'Birds of Prey' and Reviving the Magic of a Movie Trailer

Margot Robbie - Birds of Prey - Still H 2019
Warner Bros. is keeping the latest look at its Harley Quinn spinoff as a theatrical-only experience.

If you’re wondering when that Birds of Prey teaser that’s been making the rounds on the web in low definition and non-English languages will be officially released by Warner Bros., you’ll have to keep waiting. The 40-second teaser for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which sets itself up as the opening titles for It: Chapter Two before offering brief glimpses of the first footage from Cathy Yan’s film, will only be attached to the Stephen King adaptation. Warner Bros. took a similar route with the teaser for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which is only available to see theatrically with Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. While this marketing tactic has left some film fans feeling frustrated, especially in a day and age where every bit of theatrical marketing, including TV spots, find their way online, Warner Bros.’ exclusive trailers are offering another incentive to opt for the theatrical experience and preserve the magic of going to the movies.

In the most recent season of the Netflix series Mindhunter, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) explains to her date that seeing a movie is an experience akin to a ritual, in that there are processes, sacraments if you will, that make the entire moviegoing venture worthwhile. “It’s just that I’m one of those people who needs to see the whole thing. Like, I like to get my popcorn, my seat. I like to watch the trailers. A lot of people feel this way,” Dr. Carr says as her date looks at her dubiously. It’s a moment in which many film aficionados, myself included, felt seen and triumphant in the validation. We’d rather buy a ticket to the next showtime than miss the trailers. We exist.

Ironically it is Netflix and the rise of streaming services that have led to the decline of the moviegoing experience, and the rise of watching something from the comfort of home with no trailers, no preamble, no ritual, just immediately jumping into the viewing. The same could be said for those who rent their films or purchase physical media. We have the ability to skip past all of the “coming soon” adverts and dive right in. But I’m the kind of person who sits through trailers on DVDs and Blu-rays, equating the experience to looking through a time capsule at films that were once potential successes or flops, now a part of film history, only if distantly remembered. It’s in that build up to the movie that one sets the stage and can leave with the experience of seeing “the whole thing,” which is more than just the feature presentation.

All of this is to say that film trailers are part of the art of movies and the experience that comes with watching them. Even the anticipation of finding out what trailers you’ll get attached to your film at what theater is part of the journey. Quentin Tarantino takes trailers just as seriously, hand selecting which ones will be featured before the film programs at the New Beverly Cinema, which he owns. And if Tarantino takes it seriously, then it can’t be irrational, right? Right? As great as it is for trailers to be available online, and as someone who writes about them frequently it is great, there’s a fleeting quality to them. They’re devoured, picked over, screen grabbed, and watched dozens of times and then forgotten when the next big trailer comes along. But seeing a trailer in the theater, and only in the theater, creates a lasting impression, a desire to commit the frames to memory until they become a glossy haze of things you thought you saw and heard but may not see again until viewing the film opening weekend.

Consider for a moment if Disney had released the D23 teaser for The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, only available to witness with some recent release. It’s a strategy 20th Century Fox employed when it attached the teaser for The Phantom Menace to Meet Joe Black and a few other films in select theaters in 1998. This strategy used to be the norm, the only method, in the age before the internet, or in the age when dial-up was so slow that a teaser would never load. I’m still waiting for the teaser for Ang Lee’s Hulk to finish loading at my parents’ house. But in terms of the latest Star Wars, the level of buzz over that final shot of Rey with a red lightsaber would have been tremendous because it would be exclusive, colored by the perception of second-hand accounts and unable to be so readily dismissed as the force vision that it most likely is. More than that, it would have also been a reason for people to make sure they got seats before showtime, put their phones away, and placed their attention on the screen, behavior that maybe, if we were lucky, would carry them through the feature as well with the trailer serving as a benediction of what is to come. Instead we have the reality of a Star Wars teaser trailer so thoroughly examined, shared, and written about that a week later it’s gone from our conversations, and worse yet has set up a demand for widely disseminated fan-theories to be correct because they’re based on something we all heard and saw again and again.

While there is an allure to being able to watch the Birds of Prey or Tenet teaser whenever and wherever, there’s a certain gift in the fact that we won’t have to look at screencapped images for months on end until the images become so reposted, reproduced, and familiar that they steal away a certain level of magic or authenticity from the actual image on the screen with the promise of theories that were never guaranteed. Hopefully Warner Bros. establishes a new trend with their theatrically exclusive trailers and hopefully other studios start following suit because it definitely makes going to the movies a lot more fun, and whole of an experience.