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Movie Trailers Give More and More Plot Away

J.J. Abrams is notorious for the mystery in which he cloaks his company’s movies: No one knew what Cloverfield was about until very late (let alone what the title meant), and as for the teaser trailer for his upcoming Super 8, all we definitely know is that a train hits a truck and something bad happens. So it’s a bizarre disconnect to see Abrams’s Bad Robot title card preceding the trailer for this fall’s Rachel McAdams, Harrison Ford, and Diane Keaton romantic comedy Morning Glory, which proceeds to lay out exactly how the entire movie will play out. As we see it, McAdams plays a doe-eyed, driven TV producer put in charge of a mismatched morning team: a crusty broadcasting warhorse (Ford) and a relentlessly chirpy mistress of the fluff piece (Keaton). Clash, clash, clash, Ford is grouchy, McAdams pulls her hair out and ignores her saintly boyfriend, and near the end we see a thawing Ford dole out a hard-won cautionary tale about work-life balance and, hey … wait a sec! Doesn’t Ford’s quavering basso profundo and McAdams’s tear-stained face suggest we’re now seeing the second to last scene in the movie, right before she goes running back to the man whom she foolishly almost chose over her psychotic salt mine of a workplace?

Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot executives both declined to comment, but insiders familiar with the Morning Glory trailer say its comprehensive Cliff Notes structure stems from the fact that it was far more of a Paramount marketing effort than any previous Abrams-produced film; the studio hastily cut it together with little regard for how much story line was revealed so as to have it ready to be shown before Sex and the City 2.

Morning Glory director Roger Michell declined to comment on his film’s oddly revealing trailer, but he did offer Vulture a fairly ambivalent view of all studio marketers that suggest he might be less than thrilled. “If a film is successful, the marketing department always gives itself a big clap on the back,” says Michell (Notting Hill). “And if it isn’t, then they say, ‘Well, the film was shit!’ So that’s kind of a dark art, right?”

The studio versus filmmaker debate over how much to give away in a trailer is as old as the phrase “In a world … ” For example, in the run-up to the release of 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, Fox and producer James L. Brooks famously battled over how much to give away. Brooks wanted to preserve the biggest gags for the theater, while Fox wanted to use as many as possible to help sell the film. Fox’s marketing chief, Tony Sella, won the debate with a purely economic argument: Audiences wouldn’t laugh at all if they weren’t persuaded to go to the theater in the first place. Brooks tells Vulture that he has now conceded that in today’s movie business, “as a general rule, you show your best stuff … It’s interesting, because [audiences] will still laugh at the joke a second time in the theater.”

However, while Brooks (who also directed the Morning Glory–antecedent Broadcast News) will allow for jokes to be given away, he does think that trailers need to pull back from revealing too much story. “There’s a theory that storytelling is the biggest part of everything,” says Brooks. “If the idea is, ‘What guy does she go with?’ then why show that guy? … Because when it comes to dénouement, you’re the agent of the audience; you’re protecting it. Otherwise, it won’t be as much fun.”

Brooks is currently in the midst of editing his upcoming December release, Everything You’ve Got, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd. (Previously titled How Do You Know.) And he stresses that when it comes time to make that trailer, he will recuse himself from the process. “I pick all my own titles, but I don’t go near the trailer,” he says, “It’s like operating on your own kid. It might be that turn in the road where caring becomes a handicap.”

Movie Trailers Give More and More Plot Away