The trailer for Disney's The BFG came out earlier this week, exciting both kids and adults familiar with the tale on which it's based: a 1982 Roald Dahl short story of the same intentionally ambiguous title. The movie is slated for release in theaters July 1, 2016.
If you're not familiar with the story, you might be wondering why this trailer has received so much hype. The skeptic in you might say: Another year, another Steven Spielberg film. So what? You might also be wondering: What does BFG stand for, anyway?
While there's no way to know for sure about a movie until you see it, there are several early indicators that Spielberg and the Disney team got this one right. Here are three of them, each of which carries a creativity lesson or two that you can apply to your own big-budget projects and presentations.
1. The preview teases but gives away little. You learn what the setup of the film is--how the two main characters meet each other--and not much more:
Even before you play it, the screen shot above provides a few clues. For one thing, you can see that the story takes place after bedtime. For another, you can see that the main character is a she--and she is up late, reading. But her eyes are wide open, over and above her book. She's looking around.
The creativity lesson here is simple: keep your audience in suspense. So when you're previewing anything--a presentation or a sales pitch--tease your audience and keep them hooked. Don't give away the big payoffs in the first two minutes. (For another example of how to do this, check out how Marvel and Netflix previewed their original series, Jessica Jones.)
2. The main character is a girl. Earlier this year, when Chelsea Clinton gave the keynote address at HubSpot's INBOUND conference, she pointed out that women make up the majority (52 percent) of U.S. moviegoers, but they are still underrepresented in Hollywood (7 percent) among directors.
"Even in cartoons, women characters speak only about 20 percent as much as the male characters do," Clinton said. And those characters, she added, were usually seen in relation to male protagonists. "They're a wife, daughter, a friend. Rarely are they the hero. This is why Frozen was a big deal," she added, referring to the 2014 animated film in which the hero characters were two sisters.
The main character in The BFG is the girl pictured above, an orphan named Sophie (played by Ruby Barnhill). She hears some strange sounds in the middle of the night--while she is up reading--and ignores the bedtime rules of the orphanage, repeated ominously at an early juncture of the trailer: "Never get out of bed. Never go to the window. Never look behind the curtain."
Another lesson here is about marketplace timing. Is it possible moviegoers would have embraced The BFG prior to Frozen? Sure. But now it's more like a certainty. There's also a lesson here about what's interesting to audiences. Do you think investors are more intrigued by the story of a startup whose business model dares to "go there," or by the story of a startup that always obeys the rules--and never looks behind the forbidden curtain?
3. The screenplay was written by Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script for E.T. Most moviegoers would agree E.T. is one of Spielberg's best films. Mathison, E.T.'s screenwriter, also did the script for The BFG, adapting it from Dahl's story.
Interestingly, these two movies share another key trait: the use of acronyms in their titles. BFG (time to let the cat out of the bag) stands for Big Friendly Giant, while E.T. stands for extra terrestrial. In both cases, the story involves a young child forming an emotional bond with a creature whose friendliness belies his initial appearance.
The BFG is, after all, a giant--someone who is supposed to be massive and scary. Someone who only comes out at night. E.T. is literally from another planet. In both cases, the good-faith overtures of a child longing for mutual affection help the audience re-learn that most important of lessons: Not to judge someone or something by what it looks like on the outside.
One of the charm's of Dahl's story is that he called it The BFG in the first place. For many a child, encountering the book for the first time, part of the wonder was, "What does BFG stand for?" Likewise, adult readers could marvel at Dahl's wisdom and pragmatism: Had he used the word "giant" in the title, he'd perhaps have scared a few kids from reading it. Titles make first impressions. They can help set the tone for how an audience will receive the story you're about to tell.
Finally, there is the don't-reinvent-the-wheel lesson. You can imagine how another filmmaker might have tinkered with an intentionally ambiguous title like The BFG. Spielberg was smart enough not to mess with what has already charmed audiences for decades. Likewise, he recognized that a story like this was perfect for the touch and subtlety Mathison brought to E.T.
Until July rolls around, we won't know for sure if Spielberg made all the right choices. But at this early juncture, it's easy to like what you see--being careful, of course, not to judge it prematurely.