It might be difficult for younger readers to remember a time before the internet. Created in 1969 but not implemented as a global network until the early 1990s, the internet is the pinnacle of the Information Age – irrevocably changing our lives, from the way business is conducted to how we connect with others. With the mass onset of the internet – websites, forums and fansites – even the way we receive and process information about television and movies, sometimes before we’ve even watched them personally, has completely changed.
With the onset of the internet the true age of spoilers had begun. We’ve all seen the Simpsons joke where Homer gives away the fact that Vader is Luke’s father to people queueing to see Empire Strikes Back, and their subsequent reaction. It was such a shock to the audience because, in the main, the audience rarely learned such information before releases, and the spread of such information after release was a slow trickle as compared to today’s tidal wave. Simply, before and during, the 70s and 80s you could watch a movie with a plot twist and know nothing of it before.
The age of deconstruction:
The internet has made us a culture obsessed with deconstruction, including everything from the latest news to each other’s facebook profiles. There are a whole host of websites focused on TV and movies that allow you to do just this, and most especially within “cult” genres. Within these websites and forums, the deconstruction seeks to find deeper meaning in plots, characters and future development. Amongst the speculation, half-truths and confirmed rumours, spoilers have become the norm, and often a hot topic.
To some, spoilers are non-consequential and aren’t avoided at all, in fact they are occasionally sought out. Reading up on missed episodes, or in depth breakdowns of movies you are yet to see is just how some people work. Some only draw the line at having a plot twist revealed, anything up to that point is acceptable – they are going to see the show or movie anyway, and still take enjoyment in how it is done, even if they already knew what was coming.
Obviously, not everyone falls into this category, and as such an etiquette has developed to allow people to avoid spoilers. In both print and online articles it is usual to warn of spoilers ahead, and on forum’s to change text colour to hide the spoilers so only those who chose to highlight the section can read it. This puts the onus on the person with the information not to spoil it for others.
The question arises, how far can you expect others to go to protect you from spoilers? Should it even be expected at all? I used to be cautious about posting even a slight mention about new episodes of Doctor Who on the night of release on facebook, as people would complain that they had recorded it to watch later. My thoughts on this changed when it struck me that there has actually been a precedent for this for years, even pre-dating the internet – sports.
Sports fans, since the beginning of sporty times have managed to avoid spoilers. If they haven’t been able to watch/listen to the match of their choice they purposely avoid any form of news that would “spoil” this for them, until they had time for their recording. This cautious avoidance has now come to include facebook and other internet exposure for many, where they may learn the score. Maybe we nerds need to take a cue from the jocks and be more responsible for our own exposure to spoilers. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for people to be more active in their avoidance of spoilers, rather than chastising those who overshare?
The changing face of spoilers:
There once was a time when a trailer really was a “teaser”, showing enough of the movie to entice, but not enough to give away too much of anything, including the plot. Compare this to the modern world of movies and how some movies are almost entirely played out in the trailer. This kind of marketing tends to be especially prolific for rom-coms and action movies, because there aren’t necessarily any great revelations ahead, and this style of trailer might be more enticing to their target audience.
For cult genre movies, the opposite is often true. In sci-fi, fantasy and horror, there is more often than not something that that will be better enjoyed by the audience if not revealed until viewing. In fact, some movies rely on this – Twelve Monkeys, Momento, Inception, Sixth Sense, The Box – to name a few. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a “twist” it can just be a plot point which is not so much a twist as a massive, world changing revelation within the context of the movie – Luke discovering Vader is his father will probably always remain the epitome of this.
This prevalence for twists and revelations within the genre, coupled with the intensity of the online world, has made spoilers such a massive issue that they can start a (flame) war. The ground rules are often sketchy and what constitutes a spoiler to one person may not to another.
When is a spoiler not a spoiler?
Technically anything could be a spoiler for someone. If they have never seen a movie that has been available for 20 years and someone tells them the plot or a twist, that is a spoiler for them, but does that mean we all have to walk on eggshells? Revealing the basic plot, that is easily available on websites such as imdb, or is possibly discernible from the trailer, might still be a step too far for some. Sometimes they are right, and you just really ruined their experience of that show or movie, but other times they are just being way too sensitive and need to just deal with it. Here’s my quick guide:
Personal Feelings: Whether or not you enjoyed the subject matter is not a spoiler (though including examples to support your thoughts or feelings might be). I have seen people online accused of “spoiling” by updating facebook with statuses such as “Just saw X, hated it” or “X on TV last night was ace!”. This is not a spoiler. How you felt about a subject does not give away anything that would “spoil” the experience for someone else. Deal with it.
Statute of Limitations: If the subject in question was released 6 months to a year ago, then I say spoil away. If the person worried about having it spoiled hasn’t seen it in that time, then how seriously interested are they in it in the first place. e.g. waiting for the DVD release of a movie, that’s just too bad. They can’t expect everyone else to tip toe around.
Old Age: A few weeks ago I overheard two people talking about The Great Gatsby, and one of them was annoyed to have been told that he died at the end of his titular tale. I was aghast. If the subject in question is based on source material that has been available for some time, then really? That’s just fine. No one can complain that something has been spoiled when the source material, for example Gatsby, is a literary classic which has been available for almost a century!
Popular Culture: This is slightly more ambiguous than old age, but again looks at something based on an already available source material. An excellent example of this is Game of Thrones, having read the books but not seen all the series, I was astounded by the explosion of crazy on the internet when the Red Wedding took place. It was already old news to me. This one is definitely dangerous territory though and discretion should be used – the Song of Fire and Ice (GoT) series has arguably not been around long enough to fit into old age, and is still ongoing, so people should treat with caution how much of the book plots they reveal to those who are only watching the TV show. That said, at what point does this drop into the statute of limitations and spoilers are justified with the phrase “well you should have read the books!”? Handle with care!
Public Domain: Information that is already in the public domain, such as the casting of a movie or TV show, or any other information that is released ahead of the subject in question – especially if it is on the poster or promotional marketing – is not a spoiler. Just because someone didn’t know who had been cast in the supporting role, doesn’t mean that finding out just before a viewing has spoiled anything for them. There are a few exceptions to this, in that casting or something similar may be part of a plot twist or revelation, but as mentioned – if it is available in the publicity pre-release, then it’s fair game. For example, discovering that Laurence Fishburne plays Perry White in Man of Steel may cause surprise (and delight!), but it spoils nothing going into the movie, and is information available before the movie – more importantly, it’s not pertinent to the plot or character in any way.
Speculation: On seeing a trailer or reading publicity information, speculation arises. There are whole forums full of guesses and hopes for upcoming TV and movie projects. If that speculation proves to be right, can it really be a spoiler? In the first instance, no. Once you have discovered that your speculation is correct, you may want to be a bit more cautious around those who have not yet seen the subject matter. Many years ago I watched the trailer for Sixth Sense – the first thing I said to a room full of friends was, “Bruce Willis is dead then, right?”. The one person in the room that had seen the movie told me off for spoiling it for everyone – but really, did I spoil it or did they?
The increase in spoiler exposure over the years has resulted in a greater sensitivity in it, to the point where arguments can arise online over the slightest of information. Often the real point is lost sight of, because It really all comes down to this – What is being spoiled? A spoiler can only really be a spoiler if it is going to spoil the experience for someone who has yet to experience the subject matter. This works both ways – if it’s something you would have preferred not to know prior to viewing, then keep schtum. But conversely, if it’s something that is not going to spoil the subject matter for you, then get over it.
The Future of Spoilers:
Some recent movie makers have tried to combat the age of spoilers, wanting the audience to capture the same feeling of discovery they had in their childhoods. One of the strongest denouncer of spoilers is notable genre director J.J. Abrams.
His 2009 movie Cloverfield wasn’t just an example of the secrecy we have come to expect from him, but actually a direct protest against the spoiler age. With slow build viral marketing leading up to release, audiences went in knowing hardly anything about this modern monster movie, but with their interest piqued. This penchant for secrecy marks his career through both TV and movies, and is most especially highlighted by his Star Trek movies – a brave move considering the fanbase’s concerns about his helming of the initial project. But it can backfire, recent movies that have been shrouded in such secrecy have usually done so because of a plot twist, for example the movies of M. Night Shyamalan.
When the secrecy is not concealing a twist or major revelation, then it can be underwhelming. Whether or not you like Super 8, it evokes strong feelings of childhood nostalgia, whilst skating (sometimes worryingly) close to be a love letter to Steven Spielberg. But for all the movie’s secrecy, there was no great revelation and the audience came out of it without having experienced a reason for the secrecy. This can lead to a disappointing first viewing, whilst you are waiting for that presumed revelation. On subsequent viewings maybe you can appreciate the movie without that in mind, but it does feel that the level of secrecy did the movie a disservice.
The spoiler age came out of nowhere. It grew with the internet, with no real plan or control and, as with many things in the Information Age, it is only now that we look back that we consider that things might be done differently. Perhaps studio controlled secrecy is the way forward for TV and movies, perhaps in the future we’ll look back, curiously if not fondly, on a time when TV and movies weren’t shrouded in a cloak of secrecy.
With Abrams now at the helm of the new, Disney financed, Star Wars movies, we can likely expect at least more of the same from him. Plots and themes kept secret, with little more than the cast revealed until release. And perhaps, with this in mind, Abrams is the perfect man for this job – taking Star Wars back to it’s roots. Regardless of any revelations the story may or may not hold, of all franchises, secrecy becomes Star Wars, it’s the way it was meant to be experienced.