In the latest skirmish between movie theaters and studios, the National Association of Theater Owners (yes, NATO) wants distributors to make movie trailers shorter. Most trailers now clock in at about 2 minutes and 30 seconds, an arbitrary standard set by the MPAA. The theater owners would prefer their own arbitrary standard: 2 minutes even.
Theater owners, ever the public advocates, claim shorter trailers would benefit moviegoers by cutting down on spoilers and reducing the wait before movies start. There’s reason to doubt their motives: Theaters began charging studios to show many of their trailers earlier this year, so shorter trailers presumably mean more spots and more revenue. (Or it could mean more showtimes if the change was radical enough, though that seems less likely.) Studios argue that the new rules would be a “paradigm shift,” and that 30 fewer seconds could fundamentally change how they sell movies.
Even if this is just another dressed-up fight over revenue, movie trailers deserve more consideration than they’re getting. Yes, they are advertisments, but the participatory experience of the coming attractions is an integral part of moviegoing.
Trailers offer invaluable lessons on what movies to see with an audience, whether they inspire hushed awe or the kind of confused laughter that means a movie will be perfect for a late show with smuggled beer. They code certain movies for certain audiences, helpfully making it clear when opening weekends will be overrun with teenage boys. More pragmatically, years of that 20-minute preshow block have given trailers special powers of hypnosis, wearing audiences out and shutting them up before showtime.
Beyond all that, there is reason to believe that the 2-minute, 30-second form is worth preservation. Granted, the MPAA’s guideline is random—as are all of its guidelines—but it has proven to be a reasonable standard. Why clamor for trailers that are more fragmented than they already are? No doubt there are theaters that get complaints for overlong trailers, but when moviegoers line up weekly for bloated blockbusters, it’s hard to take them seriously. (And spare me on spoilers—fanboys’ online rants against offending studios are protection enough.)
The endless posturing between studios and theater owners has already threatened to keep some movies out of theaters altogether. We shouldn’t let it shape our experience once we get there as well.