When the Super Bowl Movie Trailer Was Still an Event

F9 Still 6 - Publicity - H 2020
Giles Keyte/Universal
In the online era where live-viewing comes second to replays, it's no surprise most studios are sitting out the big game.

Super Bowl Sunday; it’s the biggest night for sports of the year. It also happens to be the biggest night for film advertisements, with studios paying millions of dollars to secure a chance to get as many eyes as possible on the latest coming attractions. Regardless of whether or not you’re a football fan, Super Bowl Sunday offers a welcome union of all things popular culture — sports, music, movies, television, ads — all vying for attention and 30 seconds of February fame. But, at least on the movie marketing side of things, ad spending is slowing down. As The Hollywood Reporter reported earlier this week, a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl costs $5.6 million, with pregame and postgame ads carrying half that price tag. Paramount, Universal and Disney are all expected to have a major presence this Sunday, with Warner Bros. and Sony opting out as they have in recent years. For all the money spent on these glimpses and special looks at some of the year’s most anticipated films, and biggest question marks, we can’t help but wonder if it’s still worth it. Does the Super Bowl TV spot still carry the same weight it did 20, or even 10 years ago?

A brief, and unofficial, Twitter survey I took revealed that Marvel Studios holds the dominance in terms of the Super Bowl TV spots best remembered. It’s hard to forget the Avengers group shot that captured the world’s attention in 2012, or the return of Bucky Barnes in the spot for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). And of course, there was the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), which respectively took an action-packed, and melancholy, approach. But these are films that already have a built-in audience. As much as we expect and look forward to these Super Bowl teases, like this year’s Black Widow, the box office numbers are likely only slightly influenced, if at all, by Super Bowl attention given the money spent on them and the production budgets of many of these films. Trending hashtags during the game are a big deal, but the existence of this footage online immediately after premiering on TV lessens the communal impact of everyone watching at the same time and being keyed into the footage. If you take your eyes off the screen or head to the kitchen during commercial break, there’s no worry, because that same footage is reposted, GIF’d, memed, and analyzed immediately. Because of their automatic online releases, these TV spots could be released during any game during the year, or a regular weekday, and still get a similar amount of views and secure a top spot amidst the trending topics.

There’s something to be said about being unable to watch a trailer again like the pre-Internet trailer days. Another repeated response to the question of the best or most memorable TV spot was Independence Day (1996). That TV spot shook the world, and the image of the White House being blown up became ingrained in public consciousness, something to be spoken about around water coolers and on playgrounds, shared reactions and retellings building a sense of legend around the film like some kind of folkloric concept. For those of us who grew up in the '90s and early 2000s, before YouTube, game day TV spots were, for many of us, the only marketing we’d see for a movie. Trips to the movie theater, for me, were less common thanks to the popularity of Blockbuster, so theatrical trailers didn’t become so ingrained in my mind as they are today.

Today, you can catch the trailer for Black Widow ahead of almost any movie in theaters, and if you’re a frequent moviegoer, you can have it memorized by now. But there was a time when the only footage of Spider-Man 2 (2004) an eager young fan like myself could get was during a game. Departing from the Super Bowl for a moment, I remember watching an episode of The O.C., a series I never watched before, because the Revenge of Sith (2005) teaser was going to premiere during the airing, and I had no idea when I’d be able to see that footage again, if ever. While it seems unlikely thanks to the rising costs of Super Bowl ads, there is something appealing in the idea of taking a Christopher Nolan approach and making these teasers an event that isn’t able to be replicated online.

As much as the big summer blockbusters dominate the Super Bowl conversation, my favorite TV spots, the ones that still work like events despite their online presence, are the reveal of a film no one knows is coming or what to expect from it. J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot has excelled at this feat. Regardless of your thoughts on the movie itself, there was no Super Bowl spot more exciting than The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), which not only announced the film's move to Netflix, but that it would be available on the streaming service after the game. It was a baller move that perfectly married coming-attraction hype and the streaming age. Fans didn’t have to simply rewatch the teaser over and over online, they could watch the movie itself in a few hours. While the movie itself didn’t fully live up to the surprise, it’s a marketing strategy that seems entirely worthwhile. Imagine if next year we got a TV spot for one of Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ series, followed by the announcement that the first episode would be available after the game. It’s that kind of ad spending that seems the most worthwhile in today’s entertainment climate.

As ad costs, and production and marketing budgets increase, we expect studios to eventually adjust the way they approach Super Bowl ads. Change is a slow process, particularly at the studio level, but without a clear and agreed upon impact on the box office, particularly for movies already considered to be an event, Super Bowl TV spots seem destined for a new strategy, one that creates a memorable experience in the online era where live viewing comes second to replays.