that floods social media with the fury of a dam bursting on a daily basis, it is a wonder that people even bother to watch the actual films anymore.

Imaging going to a restaurant and having to endure multiple waiters build up your anticipation before you even get a chance to see the actual menu. The meal itself becomes less appetizing when you have spent months following its construction every step of the way.

Frankly, there is just too much information coming out these days. It is bad enough that studios are announcing projects years in advance, but they also need to keep pumping out content to ensure that our attention does not swim off the hook they initially baited us with. Of course, a bulk of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of us movie lovers. The basic principle of supply and demand is the cornerstones of any business, and like unruly children in a toy store we are demanding everything under the sun.

While reflecting on Marvel’s strategy of announcing their film slate years in advance, in his National Post article, film critic Calum Marsh points out that the practice has had major ramifications on how audience now consume film. He notes that “we’ve come to prefer anticipation to reflection — to thinking idly about a film that’s coming soon than to thinking seriously about one that’s already out.”

Suicide Squad Team Promo Photo

I cannot help but think back to Marsh’s words whenever I observer my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill with exclusive Suicide Squad on-set images of Margot Robbie in her skimpy Harley Quinn shorts; pictures of Stephen Amell wearing his Casey Jones outfit for the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, or the rabid discussion surrounding the Captain America: Civil War casting news. The latter being unveiled a scant two weeks after Age of Ultron hit theatres.

Apparently we can’t even wait a month for the corpse of a box office behemoth to become cold before aggressively trampling over its body to grasp at the next piece of film news being dangled before us.

The curious thing about this current “need to know now” culture of movie fandom is how quickly it leads to exhaust and backlash. Remember when many online were hailing the Man of Steel teasers as the comic book equivalent to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Yep, that happened. The buzz about the film made it seem like the rapture was upon us. Funny how many of those same individuals were quick to rip the film apart when it did not meet their lofty expectations.

When exiting one of the biggest blockbuster of this year, Furious 7, I could not help but smirk upon hearing one teenager, when discussing his disappointment with the film, remark to his friend that “the Paul Walker running on the bus scene was cool, but [he] had already seen it multiple times in the trailers”. He proceeded to list off several other things he had seen and read online in advance of opening night. The element of surprise was gone before he even stepped into the theatre. He was merely watching the film going through the motions of piecing together all of the released information into something less than what his anticipations had been.

Sure it was the young man’s own fault for not having the will power to avoid the relentless coverage, but he is simply a by-product of the era we now live in. One in which our insatiable demands for constant content is quickly siphoning all the mystery and magic that once made going to the movies such a treat.