How Star Wars and the internet changed movie trailers

And how movie trailers changed movies

When the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out in 1998, the only way to see it was to buy a ticket for Meet Joe Black, The Waterboy, or The Siege. Which, of course, many fans did — cheering while the trailer rolled and filing out immediately afterward. A few recorded the two-minute snippet and uploaded it to fan sites. The quality was awful, and the clip could take hours to download, but interest was so intense that sites crashed under the pressure. Lucasfilm put their own high-quality version online the next day. They had to increase their bandwidth capacity to handle the load.

When it came time to release the second trailer four months later, Lucasfilm partnered with Apple, releasing it exclusively with Quicktime software. Steve Jobs called the launch a “coup” — Quicktime was downloaded more than 600,000 times that day — and the biggest ever download event at the time, with 6.4 million downloads over the next three weeks.

The Phantom Menace trailer was a sign of things to come. Since then, the release of a franchise blockbuster has only become more of an online event. Studios, under increasing pressure to post big opening weekend sales and in possession of ads people actually want to watch, have set about flooding platforms like YouTube and Facebook with all manner of trailers: multiple primary trailers, trailers to introduce characters, to highlight subplots, to target specific demographics or countries. The Force Awakens has run 17 trailers, teasers, and TV spots so far. Modern trailers shouldn’t just introduce and excite: for franchise films especially, they should link films together, hint at new directions, and provide fodder for fan debate and speculation, amplifying anticipation for free.

The trailer-editing industry is growing to meet increasing demand, going from a dozen or so trailer houses 15 years ago to over a hundred today. They compete against each other, with several shops submitting multiple trailers for the studio’s selection.

Increasingly, they cut trailers for trailers. When Wired wrote about the anatomy of a trailer campaign in 2013, Wolverine’s Vine "tweaser" was an anomaly. Now Matryoshka-like campaigns are a standard way of turning a trailer launch into an event capable of cutting through online noise. For Terminator Genysis, an animated teaser teased a 15-second teaser teasing the first trailer. It’s a phenomenon that some editors find bewildering.

"We’re now making advertising for advertising, a teaser for the actual teaser, which is an advertisement for a movie," said Shawn Yashar of trailer shop Transit. "There’s definitely more content out there than ever before."

But it makes sense, because the trailer has become its own sort of content, introducing characters and plot points and tying franchise installments together. The installments, meanwhile, are becoming more like trailers themselves, with allusions and teases sprinkled throughout. Black Panther, teased in Ultron and with a movie of his own on the way, made his first appearance in the Captain America: Civil War trailer, with fans going frame by frame in an attempt to figure out who’s on whose side. The first full trailer for Dawn of Justice gives Bruce Wayne’s view of the final battle in Man of Steel, setting up a conflict with Superman that gets resolved in the second trailer, when Wonder Woman unites both against Doomsday.

"This is all about building anticipation," says Keith Johnston, professor of film and television at the University of East Anglia and head of the Watching the Trailer research project. "It’s no longer anticipation for the finished product, it’s anticipation for something that will build your anticipation."

Watch our video essay, "The Star Wars history of trailers":

For most of the trailer’s century-long history, editors were limited in the material they could draw on. Starting a few months before filming finished, they’d go over whatever footage was available and splice it together until it conveyed the basics of the setting, characters, and plot, filling in the gaps with title cards and voiceover. This process resulted in a lot of trailers that seem odd by today’s standards. The trailer for A New Hope, for example, spends most of its time on a minor dogfight set to a curiously plodding score, while an echoey voiceover manages to make a "big, sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance" sound kind of dour. (On the other hand, sometimes you ended up with a trailer like the one for Alien, which is more powerful for never showing anything.)

Trailer editors now start working far earlier. The first Force Awakens trailer went online less than a month after filming wrapped, with finished shots of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, the BB-8 droid, the Millennium Falcon, X-Wings, and Rey’s speeder. Sometimes the process begins two years or more before a film is released with nothing but a script, with trailer editors picking out scenes or dialogue they want fast-tracked.

Independence Day, with its iconic White House explosion, is widely cited as the first time studios configured production schedules around the trailer campaign, but that’s common practice today. Almost 20 years later, the White House explosion also seems quaintly direct — the goal of a trailer now isn’t just to be spectacular, but to pick scenes that will prompt debate. For franchise films, it’s a game of allusion and references to a larger corpus of fan lore.

"We literally study fandoms of franchises every day, all day," says D’nae Kingsley, head of integrated strategy at the agency Trailer Park. "There are people on the team who are studying every single kind of forum and fan site, tracking patterns and conversations about what elements are important to people, what things are going to be particularly important to address or to play up in the next piece, to make sure that the fans are being activated and that the fans are also feeling satisfied with the content that we put out."

While working on the first trailer for Suicide Squad, a sort of supervillain Dirty Dozen, Warner Bros. was extremely careful about which characters were included and how. (Studios, anticipating scrutiny, are cautious not just about what they include but what they don’t, and editors often must go over trailers frame by frame to avoid unintentional memes that could take their message in the wrong direction.) Though Batman is just a small part of Suicide Squad, his half-second appearance in the trailer stoked speculation. "We were very careful about how we presented the Joker, as directed by Warner Bros. and DC, and how we showed Batman was very carefully executed," Trailer Park's Matt Brubaker said. "It was very deliberate, but it drove a lot of interest."

Disney is doing all of its Force Awakens trailers in-house and declined to comment, but it’s safe to assume that similar calculations went into the trailers. Almost every scene has managed to drive this kind of interest, making headline news on virtually every media outlet, all while revealing practically nothing about the movie. The trailers reveal no more plot than the most basic "light versus dark" themes and give only the most elliptical character introductions ("Who are you?" "I’m no one"). Images are pulled from the same few scenes (Quartz has a comprehensive breakdown). Yet the brief appearance of the crossguard lightsaber and BB-8 droid in the first teaser prompted intense fan discussion, which turned into news stories, which turned into toy sales far in advance of the movie’s launch. Finn’s Stormtrooper uniform, Kylo Ren’s mask, Darth Vader’s melted helmet, and the crackle of Luke’s lightsaber after the final title card have all been the subject of fevered debate. The appearance of Han, Leia, and Chewbacca have inspired ecstatic celebration. Even Luke’s absence has been fodder for speculation, with fans wondering whether he’s the hooded figure with the robotic hand glimpsed in the teaser and whether he’s turned evil. (J.J. Abrams has said the mystery is "no accident.")

This is a style of trailer design that’s only possible when people are watching on platforms like YouTube, when they can pause and replay and submit trailers to Zapruder-level analysis. Trailers have to withstand greater scrutiny now, but the overwhelming pressure is to stand out. Audiences are savvier, and trailers are competing not just with each other but with everything else on the social web. The general trend is to make the trailer look as much like entertainment and as little like an ad as possible. They usually follow the three-act structure, with a crescendo of tantalizing snippets in lieu of resolution for the final act. Baritone pitchmen like Don Lafontaine have been replaced with character dialogue, sometimes spliced together into thematic-sounding voiceover from unrelated line readings.

"Audiences have grown up with the trailer," says Nick Temple of the agency Wild Card. "Especially younger people, we’ve all evolved together and as soon as you hear voiceover you think, ‘I’m being sold to.’"

Stylistic trends move faster now, changing in a matter of months or years rather than decades. Several editors brought up the Inception "whoom" sound (also described as "braaamp") — saying that it was cool for a few years before becoming a cliché. Ominous covers of classic songs are popular, several said — think the choral rendition of Radiohead’s "Creep" in The Social Network, or more recently, Sia’s "California Dreamin’" in the trailer for the summer disaster movie San Andreas. Evelyn Watters, who runs the Golden Trailer Awards with her sister, points out that covers are nice because they hit two demographics — fans of the original and of the cover artist. But now even that’s getting old, says Brubaker, who used a cover of the Bee Gees’ "I Started a Joke" for Suicide Squad. "I think the microscope always being held to our head is the internet."

The demand for trailers seems to be limitless, and why shouldn’t it be? They’re short, highly produced videos increasingly optimized for engagement, the tl;dr of a multimillion-dollar movie. According to a report by Google, people watched 35 million hours of movie trailers on YouTube just on mobile devices in the first six months of this year, an 88 percent increase over the same period the year before. But in a trajectory that mirrors digital media at large, from destination sites like Apple Trailers to YouTube’s search and embedding to social networks, Facebook is making a play for the trailer market.

In the week leading up to the launch of the first Furious 7 trailer last year, the film’s Facebook fan page posted a short teaser clip every day, culminating in a cross-platform unveiling: an hour-long special on E! (owned by NBCUniversal), along with posting to the Facebook pages for Furious 7, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, and the memorial page for Paul Walker. According to Facebook, the trailer got 100 million views in the first 48 hours.

Facebook is following a similar strategy with Star Wars. The first shot of Finn wielding Luke’s lightsaber went up on Instagram, and this Thanksgiving, a Kylo Ren-focused television spot made its online premiere as a Facebook exclusive.

While Facebook offers a gigantic audience of people who might not seek the trailer out, YouTube offers studios data as well as distribution. Its entertainment division can tell studios not only what demographics watched its trailer, helping them target further versions, but what scenes fans paused and rewound. Services like Rentrak monitor other forms of social media, like Twitter, for what elements of the trailer people are discussing and how they feel about it.

Studios monitor the conversation to see what direction to take in subsequent trailers, but they also try to shape and amplify it. Jon Handschin, co-founder of Moviepilot, a fast-growing site he describes as a "Medium for movie fans," says that studios have begun giving fans of a franchise embargoed access to trailers so that they have their reactions ready, something studios have been increasingly reluctant to do for films themselves.

"From a studio perspective, you want to control both, right?" said Handschin. "You've got the signal, your marketing signal, the trailer. But you would also love to amplify the echo to the signal, by the fans, and to amplify both of these messages, the signal and the echo."

Embargoed trailer reviews might seem absurd, but they makes sense in a world — in a world — where the trailer has become the content, the snack that tides fans over during the diminishing gap between franchise installments. And though the occasional trailer for an original property will take off online, it really is a franchise phenomenon. In order to build anticipation, trailers need to be anticipated themselves.

Resolution isn't the goal

There’s a reason trailers have proliferated online in tandem with the growth of franchises. It’s far harder for a trailer for an original film to become an event in the same way. It has no preexisting fan base, no larger mythology to hint at, and it’s stuck doing a lot of the traditional explanatory work of introducing characters, setting, and plot. "I think that a lot of these things might not quite apply when talking about independent or lower budget movies, where it can be harder for them to have same kind of impact online," says Catherine Johnson, a professor of culture, film, and media at the University of Nottingham and co-author of Promotional Screen Industries. "The internet can be this great boon for trailers and marketing films, but it can also be an extremely difficult place for a film to stand out if it’s not a known property or tied to an existing franchise." For independent movies, Johnson says, "the cinema is still a brilliant place to market their films, because they have a captive audience."

But the online trailer drip feed works extremely well for franchises, which use them to tie together increasingly trailer-like features. Age of Ultron was less a stand-alone film than a three-hour trailer for the future of Marvel. Resolution isn’t the goal. It should be exciting, tantalizing, not unsatisfying but not so satisfying that you won’t want to come back for the sequel, the show, or click on the trailer when it goes online.