Spoiler-ridden movie trailers suck, but there’s something amazing that screenwriters can take away from them.
We all hate those terrible movie trailers that give away all of the major plot points and often spoil the ending. They are a result of bad marketing decisions and the studio’s reluctance to trust that the audience will come. But screenwriters can learn a valuable lesson from them.
Before we get into that — no spoilers until the end — let’s take a look at some of the worst movie trailer offenders and break down the plot points, story beats, twists and turns that they spoiled.
Warning: There are obviously spoilers ahead.
Terminator Salvation was produced as a continuation of the franchise, showcasing the future world that was teased in the original movies. Here we were going to meet John Connor, leader of the resistance, and see him in action. The trailer manages to spoil a pivotal plot twist that had Sam Worthington’s character revealed as a Terminator.
When you watch the film, it’s written as a huge plot twist. However, it was spoiled by the trailer.
Terminator Genisys was a failed attempt to reboot the Terminator franchise. The clear fear for this unique reboot was that audiences would think this was merely a remake of the original with new casting for the roles of John Connor, Sarah Connor, and Kyle Reese. Because of this, they likely created a trailer that showcased pivotal plot points which differentiate the new film from the original.
Within the trailer, we learn that there’s a new Terminator, that Sarah Connor has been waiting for Kyle Reese’s arrival from the future, that she has also communicated with a younger Kyle Reese, that an old man version of Arnold’s Terminator is working with her, and that this old man Terminator will be confronting Arnold’s Terminator from the original film’s timeline.
But worst of all, the trailer spoils what is written as a huge plot twist within the script and eventual film — John Connor, Sarah’s son, comes back from the future and is revealed to be a new type of Terminator.
Chinatown‘s trailer failure is a result of the times. During the sixties and seventies, and often in earlier decades, movie trailers featured most of the major story beats found within the film. Chinatown is a perfect example of that practice. When you watch this trailer, it feels as if you’re watching a condensed version of the final cut of the film.
Michael Bay’s The Island is a unique and action-packed sci-fi film. However, the trailer manages to spoil the concept by divulging the plot twist that there is no island and that the main characters are actually clones of their real selves used to harvest replacement organs when needed.
Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is an excellent psychological horror film. However, to anyone that didn’t already know the story through the book, the trailer manages to give away the ending multiple times. Scenes of the blood pouring on Carrie, and her going on a rampage as a result, spoil the ending of the movie and dilute the suspense of wondering whether or not Carrie will finally fit in with the crowd she so desperately wants to be a part of.
Funny People is an underrated Judd Apatow film. It blends Apatow’s comedy with drama as the lead character (Adam Sandler) is revealed to have some form of terminal illness. In short, he’s dying. This forces him to look back to his past as he shares his regrets with his new found friend (Seth Rogen). But halfway through the trailer, the major plot twist is revealed. He’s not sick anymore.
You may have never seen The Double, but it’s easy to say that after watching this trailer, you don’t have to. We’ll let this horrible trailer speak for itself.
Cabin in the Woods
In the first minute of this trailer, we’re offered an atmospheric and conventional “horror movie in the woods” pitch, which is actually a good thing. After that first minute, however, a major spoiler is revealed. The rest of the trailer is spent on explaining elements of that reveal, ruining any surprise that the film could have offered. Instead of a cabin in the woods scare fest, it’s revealed that the cabin in the woods isn’t really a real cabin within the real woods. It’s something much different and scientific.
A brilliant psychological thriller ruined by its very first trailer. If you haven’t seen the film, spare yourself the spoilers on this one. Regardless, this spoiler-ridden trailer didn’t go into spoiler specifics like Terminator Genisys‘s trailer did, but it gave you enough to figure out most of the plot before even watching the film.
While the film doesn’t hinge on whether or not Tom Hanks survives and finds his way back to the world he was forced to leave behind, the trailer manages to answer that pivotal and intriguing question. We don’t know how he reacts after his return, but this trailer told audience’s worldwide that he, in fact, did return.
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Much like the trailer for Chinatown, Arlington Road‘s manages to give away each and every main story beat, making the experience of watching the trailer feel like you’ve just watched a condensed version of the film. The final twist isn’t outright divulged, but you can surely bet that after watching the trailer, you pretty much have experienced 95% of the movie.
What Lies Beneath
What Lies Beneath takes an excellent cast (Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), directed by the amazing Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Contact), and weaves a compelling supernatural story into an original take on the genre. Sadly, the movie trailer manages to spoil pretty much every plot point. Like the film manages to do, we get an opening sense of the characters and their world (Screenwriting 101), conflicts thrown at them, their actions and reactions, along with some intrigue, suspense, and mystery followed by some shocking reveals. While the final twists are not fully revealed, the trailer leads us down that path when the actual film should have done that for us.
So What Can Screenwriters Learn From These Spoiler-Ridden Movie Trailers?
Well, let’s first look at what those trailers offered.
If we weren’t given a beat-by-beat breakdown of the story, like we were in the Chinatown and Arlington Road trailers, we wouldn’t have known the meat of the story, the tone, the atmosphere, the characters, and the main conflicts that the characters had to deal with. Right?
If we weren’t given the endings and major plot twists of the films, as were offered in the Terminator Genysis and The Island trailers, we wouldn’t go into that story knowing where everything was leading to. Right?
If questions weren’t introduced that led us to possible directions the story could take us, as we were offered in the Shutter Island and Cabin in the Woods trailers, we wouldn’t have gone into the story with some general direction and options for where the story could take us. Right?
As you are developing your own stories, visualization is key to your process as a screenwriter. Film is a visual medium. When you’re writing within a visual medium, you need to be able to see the images through your own mind’s eye in order to effectively translate and describe visuals within a screenplay.
Beyond that, it’s important to go into your writing process with some general direction — while avoiding knowing every detail of your story. You want some general beats to write towards but you also want to allow enough room for discovery along the way.
These bad trailers teach us a way to visualize all of these necessary elements that you need during the development process of your screenplays — just before the writing process begins.
One practice that you can apply to your own development and writing process is to visualize that bad, horrible, spoiler-ridden trailer for your cinematic story — the broad strokes of your whole story from beginning, middle, to end.
When you know those broad strokes and see them through your own mind’s eye as a bad movie trailer, you’ll have created a visual map of story points, beats, and plot twists, reveals, and revelations that you can use as you write your script.
Between each major turning point, all that you need is one or two misleads and eventual connections to take us to the next. When you know the general broad strokes of the story — and as you discover new ones — the plotting is as simple as a few minor additions here and there to lead the story forward to the next reveal or turning point.
As soon as you do this, you’ll realize that you’ve just laid out the groundwork for your script by doing so. You have that map that will lead you when you’ve lost your way.
The Chinatown and Arlington Road trailers teach you how to create a visual beat-by-beat breakdown of your story. They teach you the benefits of knowing the meat of the story, the tone, the atmosphere, the characters, and the main conflicts that the characters have to deal with so you can focus on connecting all of those elements within the space that you’ve left open, instead of wandering through your story with no direction during the writing process.
The Terminator Genisys and The Island trailers teach you the benefits going into a story knowing where everything is going to be leading to. When you know the end, you have a destination to work towards, which makes the navigation of the plotting that much easier — and more fun — as you build and build towards that final reveal.
The Shutter Island and Cabin in the Woods trailers teach you how to create general directions and options for where you can take the story. Is Leo DiCaprio’s character going crazy? Is he Patient 67? Is the asylum tricking him into thinking he’s crazy?
Visualizing a bad trailer for the screenplay you are developing can be an important part of the eventual writing process. It gives you guidance, context, and something to write towards.
These broad strokes are key in knowing how to navigate the writing of your script towards continual compelling moments from beginning, middle, and through to the end.
Some screenwriters create detailed outlines in their preparation. Others prefer to go in blind as they discover the story as they go. Visualizing bad spoiler-ridden trailers for your scripts is a perfect middle ground between the two. And this creative tool can also be used in conjunction with both.
Head over to Youtube and start watching trailers that are similar to your stories in tone, atmosphere, subject, character arcs, or genres. And then let your mind wander as you piece together elements for your own.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies