Spoilers are the third-rail of popular entertainment, and the media is increasingly willing to grab it in order to snag a few more clicks, regardless of the damage it poses to the very industry it relies upon. Hollywood, however, secretly promotes the release of spoilers, and their rationale is cynical and depressing.
We go to movies to experience stories about characters and their conflicts, but spoilers rob audiences of the joy of discovery and the thrill of plot twists. Hardcore fans hate spoilers with a passion; Internet discussion boards are packed with anti-spoiler discussions. And yet, spoilers are clearly on the rise.
The media is the obvious culprit here, right? Maybe. Maybe not.
A recent NY Times interview with actor Chris Evans (aka Marvel’s Captain America) revealed that he would hang up the shield and costume after Avengers 4… a revelation that must have given Marvel’s executives convulsions — character deaths and departures are (obviously) some of the most closely-held secrets in blockbuster franchises. But what if this is precisely what Marvel wanted. After all, we’re everyone’s suddenly talking about Captain America (whose last film was two years ago), adding interest — good and bad — to Avengers: Infinity War.
Evans’ quote was buried deep within the NY Times piece — it was a casual one-liner — but it was splashed across the Internet within minutes. Dozens and dozens of entertainment sites ran the Evans’ headline, which the average fan could not possibly avoid. Personally, as a serious Captain America fan, I was crushed to stumble over this news; it won’t stop me from seeing Avengers: Infinity War, but my enthusiasm for the film took a major hit.
Essentially, avoiding spoilers in today’s mega-competitive media environment has become an impossible task for fans.
However, Hollywood shares much of the blame for this spoiler-centric reality. The movie industry spews countless teasers and trailers to support their expensive blockbusters, often revealing major plot points, twists, and more. Recall the trailers from 2016’s Batman v Superman, which exposed the film’s surprise super-villain and several other key secrets.
It seems counter-intuitive to give away such secrets, and yet it keeps happening. But the media is starved for such content, and Hollywood is only too happy to feed it.
It comes down to the major studios’ panic to put butts into theater seats. Competition from streaming, audience fragmentation, and escalating production costs is at the heart of the problem. The industry is forced to employ a shotgun approach to reach fans across myriad venues, platforms, and hideouts scattered across the 24/7 online marketplace. The diverse makeup of today’s movie-goers means that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to market a film, instead it’s become more of a see-what-sticks approach.
And the industry contends that it’s necessary. Matt Brubaker, president of a high-profile Hollywood marketing agency, explained to EW:
“As much as people complain that trailers give away too much. Nine times out of 10, the more of the plot you give away, the more interest you garner from the audiences. Audiences respond to the trailers with more of the movie.”
That seems absurd on its face, but the numbers back it up. For example, Batman v Superman earned nearly a billion dollars worldwide. The same pattern exists in Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, and other major franchises.
The bigger a film’s budget the more is spent on marketing (it’s usually 1:1). So, when a big movie costs hundreds of millions to produce, the only way to recoup it is through aggressive marketing… and that means saturating media outlets with material — a lot of it ‘spoilery.’
This brings us back to the concept of focus groups and Hollywood’s reliance upon them. Hollywood says that they rely upon mountains of data and analytics to make their marketing determinations; however, focus groups are wholly anecdotal and they remain the true driving force in studios’ decision-making. Dan Asma, of trailer company Buddha Jones, told EW:
We prefer to be mysterious. That’s what good marketing is. But what can we do when testing and focus grouping consistently say that numbers spike when you give away more of the story.”
The problem is, focus groups and early screenings are hardly attended by typical, everyday fans. Worse, they’re wildly erractic and often don’t work at all. Harvard Business School professor related the following to Slate:
Hollywood films and TV pilots—virtually all of which are screened by focus groups—routinely fail in the marketplace.”
Focus groups are strange things: a group of people sitting around a table, responding to specific questions and topics, while being recorded. The structure creates strange dynamics, particularly when participants are paid to attend, according to Slate. Attendees may only get a few moments to blurt out their opinions, which causes feedback to be extreme. There’s also a conflict between unconscious feelings and conscious thoughts, which further skews results. Unfortunately, focus groups are an understood model that the industry trusts.
The major takeaway from Hollywood’s embrace of focus groups is that fans want to know more about a given film before they’ll consider buying a ticket. What’s odd is that there’s plenty of research that says this is false. Hollywood, however, doesn’t seem to care, which might explain why 2017 had an incredible number of blockbuster failures.
Ultimately, the strange case of movie spoilers — much hated by fans, secretly beloved by Hollywood — are the present and the future of blockbuster movies. Fans can’t avoid them and studios know it. In an environment of dwindling viewership and escalating costs, spoilers — and the focus groups that drive them — might be the only reliable means of ensuring heightened interest in these quarter billion dollar behemoths that are hitting theaters year-round, if not every other week.