"DARK KNIGHT gets blowback for not enough new footage while PROMETHEUS eats shit for showing too much. Can the porridge EVER be just right?"
- @DamonLindelof, May 1st 2012
The creator of "Lost" might have a horse in this fight (he's the co-writer of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus"), but he also has a point. In the last few months, marketing of major blockbusters seems to fall into two separate categories: keeping your cards close to the chest (the J.J. Abrams mystery box approach), or the show-absolutely-everything technique, bombarding fans with character posters, different trailers and enough clips and stills that you could essentially reconstruct the movie, with a basic understanding of narrative structure and a copy of iMovie.
And the two major trailer premieres of the last few days set up that contrast nicely. First, there was "Prometheus," which unveiled a three-minute trailer that had many fans wishing they'd not seen it, for fear that many of the film's surprises had been ruined. While on the other hand, you have Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," which debuted an admirably low-key trailer, which still excited, but kept its secrets under wraps. But which approach works best? Do you need to show all your wares to bring in an audience, or do moviegoers actually respond better when they feel like they haven't seen the whole movie before it comes out?
A similar dichotomy was at play with what are looking like the two biggest hits of the year so far, "The Hunger Games," which has made over $600 million worldwide to date, and "The Avengers," which looks to come close to equaling that within a few days of opening in the U.S. this Friday. While the campaign for "The Avengers" has released what feels like several dozen clips and an encylopedia's worth of stills, and has been nearly inescapable (down to Clark Gregg ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange), the former was all over both traditional and social media, but its trailers were relatively shy. The New York Times reported that, perhaps because their hand was forced by the depressing, violent nature of the material, Lionsgate marketing executive Tim Palen decided early that the film's trailer and TV spots wouldn't showcase the Hunger Games of the title at all.
It was a gamble that left many fans disappointed at the trailer, but clearly it worked spectacularly, thanks to a young female fanbase who care less about action money shots, and pre-existing fans of the book who were just eager to see story up on the big screen. Similarly, after the billion-dollar, critically-acclaimed success of "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros and Nolan could have released a trailer that showed nothing but a title card and Christian Bale drop-kicking kittens into helicopter rotors, and it would still make hundreds of millions of dollars. As it is, they can simply highlight enough new additions (Bane, Catwoman, a flying Batmobile) to make audiences feel like it's not going to be a retread, and the anticipation stays at a fever pitch.
But then, this is in part because Christopher Nolan has earned trust from his audience, particularly after "Inception," which had a trailer with a host of money shots, but almost no detail on the plot, keeping the mystery shrouded. J.J. Abrams is a similar figure. Ever since "Alias," he's built his career on the "mystery box" he discussed in his TED talk, "Lost" being perhaps the best example (although let's not forget he was only tangentially involved with the show after the pilot). Twice, he's unveiled a top-secret trailer for a new project, and twice, he's turned them into big hits, "Cloverfield" and "Super 8." Indeed, the latter saw several think-pieces written beforehand, which suggested that the film's decision to play the enigmatic card was going to backfire, but it went on to make five times its budget at the worldwide box office.