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In today’s world of social media people evaluate modern film making more scrupulously than ever before. Months before a film even enters production there are people evaluating the screenplay online; hours after it premieres hundreds of reviews are accessible, and exponentially more if you include the countless bloggers, twitter posters, and discussion boards all over the internet; and every one of them attempt to make their own unique point. When there’s such a large amount of discussion occurring a problem arises. A problem that’s been characterized by the same social media culture that accentuated it in the first place, and that is the problem of “spoilers.” Let me get my personal view out of the way: I take great measures to avoid spoilers of any kind. I’m the type of person that takes great pleasure in experiencing what a film, or TV show, has to offer in real time; experiencing the journey of the characters along with them, as opposed to just observing their world from an outside perspective. My love of film stems from my desire to expand my imagination. Premature disclosure of plot points only serves to limit our imaginations. Everyone is familiar with the idea of spoilers today, but the effect they have on viewership is a topic not often discussed. The “spoiler effect” has been articulated by Alex S.L. Tsang and Dengfeng Yan (2009), who summarized: “The spoiler effect denotes a phenomenon that a consumer’s interest in consuming a particular narrative is reduced after exposure to a spoiler” (para. 1). They go on to say: “Spoiler exposure creates a satiation effect and an explanation effect that hinder favorable affective forecasting” (para. 2). When a major plot twist is revealed out of context, it causes people to become disinterested in seeing the work in question in its entirety. When it comes to great film or TV the best things to take away are not the plot twists, but the craftwork that is applied by the people involved. All the very best films and shows are made by artists, and all the best artists form their work as one whole story. Plot twists are used to further the progression of the story; they’re not the whole reason for it to exist. But people continue to allow out of context revelations of what happens in one moment of an entire piece of art to rule their desire to see what else that work may have to offer. Look at a TV show like Breaking Bad, every episode is filled with plot twists, any of which revealed ahead of time would outright diminish the qualitative experience of such a show; but every episode is also filled with some of the most beautifully shot sequences and terrifically acted performances ever captured. Allowing yourself to miss out on such cinematic quality just because you heard one of your favorite characters is going to die is an outrage. Contrarily, there are examples of those shocking death scenes that are some of the most acclaimed scenes in the history of television. Spoilers can come in many forms; most commonly from discussion over the internet, but the next most prominent offender is much more innocuous, trailers. Trailers are made to hook the viewer ahead of time, but in order to do so exciting parts of the film need to be exhibited. Making a trailer is all about selling, “and [they] include pandering or condensed scenes of the entire film so that the viewer has essentially seen the movie by watching the trailer” (Adams, 2011, para. 4). When the movie The Avengers was getting ready to release the hype had built up tremendously. Once the trailer hit the internet millions of people watched it within the first day (Lowhensohn, 2012); and it was full of the usual exciting moments action movie trailers highlight. But by watching the trailer it’s easy to see the culmination of a major moment in the third act. The scene was a major development of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character; Marvel Films spent years, through a whole series of films, building up to this very emotional moment when Stark appears to be fulfilling his fate as a superhero, but just as it’s revealed what Stark is going to attempt, the impact of the potentially impactful scene was completely distinguished. While the whole sequence was quite graceful, and the trailer only showed a few seconds from it, because it was obvious what was going to happen before it finished unfolding, it became impossible to feel genuine. That trailer caused the scene to be shoved in the forefront of reality and imagination no longer needed to work on its own. After all, isn’t the whole point of watching a movie to escape from reality for a short time? It could be a trailer, a review, a commercial, or even just a picture of the film set; potentially anything could spoil a movie experience. That then begs the question: how do you know the significance of a spoiler when you’re seeing it? To use Breaking Bad as an example again, many of the show’s greatest moments are the spoiler-prone plot twists because Breaking Bad is excellent at maximizing what’s known as the “shock value.” The most eloquent argument for the validity of shock value I could find reads as: “If by shock, we mean what Proust called surprise — something that so jolts our habit-encrusted perceptions that we see things with a startling new vividness — then, yes, shock is an essential component of all great art” (Brantley, 2012). The ability for a piece of art to surprise us as we watch is essential to making it great. The works that can really do an effective job of shocking people are the ones that generally have the most longevity. Even if the quality isn’t along the lines of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, a TV show can run for years on effective shock value alone. Just look at how many Law & Order and NCIS episodes there are. A common argument by people who can somehow base opinions entirely on spoilers is if shock value is all something has to keep you watching, than is there any real value there? When you’re talking about Law & Order, it could be said that statement holds water. When all a show can do is repeatedly throw one plot twist and shocking moment after another, that show cannot automatically be called a well done show; but when those twists are used in just the right spot, in the right context, with the right intent, they can be some of the most memorable moments of all time. The cognitive dissonance towards our generation’s greatest modern achievements in filmmaking that has swept over the social media landscape is extremely prevalent. Every day people will read spoilers and decide to skip watching, rationalizing, “I know how it ends” or “I know the best part.” While there are films and shows that when you find out those facts ahead of time it does make them somewhat irrelevant to watch, but the times where that’s the case, the work itself is what’s irrelevant. Films and TV series are artistic expressions meant to transport the viewer into a world where things outside the realm of possibility happen right in front of their eyes; only in that world, those implausible things make perfect sense. To have such a potentially potent experience spoiled is reprehensible.

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Subject Major(s)

Journalism Print

Current Academic Year


Faculty Advisor/Mentor

Herbert Hill


Virginia Commonwealth University. Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program

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VCU Undergraduate Research Posters


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The Spoiler Effect: How spoilers affect our perceptions of film and TV