The structure and techniques used in film trailers have changed a lot over the years. What better way to get to grips with just how much has changed than by looking at the evolution of the trailers for a franchise we all know and love, from 1977 to 2017? If you saw the original trailer for Star Wars today, would it make you want to see the film?
A New Hope (1977)
Watching this trailer immediately highlights just how far trailers have come since the 70s. It would feel very strange to come across a modern trailer for a film like Star Wars with the voiceover that is both generic and sensationalist at once. You might be inclined to argue that it is a product of its time, that audiences back then would have loved this trailer. Perhaps that’s true, but it doesn’t stand the test of time.
This trailer neither really tells you what the film is about nor does it give you a good idea of the setting. Other than the occasional shot of a spaceship, the only other ‘setting’ clues we are given are ‘farm boy’ and ‘princess’. But these two elements hardly paint a true picture of what the audiences are going to get.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
For The Empire Strikes Back, the trailer is eager to remind everyone just how successful Star Wars was. That’s not exactly surprising since this became one of the first Blockbuster franchises in film, but the ‘beating you over the head with it’ approach would certainly not fly these days. Reminiscent of much of Lucas’s influences like Flash Gordon, there are nods to cheesy serials in this trailer with comments like ‘Their story doesn’t end there!’ from the voiceover. But like its predecessor, the trailer doesn’t let the footage speak for itself. Instead, it tells us what the film is about… ‘romance’, ‘heroes and villains’, ‘unknown worlds’, ‘a galactic odyssey against oppression’.
Even the branding of the franchise has come a long way. Of course, A New Hope was only called that after the fact, a retroactive change to have film titles in keeping with a franchise. But here, they haven’t yet nailed down the presentation of the film titles. The end of the trailer doesn’t even use the Star Wars font for the film title, nor does it say Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, as any new Star Wars film these days would.
Easily the best aspect of this trailer is its ending. The screen fades to black and the viewer is left with only audio – the sound of Darth Vader’s iconic laboured breathing. In those few seconds, the trailer manages to evoke the scale of the first film and build tension. Such a small thing, but powerful.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
‘The saga lives on!’
There is a marked difference in the trailer for Return of the Jedi. Where the trailer for Star Wars told the audience next to nothing about the story, The Empire Strikes Back focused almost entirely on the story. In the trailer for the trilogy’s final installment, it is all about action. Almost every scene featured of any great length features fighting – shoot outs, falls, lightsaber duels. When less ‘active’ scenes appear, they are only one of a flurry of quick cuts. The fast editing and the rising music help build tension in this non-stop, action-packed trailer.
The Phantom Menace (1999)
This trailer starts slowly, with sweeping shots of the epic landscapes of the Star Wars universe building on audience’s anticipation for the first 40 seconds. For a trailer that’s barely more than two minutes, that’s a long time for not a lot to be happening.
In the sixteen years since Return of the Jedi, the well-known booming voiceover had fallen out of fashion in trailers. Instead, the trailer relies heavily on the soundtrack for which the franchise became known: John Williams’ epic score. It wasn’t all change, however. The studio still felt the need to ‘tell’ the story to the audience, only this time they decided to use onscreen text.
As if that weren’t enough, the trailer goes on to lay out almost the entire plot of the film. Most of the flabby middle – time spent buttering up Anakin and Qui-Gon’s attempt to train him – also fills up most of the trailer. But we also see glimpses of Amidala, Obi-Wan, the battle droids, and the final battle where ickle Ani shoots the shit out of the trade federation.
The Force Awakens (2015)
For the launch of the latest trilogy, Disney was keen to distance itself from the failures of the prequel trilogy. This is evident in both the style of the trailer and the emphasis on the look and feel of the film’s setting. The trailer for The Force Awakens gives little away about the actual narrative of the film. Instead, it shows longtime fans that it will be getting everything it loved from the original films, from recognisable arid vistas, young protagonists, an evil Empire and plenty of stormtroopers, a sense of awe and wonder with the Force… This trailer is basically marketing 101 when it comes to playing on nostalgia. But hey, it worked.
This more minimalist approach – where little of the plot is given away and the focus is on the feeling the trailer evokes – seems to be the popular choice. A style reflected in the trailers for Rogue One and The Last Jedi, not to mention other big franchise trailers. It is certainly a slick approach.
The voiceovers and onscreen text of the past are long gone, but there’s something to be said about at least hinting at some of the plot in the trailer. Personally, I’d like more of a reason to see a film than ‘it looks like what has gone before’. Then again, Disney seems to know what its market wants. So who am I to judge?!