The Problem with Spoiler Culture

Clay Liford tries to work through his issues with the current fixation on spoilers and get to the root of why it all annoys him so much.

N.B. The following article contains zero actual spoilers, because “spoiler” is a term that describes something that rarely exists.

We exist in an era when the spreading of rumors about films and TV is beginning to take the place of the movies and shows themselves. Original content is often reduced to merely an excuse for internet speculation, and prediction is an end unto itself (and often a profitable one, based on Google metrics). This is “spoiler culture,” and it’s being aided by modern standards of programming and advertising. Today, entire seasons of shows are being offered to us all at once, and certain binge-watchable series have even been edited to accommodate this recent change in viewing habits.

When you have instantaneous access to everything, the traditional linear narrative and even the manner in which it’s sold seems to be at risk of becoming obsolete. It’s harder and harder for creators to remain “ahead” of their audiences, and spoilers run rampant as the concept of “event” programming is being replaced by a sort of “choose-your-own-adventure” form of exhibition. Many viewers have railed against this free flow of narrative “intelligence,” wanting to preserve at least a pretense of story-based integrity. The source of their ire extends beyond the bloggers who treat rumors like gospel, to the actual studios who often intentionally put spoilers in their ad campaigns. But alas, this pervasive destruction of narrative integrity may merely be a false perception.

The spoiler in mass media began with the Hollywood movie trailer – an awareness vehicle designed to reveal only enough plot to spark audience curiosity and prompt ticket sales – but it was the (comparably) independent film which first utilized the open trade of information, or rather the withholding of it, as a form of audience currency. Alfred Hitchcock who, when marketing Psycho (which was released by Paramount but made by Hitchcock’s own company), placed ads boldly stating “No Late Admissions” and “Keep the Story a Secret” to tease the idea of informational currency. It introduced the notion of the audience vow of silence, and its associated subculture. And it certainly took hold. Just look at the marketing of William Castle movies (Homicidal, The Tingler, etc.) to find many brilliant examples of a filmmaker/producer forging metatextual bonds with his audience through the exchange/withholding of modular information. He even went so far with Mr. Sardonicus to create the ultimate interactive spoiler (which was also somehow spoiler-proof because it gets ahead of any real attempts at spoiling), with the audience allegedly voting for one of two possible endings (guilty or innocent!) in each screening.

I remember as a teen seeing the ads for The Crying Game, which pushed a metatextual covenant, available only to those audiences who witnessed the feature’s mid-film reveal, which was considered the ultimate twist (at least in the specialty distribution world) up to that point in time. Those viewers were now unwittingly part of an exclusive club, and as a testament to the advertising campaign that pleaded with these new members to “not reveal the secret” that (in those few remaining pre-internet days), they tended to keep it to themselves. This was brilliant advertising that hinted at something below the surface, gave just enough information to tantalize the public, and actually provided a twist worthy of the traditional and grassroots marketing. And to top it off, the twist was tied endemically to the story. I’d argue that the genetic core of the twist is what made it work. Not the advertising (which did succeed in propagating awareness for the twist), and certainly not the superior position the movie afforded those who saw it before their friends.

The first really noticeable shift toward spoiler culture occurred with a change to trailers. Filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis decided audiences want to “know what they’re getting,” as he said in an interview after being called out for revealing major late-movie twists in two of his films, Cast Away and What Lies Beneath. The trailer for the first showed that Tom Hanks gets off the friggin’ island, basically spoiling the perceived point of the entire movie! And the trailer for What Lies Beneath, a supernatural thriller, flatly resolves the true nature of the crime (and its perpetrators) that drives the entire plot and is the very point of the film’s existence. I remember being pissed at what I perceived as flippant words from Zemeckis, but what I didn’t truly fathom was how ahead of the times he was.

These days, such trailers are not the outliers and an actual teaser is truly hard to find. Many modern previews range from showing key plot points to actually revealing endings. In Quarantine, the English-language remake of [REC], the last shot of the trailer is the last shot of the actual movie. No big deal if it were, say an exterior shot of a building after everything wraps up, but in this film the last shot is a close-up of the lead character getting killed. But although that example is quite extreme, and with even more ads leaning the way of Zemeckis, I still find the more explicit modern spoiler to be primarily smoke and mirrors.

In theory at least, one might say if you know the entire story arc of a movie or show in advance, there’s no practical reason for you to see it. This of course assumes you’re watching strictly for the story, and not equally for the spectacle of it all. That assumption is easy to counter, given the striking proliferation of sequels, remakes, and those most spectacular of all spectacle movies, Marvel movies. I find Marvel ad campaigns particularly interesting because they certainly show off their “set pieces,” the big action sequences that are their very reason to exist, while attempting to maintain a certain mystique for elements that aren’t traditional “spoilers,” such as casting news. For example, the internet speculated wildly about the identity of Kurt Russell’s character in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and whether or not he was playing Star Lord’s father, while countless online fans were abuzz over the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character in Star Trek Into Darkness, and specifically if he was Khan.

If we think about what a real spoiler is, its closest ancestor is maybe the classic “last page of the novel,” at least in relation to the sort of person who flips right to it. If you’re talking about a mystery or thriller, this last-page reveal has a sizable chance of invalidating the very purpose of the book. Especially if it’s the sort of dime-store affair (which I still love) that doesn’t offer much else in the way of subtext. Think about some of the aforementioned movies of the pre-internet era. The Crying Game‘s reveal is an actual spoiler, because it’s deeply rooted to the DNA of the story and the manner and chronology in which the filmmaker intended the information to be absorbed. Knowing the twist ahead of seeing the movie changes the way in which you experience the story in total. In fact, I think a good way to define a real spoiler might be to say that it’s any information, once revealed, that fundamentally changes the way in which you process all other information afterward.

So why the fake spoilers? In an increasingly crowded media landscape, a movie’s ultimate success often depends on its ability to remain in the audiences’ consciousness for upwards of a year or two. While it makes literally no narrative difference whatsoever if you know in advance that Khan is indeed the villain in the upcoming Star Trek, it has a huge impact on keeping the movie “current” on its long road to the big screen. That’s pretty cut and dry. But I still have difficulty seeing why audiences are buying into fake spoilers. Perhaps the void of vapid, four-quadrant filmmaking has created in us a primal need for some substance in our storytelling, so we have consciously or unconsciously created elements to hold onto. Perhaps because of the (perceived) death of traditional storytelling, as it gives way to a more nonlinear, instant-processing form of media consumption, we require something quaint and old-fashioned to remind us of where we started. Or more likely, it’s something we don’t even realize we are doing anymore because we were raised with it as a sort of tradition.

I get into trouble sometimes because I have no intention of buying into modern spoiler culture. Of course, I won’t purposely reveal the ending to a film or show, unless it’s either clear the reveal has no bearing on the material or possibly because the movie has been around for a great while and countless other people have already beat me to the punch. But casting spoilers? Main villain spoilers? I’m not a superhero fan, but I have a hard time believing that any of that stuff at all changes the experience for even the most die-hard comic-book fan.

A question I have for myself is why I’m so constantly annoyed by modern spoiler culture and what that says about me and the way I digest media. This whole article could be summed up with, “If you hate spoilers, stay off Twitter.” Why should I care if people want to create and/or destroy suspense surrounding trivial movie tidbits? Well, that’s the thing. Spoiler culture fuels triviality. I feel like a crotchety old man defending a dead ideal here, but that doesn’t change the fact that stories should be about something. Even if it’s subtextual. Not every narrative needs to have a cathartic aspect, but come on.

I believe we go to the movies to experience something we’ve never experienced before, and yes, some of my ire is tied to that. But when I see intelligent filmgoers doing mental backflips to create suspense for something that is neither suspenseful or cathartically insightful – in essence making an excuse for inferior filmmaking – it feels like a sort of betrayal. It’s like we’ve just given up on saying important things and this is what we’re left with. Nowadays, the third act of basically every summer blockbuster is completely interchangeable. In essence, this makes them all spoiler-proof. So chill. And when it comes to people accidentally spoiling those full-season binge-watch Netflix affairs, rest assured the world is not on fire and your stories can’t truly be spoiled out-of-the-box. Remember, the novel has been in circulation for centuries, consistently offering nonlinear access to an entire storyline at any given time. And yet somehow culture has prevailed.

In short, it’s not a spoiler if it doesn’t actually spoil anything. And spoiler culture deflects attention from the larger issue. The only thing truly being spoiled is our ability and desire to demand more complex narratives from studios and creators. As long as it remains business as usual, the internet will continue to be peppered with blog posts about the true color of the Hulk’s underwear (from a very reliable source close to the production) and how that ties into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and 10 related spin-offs. If that’s what you want, I probably lost you a long time ago.

Clay Liford is an independent filmmaker living in Austin, TX. He has written and directed several shorts (such as My Mom Smokes Weed and Earthling) and the features Earthling and Wuss, and shot/edited over 20 other features, including St. Nick and Gayby. His latest feature, Slash, world premiered at SXSW 2016 and is currently on the festival circuit. You can follow him on Twitter here.