Thursday, 18 August 2011

Shhh.... contains [spoilers]

Spoilers are in the news a lot at the moment...

Earlier this week, I saw a piece by Daniel Bettridge in The Guardian ( It's a rather glib piece about a research survey that suggests that book readers (the medium seems to et lost in most commentaries, but could be important) get more pleasure from the reading experience if they know where the story is going.

Or, as everyone who has jumped on the bandwagon has reframed it, audiences love spoilers.

Now, just to be clear (although if you're online and reading this blog, it seems unlikely you won't know this), a spoiler is a piece of information about a major twist, plot development, or character appearance in a forthcoming TV show, film, comic book, book... any mass media narrative piece, really.

So, this week, critics have also been posting "spoiler free" reviews of next week's Doctor Who episode 'Let's Kill Hitler' - yet, despite this spoiler-lite approach, I already seem to know [spoiler] that the Daleks will be back this season after all because, lest anyone forget, Steven Moffat is both a great writer and a big fat liar. Like Russell T. Davies before him, Moffat enjoys peppering interviews with spoilers, fake spoilers, and bits of information that look like spoilers but could, frankly, just be the ravings of a talented Scotsman...

According to the research survey, however, (and presuming it applies to audio-visual media as well as it does short stories - that is outside the scope of the survey) most of us would prefer to know. We don't necessarily want the suspense, shock, or surprise, we'd rather know if it all ends well, who survives, and then settle back to enjoy the journey.

This interests me - particularly because of my work on film trailers. The cliched complaint about trailers (and, when you've had as many conversations as I've had about trailers, you don't need a spoiler warning to tell this point is going to come up) is that they reveal too much information. Now, that's always seemed like a pointless and stupid thing to say - because (as an audience) we can't know whether a trailer has spoiled the film being advertised unless we subsequently see the film, go back to the trailer, and go "Ohhh, that really was a spoiler." Or unless we've read the book/TV show/comic that the film was based on - in which case, that's not the trailer's fault, it's your fault for already knowing the story. You've spoilt yourself - suto-spoiling? - rather than the trailer doing anything.

Since the 1930s, surveys on movie audiences and movie advertising tend to come back saying the audiences are interested in stories and stars. So, not surprisingly, trailers have focused on story and star images. The best trailers, yes, tend to be those that keep us guessing a little bit - most trailers focus on Acts 1 and 2 of the movie and, if they give us any glimpse of Act 3, it tends to be brief and elusive (often as part of one of those glorious end-of-trailer 'throw everything at the screen in one big loud montage moments). The Independence Day teaser trailer, for example, concludes with the White House blowing up. Now, that comes at the end of Act 1 in the film, and was featured in almost all the advertising - so that's hardly a spoiler. But, even if it had shown more images of the final dogfight - or even of the alien spaceship blowing up - would that have reduced its audience? Or are we so immersed in blockbuster narrative convention and generic plotting that we already know the good guys are going to win, and that the aliens are going to blow up. A lot. At that point, surely the trailer is promising us expected pleasures, rather than spoiling anything?

Of course, the reason why everyone is jumping on this particular research is because it's only a short jump from it to blaming everything on our modern, Internet-enabled age. But, lest we forget, spoilers have always been a part of the media business: when I was a kid, there was a novelisation and a comic book adaptation of Star Wars out months before the film debuted; I knew [spoiler warning] Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan because I had a photo-book version of it (anyone remember those? They told the whole story in stills from the film, with dialogue etc. added in. Kind of a faux comic book?) Anyway, the point is: spoilers aren't new. They're just easier to access.

Yes, we live in a world where Jane Espenson can 'live tweet' during episodes of Torchwood: Miracle Day (but at least she politely waits until the UK broadcast, which comes 6 days after the US one). You can read a seemingly innocent website article about one film, and have a completely different one spoiled for you. And in this Sky+ and iPlayer catch-up age, we have to accept that some conversations are going to be punctuated by people clamping their hands over their ears, chanting "Don't tell me, I haven't seen it yet..."

But, does any of this spoil our enjoyment of the actual movie / TV show / book / whatever?

I'm not sure - but I think I agree with the survey results. Maybe it's about enjoying the whole journey rather than just one (often rather predictable) twist at the end...

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