academic portfolio & musings of a PhDad on
movies, fatherhood, social justice, and everything in between
movies, fatherhood, social justice, and everything in between
I used to love watching movie trailers. I was the guy who would make sure to be at the theater at least 30 minutes in advance, because I absolutely COULD NOT miss the trailers. When the internets came around, I spent hours upon hours watching trailers and teasers of the latest movies to be coming out.
But at some point something changed and I no longer watch movie trailers.
Or at least, I don’t watch trailers for movies I really want to see. In fact, I actively avoid them. The trailers I do watch are for movies that I don’t necessarily care about either way. People often ask me why, and I usually say it’s because they give too much away, or that I want to be surprised by what I see. Those are both still true, but it’s more than just not wanting to see particular scenes. More and more trailers are giving away the ENTIRE narrative. The trailer for Paranoia is a perfect example, but I’ll need to give you all a bit of a set up before continuing.
Do you all know about the 3-Act Structure?
It’s this narrative pattern found in A TON of movies, especially mainstream, plot-driven, Hollywood films. It’s something that Syd Field is credited with really identifying and articulating. Almost every intro-to-screenwriting book will talk about the 3-Act Structure, some of them as a hard-and-fast rule, others as more of a rule of thumb, while others just talk about it as a general pattern in film that you can follow or not. Regardless of how you feel about the general lack of originality it suggests, it’s everywhere.
Here’s a diagram of it:
And a brief explanation of the diagram, with The Matrix as an example:
In Act 1 – about the first 25% of the film – we’re introduced to the main character, the world they live in, and basically what they want. One of my screenwriting profs called this the “World/Character/Quest” of a screenplay. Characters have to want something, or at least not realize that they need something. We may get a bunch of possible storylines, one of which will become the main story, some of which will be secondary, and others which will be ignored. In The Matrix, we’re introduced to the crazy world right away with Trinity’s cool 360-degree-fly-around kick, and are shown that Neo is searching for something, and desperately wants something more.
The first plot point – also called the first turning point – happens when the character is first thrown into a ‘new world’ and in a way passes the point of no return. In a lot of movies, it may be literally a new world, others might be more figurative. Their life will never be the same again. This new world will throw them all kinds of obstacles which make up the bulk of Act 2. Could be the wardrobe that leads you to Narnia, a new relationship, a new job, a new case, etc. At about 30 minutes into The Matrix, almost exactly 25% in, Neo takes the red pill and there is no turning back.
In Act 2 – about 50% of the film – the protagonist is basically reacting to everything that this new world throws at them. It’s an emotional journey that consists of escalating conflicts. Things keep getting crazier and crazier and harder and harder. Neo learns about the matrix, the machines, the real world, kung-fu, agents, the lack of spoons, etc. About halfway through Act 2, there’s typically a revelation that occurs at the movie’s Midpoint that points the story a different direction. In The Matrix, Cypher betrays the crew. It’s not as major as a turning point, but still important. As another example, in a crime/mystery film, this will be when the detectives find a new clue that changes everything they’ve known about the case thus far and sends them towards the right solution. From the midpoint to the second turning point, the stakes keep getting higher. The agents capture Morpheus and the future of Zion and all of humanity is potentially on the line. Throughout Act 2, Neo is just bombarded with more info and new situations, not really DOING a whole lot, but having a lot DONE TO him.
Then there’s the second plot point – though I prefer the term ‘turning point.’ This is when the protagonist finally starts to take ACTION as opposed to simply REACTING to everything being thrown at them. It’s a major reversal where the protagonist starts applying all the lessons they learned in Act 2 towards the final resolution. Things are pretty tense just before this point. In The Matrix, Tank is about to unplug Morpheus(!) when Neo says no and decides to take action to save him.
Finally, the second turning point takes us right into Act 3, where the protagonist is constantly taking ACTION based on the clear effects of their experiences in Act 2. As soon as they either get or don’t get what they want, the movie’s over. In The Matrix, this is where things start to get crazy as Neo finally applies all of the things he learned in Act 2 to save Morpheus, and goes on a killing spree with Trinity. He’s constantly and actively doing things to achieve his goal of saving Morpheus. But he doesn’t fully realize he’s the One until he comes back to life after having been shot repeatedly by Smith. Fives minutes later – maybe even less – the movie’s over. There’s nothing else to see. He got what he wanted.
That’s a pretty brief overview, and it’s insane how often this pattern shows up, and how perfectly it lines up with the timing. The Matrix is but one example. Now back to Paranoia. Here’s the trailer:
Did you catch all the elements of the 3-Act Structure in there?! Here’s a quick breakdown:
Act 1: Our hero was born and raised in Brooklyn. His father was a security guard for 30 years with nothing to show for it. He’s spent years developing skills hoping to make enough to care of his father. World, character, quest in 30 seconds. Boom.
Turning point 1: “You are going to work for my competition.” He’ll be stealing trade secrets. But he accepts. Enters a whole new world that’s alien to him.
Act 2: from 0:46 to 1:30 things are looking good for our hero. He’s got the girl, the car, the suits, etc. Then at 1:31 we get to the midpoint. He thinks he’s out but is told “you’re only out when I say you’re out” by the awesome Gary Oldman who threatens his father! The reason he’s doing all this! Then things get even worse through 2:12. The FBI is involved! Harrison Ford knew all along! He’s losing the girl! He’s been manipulated all along.
Turning point 2: at 2:12. “I’m gonna make this right. I’m gonna use what they taught me to destroy what they built.” Our hero’s finally going to take action.
Act 3: Our hero’s in charge now. He’s keeping his cool while Oldman and Harrison Ford are the ones who look nervous by what the hero’s doing to them. He’s no longer being manipulated. He’s the manipulator. And the movie’s over.
I haven’t seen this movie, but I’m guessing the only things they didn’t show in that trailer is that he gets the girl and takes care of his father. Just a guess.
So that’s why I don’t really watch trailers anymore. And when I do, it’s for movies I don’t feel strongly either way about watching or not. It might make me want to watch it. Or, as in the case of Paranoia, make me want to watch it even less.
Am I alone here???
Born in Belgium. Raised in Brazil. Cultured in China. Corrupted in America.