It’s fun to read in the modern world stories from the 1990s about how many “downloads” or “hits” a trailer got back in the day. A couple thousand downloads in 1992 were the equivalent of hundreds of millions of views across multiple social media platforms in the current world. Everything has changed so much in just a few decades and that includes the way we consume movie trailers. That specific process has changed so much that it’s easy to wonder if any kind of buzz attached to watching trailers before theatrical movies even exist anymore now that we all watch trailers online first. Unless it’s the trailers for a Christopher Nolan directorial effort or Avatar 2, the internet would seem like it’s the only place trailers thrive anymore.
However, even with all the advancements attached to the ubiquity of the internet, the buzz of pre-movie trailers in a theatrical environment hasn’t been erased entirely. Even in an age of TikTok trailers and abbreviated trailer teases at the start of trailers on YouTube, there’s still something irreplaceable about the excitement of watching trailers before a big-screen movie.
Comparing the process of watching a new movie trailer on your phone or even laptop to the experience of being dwarfed by that same trailer on the big screen is a bit like comparing the vocals of Linda Ronstadt to the pipes of Zac Brown. They’re just not the same. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the context of how you watch trailers in big-screen environments. You’re watching them as part of a collection of multiple trailers, one starts right after another (only at certain theater chains like Cinemark do the trailers get interrupted for another ad). No matter how disparate the tone of the individual trailers is, they’re all part of a larger tapestry in a theatrical context compared to their isolated nature when watched online through social media.
That facet of theatrical trailers being collected together and played consecutively is also important since they can help provide a way of getting adjusted to the tone of the incoming movie. A bunch of horror trailers, for instance, might get you all revved up for a new Karyn Kusama or Jordan Peele feature. It can also be enjoyable to see inexplicable trailer choices playing before certain movies, like a Lyle Lyle Crocodile trailer sneaking onto a screening of Terrifier 2. The tonal relationship between theatrical trailers and the movies they precede is a true gift unto itself that can, in some cases, provide more entertainment than the eventual film. That’s just not something that can be replicated by watching trailers online.
There’s also the fact that watching a trailer in a movie theater environment means you’re encased inside a darkened room with no other distractions. It’s just you, your fellow moviegoers, and a massive screen. Your attention is going to go directly to what’s happening in front of you. By contrast, watching trailers on your phone or your laptop in broad daylight opens up the possibility for your mind to wander or for you to open up another tab in the middle of the trailer. That’s not to say it’s impossible to concentrate and absorb the tinier details of a trailer when you’re watching it for the first time on social media. But experiencing trailers in a theatrical environment includes a level of intimacy and focus that just naturally inspires a buzz of excitement.
Pre-Movie Trailers Create Communal Buzz
But the most important aspect ensuring the continued existence of a special kind of excitement watching trailers before movies is the fact that you get to watch these trailers with an audience. There’s something incredibly important and special about this experience since it lets you know whether or not a trailer is resonating with the public. A trailer for an upcoming action blockbuster that inspires shrugs or someone to loudly go “meh” will give you a clue that a costly tentpole is in trouble. By contrast, the Girls Trip trailer going over like gangbusters on my Get Out screening or the Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle trailer slaying a sold-out auditorium before Spider-Man: Homecoming gave me an early inkling that those movies were bound to be big hits.
Those vividly expressed emotions aren’t just helpful for pinpointing potential future sleeper hits at the box office, though. They’re just incredibly fun to experience! A bunch of strangers uniting in laughter over the trailer for an upcoming comedy or all shrieking in surprise at a well-timed jump scare in a horror movie trailer, that’s something downright magical. Even if the ensuing movie doesn’t inspire much more than fleeting sensations of happiness, trailers can provide unforgettable reminders of how fun it is to be emotionally united with people you don’t even know. You all walked into this auditorium not knowing anything about one another, but you’re all walking away with a delightful shared memory.
The buzz emanating from that experience of seeing people’s big responses to a trailer just isn’t something you get from watching these things on social media. This is intentionally a more isolated experience and any sense of a wider reaction to the trailer is often limited to just the comments section, which is typically a toxic wasteland. A movie studio can post a trailer online, but these entities cannot digitally replicate the buzz of seeing these promotional materials in the theater with people who have no idea what these films are.
Internet Trailers Have Value, But Can’t Replace the Theatrical Experience
Movie trailers being online is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s downright essential for archival purposes. They’re marketing materials, but people still pour their creativity and hard work into crafting movie trailers. The internet allows their work to be preserved forever, like the amber that kept those prehistoric mosquitoes safe in Jurassic Park. The internet also allows people to discover and explore trailers for smaller indie and arthouse features that they may not get to see theatrically in mainstream theaters. There are tons of advantages to movie trailers being available and viewed online…but this way of consuming trailers hasn’t killed off the excitement of getting trailers before a movie.
Really, trailers on social media and trailers in a theatrical environment are two radically different things, one isn’t a replacement for another. The glorious sensation of seeing the lights in the theater dim and the trailers beginning, with everyone in the room united in not quite knowing just what will show up next, it just never gets old, ditto seeing people get swept up in certain trailers. Granted, I’m certainly biased on this matter being someone whose loved movie trailers ever since I was a kid. While other people complain about a movie having “too many trailers,” I’m always up for as many trailers as a feature is willing to throw at me! But the joys of watching trailers before a movie are so distinctive and engrossing that you don’t need a longtime fondness for this artform to appreciate what watching them in these confines offers compares to watching trailers on social media. Once you see a theater full of people freaking out at the reveal of Nicolas Cage’s Dracula in the Renfield trailer, you fully appreciate how the pre-movie buzz of watching trailers will never ever be mimicked or vanish.