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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Spoiling the Surprise: On Apple Rumors & Movie Trailers

by Ted Landau
January 2nd, 2006

As usual, I've been following the various Apple rumor Web sites in anticipation of next week's Macworld Expo announcements. In case you haven't heard (Warning: spoiler alert!), the sites all agree that Apple will announce a greatly expanded media content delivery system, probably in conjunction with a new Mac mini (with home entertainment features designed more for your living room than your office) and possibly an Intel processor. Whew, that would sure be exciting.

Of course, only some (or even none) of this may turn out to be true. It's happened before. Or, as occasionally happens, the sites may all have nailed the landing and got it just right. Regardless, I have a love-hate relationship with these rumor mongers. It's the same sort of dilemma I find myself in when viewing movie trailers (another sort of advance peek, albeit a more reliably accurate one). So bear with me as I talk about movie trailers for a bit. I'll get back to Apple rumors soon enough.

The movie trailer dilemma. The problem with most trailers is that they give away far too much information about the movie. Some trailers do this to such a huge extent, that they become an abbreviated version of the entire movie, sort of the movie equivalent of Cliff Notes. The worst offenders are the trailers for romantic comedies: You get to see the couple before they meet, how they meet, the problems that develop after they meet, and even the inevitable reconciliation at the end of the movie. Along the way, the trailer also typically reveals the movie's funniest jokes.

More than once, after seeing such trailers, I skipped going to the movie, figuring there was no longer any point in doing so. Of course, movie producers hope that trailers lead to more tickets sold, not less. And apparently the trailers somehow have the desired effect -- or we would presumably not keep seeing these over-revealing previews.

Still, none of this has reduced my interest in viewing trailers. And, ever since they became available on the Web (such as at Apple's QuickTime site), I never have to worry that I will miss my chance to see a particular preview. Or see it again and again, if I wish.

In some cases, I can get quite obsessed about this. I remember surfing the Web trying (in vain) to locate a pre-release copy of the trailer for Star Wars Episode III, rather than wait another 48 hours to get it from the official site. After finally downloading the trailer, I viewed it dozens of time before seeing the movie. I told myself I was just psyching myself up for the big opening day. But in my heart, I knew this was probably not wise. Sure enough: when I finally saw the movie, it was a bit of a let down. The trailer seemed better than the movie itself.

True, sometimes the trailer is better than the movie itself. But, more often, the sense of disappointment comes because viewing the trailer set up unrealistic expectations.

A related negative effect is that, while watching the movie, I find myself going through a mental checklist of all the scenes I saw in the trailer, checking each one off as I see it. Sometimes, it is only a few minutes before the end of the movie that my checklist is complete. And all this time, I have been distracted from simply enjoying the movie.

This is all probably why, when I watch a movie for the second time, at home on DVD, I often enjoy it more than I did in the theater. At home, I can finally watch it sans preconceived expectations and mental checklists.

But none of this compares to the ultimate crime that a trailer (or movie review) can commit: revealing a critical plot point that only works when it is a surprise. I am not talking about jaw-dropping surprises here, like in the Sixth Sense. Trailers do typically keep these secret (although they do give away that there is a big secret to keep, which can be almost as bad). I am talking about the smaller surprises, but ones still big enough to ruin a movie if you know about them in advance.

This point was hammered home to me on one of the few occasions when I saw a movie without having first seen the trailer. The movie was Crazy/Beautiful. I wound up seeing it the day it opened -- with almost no advance knowledge -- because the movie I had come to the theater to see was sold out. If you saw this movie (Warning: spoiler alert!), you know that the central character (played by Kirsten Dunst) is the daughter of a congressman. The congressman is involved in a subplot separate from Kirsten‘s. You don't learn of their genetic relationship, or even that they know each other, until almost midway through the movie, when it comes as a surprise. At least it was for me.

After seeing the movie, and liking it more than I had anticipated, I went home and checked out the trailer as well as some movie reviews. In almost every review, the father-daughter relationship was revealed. Even the one paragraph summary on IMDB reveals this. Had I read these reviews in advance, I am certain I would have enjoyed the movie less.

The problem is, if I never read any reviews or see any trailers, how do I know what movies to see? I can't see every movie that comes out; nor would I want to. I need some way to winnow the field. Hence the dilemma.

Back to Apple rumors. All of this brings me back to Apple rumor sites. I am as anxious as the next person to know — as soon as possible -- what new products Apple is planning to release. It influences (rightly or wrongly) my purchasing decisions, it helps in my efforts to write informative columns, it helps me maintain my supposed image as an "Apple expert," and it's generally just fun. So I read the rumor sites. The problem is they can have the same sort of negative effect as movie trailers and reviews.

For starters, if the rumor sites' predictions exceed reality, and something less than anticipated is revealed at Macworld Expo, the result is disappointment —even if the product is pretty darn exciting anyway. Okay, we can all live with a keynote address that is less exciting than it might have been. But the disappointment can cast an enduring shadow over the product. News stories, columns and reviews all refer to the "disappointing" announcement, as if there is something wrong with the product. And, as we have learned from recent political battles, the public's perception is often based more on how an issue is "framed" than the actual facts.

Even if the rumors turn out to be true, they still eliminate the element of surprise. This too leads to disappointment. People say: "Steve Jobs only announced what had been predicted; nothing more; hardly exciting."

Like a spoiler ruining a good movie, the rumors can ruin what might otherwise have been a great keynote, as well as reducing the after-Expo buzz. The simple solution (for my own sense of surprise) would be not to read the rumor sites (as well as try the almost impossible task of not reading anything else that refers to the rumor sites). But, as with movie trailers, I find them too hard to resist.

So I go to Macworld Expo knowing everything that Steve is predicted to say. And, one way or another, I am disappointed — except for those rare times (which get rarer each year) when Steve is able to keep something completely off the radar. The announcement of the original iMac is perhaps the most well-known example of this.

My personal favorite, however, was the Macworld Expo when Steve first unveiled AirPort. As I recall, no one had predicted this was coming. He began his now-famous "one more thing" phase of the keynote by just walking around the stage with an iBook in hand. Then he started to use the iBook to surf the Web. He never directly said what the big deal was. Finally, he grabbed a big hoop and waved it around the iBook, as magicians do to show that no strings are attached. The audience soon grasped the significance and began to applaud. It was only then that Steve announced the technology behind this wireless feat. It was truly a magical moment, one that would have been ruined if we had all expected it.

So...with the new year upon us, I offer a toast to the unexpected...to pleasant surprises. May we still find ways to be surprised by what life has to offer.

Happy New Year...and see you at Macworld Expo.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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