Movie trailers are a cult phenomenon. Just ask Star Wars fans

Key Points
  • Trailers have become a cult phenomenon that are dissected by fans and rewatched millions of times.
  • With the advent of social media and YouTube, studios can deliver film trailers directly to consumers outside of a movie theater.
  • To stir fans into a frenzy, studios often seek out assistance from companies that specialize in making trailers.
  • It's a competitive niche that requires intense secrecy, quick turnarounds and an appreciation for the subtle nuances that drive fans nuts.
Daisy Ridley reprises her role as Rey in "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker."

On a chilly Friday morning in April, 6,000 Star Wars fans shuffled through security lines and into Wintrust Arena in Chicago.

Across the street in the 2.6 million-square-foot McCormick Place Convention Center, thousands more gathered in small exhibit halls, stood in front of massive screens on the show floor and crowded around TVs in nearby hallways.

More than 65,000 fans had flocked to Chicago for Star Wars Celebration. And all of them were silent.

As the Lucasfilm logo appeared on a black screen, all that could be heard was the shallow breathing of Rey. When the blackness fades, she is seen in a desert carrying Luke Skywalker's hand-me-down lightsaber, now mended following the events of "The Last Jedi," and staring down the barrel of Kylo Ren's TIE fighter.

The crowd cheers, then quiets again. Each cameo, each swell of music, each voiceover gets an explosive response.

After two minutes, it wraps with ominous theme music and cackling laughter. It's Emperor Sheev Palpatine, one of the major villains from the original trilogy. The screen fades to black and the lights in the area come up. Ian McDiarmid, the actor behind the iconic villain, appears from backstage and tells the tech team to roll the clip again. They end up playing it three times.

And this was just a tease of a trailer.

Star Wars fans look up at the screens to view and cheer as the new Star Wars trailer plays on the screen during the Star Wars Celebration, at McCormick Place in Chicago, on Friday, April 12, 2019.
Chicago Tribune | Tribune News Service | Getty Images

Disney saw similar fervor in August at its D23 Expo when it released another Star Wars teaser to a crowd of 7,000 fans during a panel showcasing the studio's upcoming feature films.

With three months left to go before the release of "The Rise of Skywalker," Disney has slowly parsed out details to eager fans. Still, little is known about the plot of this last installment in the nine-film franchise known as the Skywalker Saga.

Since the 1930s, the entertainment industry has doled out trailers as a way of enticing moviegoers to return to the theater to see another film. In those days, trailers were shown at the end of a movie, hence the name "trailer." These days, there are typically two kinds of promotions that studios will release: teasers and trailers. Teasers are usually less than a minute long and are used to stir up anticipation or intrigue about a film. They show truncated clips and don't give away much about the plot.

Trailers are between a minute and two minutes and thirty seconds long. These are aimed at informing the audience what the film is about and give more details about the cast and plot.

The "Rise of Skywalker" footage falls somewhere in between. It has the length of trailer, but the content of a teaser. It was designed specifically to excite the fans attending these events. This type of marketing is not uncommon and it's why trailers have become a bit of a cult phenomenon.

To stir fans into a frenzy, studios often seek out assistance from companies that specialize in making trailers. It's a competitive niche, that requires intense secrecy, quick turnarounds and an appreciation for the subtle nuances that drive fans nuts — especially fans who love to pour over each frame of a trailer, looking for Easter eggs. It's also why studios have begun putting more emphasis on how trailers and teasers are created and when each are strategically released to the public.

Still of "Dark Rey" from the newest "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" promotional footage from Disney.

Disney's Star Wars franchise has thrived on speculation and misinformation. In each trailer, Disney has set up expectations for story lines that don't actually pan out the way audiences thought they would. In "The Force Awakens," it appeared that Finn, played by John Boyega, would be the new Jedi character. In fact, it was Rey, who possessed the Force sensibility.

So, of course, fans have been speculating that the short glimpse of Rey in a dark hood unfolding a red lightsaber, dubbed Dark Rey, that debuted at D23 is a similar red herring.


Direct to the fans

For a long time, CinemaCon, an annual convention for theater owners and production companies, was the first place that studios would release new footage and new trailers. It was a chance to show off upcoming slates to cinema owners, who would be the ones to play the films in their theaters, and journalists, who would relay the film information to audiences. In those days, this would have been the perfect place to drop those Star Wars teasers. Instead, Disney opted to show these clips at its own events for its rabid fans.

With the advent of social media and YouTube, studios have been able to deliver film trailers directly to consumers outside the movie theater. Fan culture and the proliferation of social media have made trailer making even broader, as film makers will now create bite-sized teasers for Snapchat, Instagram or anywhere else their audiences are.

"Back in the day, you would get everything at CinemaCon," Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said. "And that's not the way anymore."

Some analysts believe this trend dates back to the release of the "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" trailer, which came out ahead of the film's 1999 debut. It had been 16 years since a "Star Wars" film had been in theaters and fans were buzzing with excitement to see their first glimpse of creator George Lucas' vision.

"People were recording those [trailers] in theaters to rewatch it," Bock said. "Not everybody had internet back then."

(L-R) Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Keri Russell, Naomi Ackie, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Director/producer/writer J.J. Abrams of 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' took part today in the Walt Disney Studios presentation at Disney’s D23 EXPO 2019 in Anaheim, Calif. 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker' will be released in U.S. theaters on December 20, 2019.
Jesse Grant | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

However, others think the trend comes from a more recent release: the first teaser trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Like "The Phantom Menace," "The Force Awakens" ignited excitement within the Star Wars community. Regardless of how fans felt about the prequels, the fact that more Star Wars films were going to be made was enticing. The film got a teaser in late 2014, more than a year before the film was set to be released in theaters.

Social media became a hotbed of fan theories, zoomed in screenshots from the trailer and discussions about what Disney would do with George Lucas' iconic saga.

Fan reaction 1

Fan reaction 2

Fan reaction 3

But conventions aren't the only new way trailers are brought directly to fans. While studios still release trailers through traditional means like during major sporting events or on talk shows, more and more, they are using social media to boost awareness of their projects.

"Anytime you have a new media evolution — radio, TV and now digital — studios are going to exploit that medium," Thomas Doherty, professor at Brandeis, said. "And with digital, they can target demographics that they never could before."

A tried-and-true traditional trailer is the single strongest piece of marketing material.
Mark Woollen
Founder, Mark Woollen & Associates

Advertising on social media platforms allows studios to pick and choose the types of users that can see its promotions. Instead of creating one over-arching advertisement for a wide audience, studios can pinpoint audiences by age, gender and interests.

Doherty noted that in the past, movie theaters would play whatever trailers they had regardless of what type of movie people had come to see. These days, it's rare that someone who goes to see a science fiction film would see an ad for a romantic comedy during the previews. Instead, they would see trailers for other science fiction movies.

Using Twitter, studios will create an account for the film and use the platform to parse out information about it as well as photographs and video clips teasing either the film or forthcoming trailers.

For example, the Twitter account for "It Chapter Two," which opened last week, has more than 253,000 followers. When it was time for Warner Bros. to release the first trailer for the film, the account started by retweeting a post by "It" author Stephen King praising the film and telling fans when the trailer would be released.

Stephen King Tweet

The account also tweeted out a photo of two red balloons. It's a nod to the iconic red balloon that Pennywise the clown holds the first film, but in this case, the two red balloons signify it is the second installment in the franchise.

IT Chapter 2 Tease

These two tweets were posted two days before the trailer. King's tweet garnered more than 81,000 likes and the tweet from the studio earned more than 72,000. Then the company released the trailer on Twitter and YouTube.

IT Chapter 2 Trailer

That tweet got nearly 300,000 likes and has been viewed more than 12.9 million times since it was posted in early May. The YouTube video has more than 41.3 million views.

For the most part, big trailer reveals like this are for franchise films — Star Wars and Marvel blockbusters — films from popular production companies — like Pixar and Disney — or from famed directors — Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese or Jordan Peele.

These are well-suited to big marketing campaigns on social media or at conventions because of the fan affection for these films and creators. It takes only a flash of a specific character or a few notes of music to conjure up the nostaglia of the film, Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com, said.

"It Chapter Two" gets this treatment because of King's massive fan following.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Clown in a still from Warner Bros.' "It: Chapter 2."
Warner Bros.

In the last year, "It Chapter Two," "Frozen 2," "The Lion King," "Toy Story 4," "Hobbs and Shaw," and "Joker" have all received big social media campaigns leading up to a trailer release. The first trailer for "Avengers: Endgame" received 289 million views in the first 24 hours after its release in December 2018. The views were tabulated across multiple platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Even Sony's remake of the classic "Little Women" got a big Twitter campaign. It was one of the top trends on the social media platform when its first trailer was released.

"Word of mouth is still the best advertising for movies," Doherty said.

Bringing movies to fans

The majority of trailers are done by trailer houses instead of by the studio. There are a few dozen of these firms that do the lion's share of the marketing for major movie releases.

"I think people thought the movie studios make trailers — that they take the movie and they cut it up and they put it out there," said Ryan Hegenberger, owner of Big Picture Entertainment. "But there's a booming industry behind it with some super skilled and creative people that spend weeks and months poring over just the right shot, just the right music, just the right edit."

Bad boys Tweet

These agencies will often compete in a "bakeoff," where each will pitch a trailer and the studio will pick which shop it wants to work with.

"They've got to get people anticipating and talking about it six months before the movie releases — that initial impression is so important that they can't afford to just send it to one company," said Charlie Emde, president and partner at Big Picture Entertainment.

Invited guests watch the film "Black Panther" in 3D which featuring Oscar-winning Mexico born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyongo during Movie Jabbers Black Panther Cosplay Screening in Nairobi, Kenya, on February 14, 2018.

It usually takes a couple weeks for a trailer house deliver its first rough cut of the trailer after receiving a cut of a movie. This happens two to three months before a film studio needs to ship a trailer.

Not always a home run

But not all trailers are well-received by audiences at first.

"Some movies are just bad," said Matt Brubaker, CEO & creative director of the audio visual division at a trailer house called Trailer Park. "People just don't want to see them, there's just no way to cut it, they're not responding to the actors, they're not responding to the story. You can cut it 85 different ways and it's just not testing as well."

Testing trailers with different audiences is also a great way for studios to get early feedback about a film.

"The more anxiety studios have about a project, they want as many different ideas and as many different creatives working on it," he said. "Once they see things are not testing well, they get nervous and they want to add on different trailer houses."

Just days after releasing the trailer for "Sonic The Hedgehog," a film based on a video game character of the same name, the film's director tweeted in May that Paramount and Sega would be redesigning the character.

Jeff Fowler Tweet

Longtime fans of the speedy blue hedgehog had found the character's facial features, including human-like teeth, and his body proportions to be inconsistent with the Sonic they grew up with in the '90s. The film was supposed to be released in November, but has been pushed to February 2020.

Sonic The Hedgehog Tweet

And then there was the reaction to the trailer for "Cats," a filmed version of the Tony Award-winning musical.

Director Tom Hooper had long teased that the film would not be using the iconic costumes from the Broadway musical. Instead, in post-production a team of animators would use "digital fur technology" to add fur to the actors. However, the reality of this technology was less charming and more creepy in the eyes of many.

Cats Tweet

Cats Tweet 2

Regardless of how potential audiences felt about the trailer, both "Sonic" and "Cats" received a lot of buzz.

"A tried-and-true traditional trailer is the single strongest piece of marketing material," said Mark Woollen, founder of Mark Woollen & Associates, a go-to trailer boutique.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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