Trailer Trash: the argument against movie teasers

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Movie trailers are, for better or for worse, one of the easiest ways to generate interest in an upcoming film. It may shock you to know that up to a third of a film’s total budget may go towards advertising, in the form of giant billboards that plaster West Hollywood and the thirty-second spots on your TV. This alone should upset you, because that is movie money spent not on building a good product, but on advertising it. Millions of dollars are spent creating and distributing trailers in hopes that two minutes of your attention will turn into profit for the studio. This has been a somewhat recent trend, and serves as a vast departure from the method that studios employed until just a few decades ago. Now movie advertising is its own business. And it’s not good.Â

Movie trailers are, for better or for worse, one of the easiest ways to generate interest in an upcoming film. It may shock you to know that up to a third of a film’s total budget may go towards advertising, in the form of giant billboards that plaster West Hollywood and the thirty-second spots on your TV. This alone should upset you, because that is movie money spent not on building a good product, but on advertising it. Millions of dollars are spent creating and distributing trailers in hopes that two minutes of your attention will turn into profit for the studio. This has been a somewhat recent trend, and serves as a vast departure from the method that studios employed until just a few decades ago. Now movie advertising is its own business. And it’s not good.  {{page_break}}

Have you ever seen a trailer that says “from the team that brought you X”? They might even slide in a “from the minds behind…” to help their cause. The studio is trying to get you to see their new film because the aforementioned one was successful. But if you dig deeper, you might find that more often than not, “the team” may be a producer and not necessarily a director, or even a writer for that matter. Quick, who directed 9, or The Orphanage?  If you answered Tim Burton, or Guillermo Del Toro, you would be wrong (the correct answers are Shane Acker and Juan Antonio Bayona, respectively). But it is easy to get the wrong impression when you see the trailer. It’s a not-so-subtle misdirection that entices the audience to have faith in the new projects that well-known directors might be overseeing, but not necessarily creating. A prime example would be Judd Apatow, who directed Funny People, Knocked Up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (and not much else). What he didn’t direct (and you can’t be blamed for thinking he did) was Superbad, Year One, or Step Brothers. He didn’t even write them. So much for seeing a “Judd Apatow Movie”.

In this era of small print and “terms and conditions apply”, it should come as no surprise that trailers are allowed to falsify the content of the film. Often, parts of the film that end up on the cutting room floor are still included in the trailer. This baffles me, because it seems that if you want people to go see your film, you would show them things that are good enough to make the final cut, and not some garbage that isn’t worth inserting in an already-bloated two hour film. David Pogue has a wonderful article in the New York Times that touches on this very issue, and it’s worth the quick read.

But the heart of the issue is that trailers are for filling seats, they have no obligation (legal or otherwise) to accurately portray what the movie will be like. This sucks for the audience, because more often than not trailers are the only way to get people to follow a movie before its release. Especially bad movies use this to their advantage, because they can use the best laughs, scares, etc., to get people interested without risking what would inevitably be a string of scathing reviews upon the film’s release. It is important to note that trailers are often completed before the film is locked, but the studios shouldn’t feel obligated to create buzz about their film that far in advance–two months or so should do. This provides adequate time for viewers to get ready for the film, and allows the studio to have a finished product before saturating the market with their advertisements.  

The most egregious and damaging element of trailers is that THEY GIVE AWAY THE MOVIE! For the love of all that is holy, please don’t give away the second act break in the trailer. In a recent teaser for Black Swan, an upcoming thriller by Darren Aronofsky, there is a startling revelation that occurs just at the end of the trailer. Without going into detail, it is a somewhat integral part of the play they are performing as well as the movie itself, and although it creates a tremendous amount of intrigue within the trailer, it’s half-way through the $&*%*# film! Trailers should entice people to see the film but not ruin what is certainly a valuable twist in the story. Agatha Christie novels don’t have the second murder on the book jacket.

There are some solutions to this problem that will still allow the audience to understand the principle actors in the film, possibly the main conflict (which is usually set up by minute 20, not minute 58), and the movie’s tone, without spoiling the whole thing. One solution is to play out one to two minutes of a film, preferably from an early sequence, that is edited as it appears in the final cut. Prior to the 1960’s, this was the preferred method of trailer cutting, and it was done by an association that was dedicated to putting out advertising material for movie studios. The scene was supplanted by text, which set the tone of the movie, let the audience know who was involved creatively, and didn’t ruin a single moment after that scene.

Another more controversial solution is to make trailer viewing optional. If the trailers ran at the end of the film (like they did back in the day), people could choose whether or not to stick around and see what’s coming soon. Unfortunately we don’t get that option. A lot of trailers are on the movie’s website anyway, and many are hosted on Apple’s trailer page, so if you have an Internet connection (which you do if you are reading this), you can watch and re-watch to your heart’s content.

If optional viewing sounds like something you would get behind, don’t hold your breath. There are companies in Los Angeles and New York that are dedicated solely to making trailers, and there would be a lot of uproar if someone took away their precious, cushy desk jobs that they work so hard at. Boo freaking hoo, you overpaid clowns, sorry I don’t have any compassion for you when you ruin my Friday evening. And it’s only going to get worse. Some companies get by only making trailers for one genre. This is why most horror movies you see follow a fairly predictable pattern, including the requisite fades to black with aural cues and the brief scare right after the title of the film, just before the trailer ends. Sound familiar?

The issue at hand is not going to be fixed overnight. The business aspect of trailer cutting is too massive to fold, and Hollywood is pretty resistant to change in general. But it’s apparent that there is a problem, and that there are practical solutions to be had. Even movie trailer parodies are better than the garbage you see in theatres (on a side note, do youself a favor and look up some movie trailer mashups, like Must Love Jaws or Ten Things I Hate About Commandments).  In the meantime, if you see someone hunched over in the theatre, eyes closed and ears covered, come say hi. It’s probably me. 

Video via: Britanick via Cracked.com

Mashups via: Youtube