Are Movie Trailers Life’s Biggest Con?

Ever felt ripped off by a film trailer? Me too. But understand the plight of the studio? How to market a crap film without referring to it
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Ever felt ripped off by a film trailer? Me too. But understand the plight of the studio? How to market a crap film without referring to it

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How often do you choose to see a film because you were seduced by the trailer, only to discover all the passable jokes, flashes of charisma and exploding guns/cars/wives etc have been used up in that grand carrot-dangle? Studios are renowned spoil-sports when it comes to hawking their latest product, as the best bits of a movie are usually crammed into a mini-version and we’re left to migrate to the Odeon expecting something more. Maybe it has to be this way, how else would a new release beat the competition without a little stage-mom exuberance from the Hollywood big wigs? To brazenly release a new film without first priming audiences for its arrival would surely be like pushing a wounded bird from its nest and expecting it to fly. If it did fly, this would of course be because some clever bird handler deliberately broke its leg after a focus group suggested this particular breed experienced high levels of pro-wingability in cases of extreme panic.

Naturally, the marketing people, whoever they are, will sell a film on its merits. They will sell a film based on the cultural climate and what their target audience should want. Since most people who work in marketing aren’t the most creative souls in the world and approach life in all its majesty much the same way the CyberDyne Systems Model 101 approaches Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the audience is usually regarded as some faceless glob to be unwittingly flung toward the multiplexes by the studios and production companies. It is testament to the grand scale of this assumption that trailers so often appear to advertise another film altogether, blindly bargaining on the idea that we will believe a film is whatever the marketing department think we would like to see.

The other option for studios is to let the movie be itself, love it just the way it is, the way Billy Joel loved his wife, before he divorced her and married a supermodel.

There is of course one great hurdle set down by every maker of rubbish, unusual or complex films. It is a pesky little conundrum but in order to sell a film it is usually necessary to refer to it. Any images, dialogue or music should ideally come from the film itself which I’m sure proves quite the challenge when trying to lure audiences to the big screen with an excerpt – any excerpt – from Miss Congeniality Two.

If only studios were allowed to offer tempting flashes of another film to an audience citing the presently fictitious Irrelevant Disclosure Act, by way of a get-out clause, whereby scenes of enduring beauty, arresting performances or dialogue from Rushmore, or just the trailer for Rushmore, replace any of the actual footage from some hackneyed turd like Gangster Number One. Perhaps if studios could wrangle this approach to trailing movies, they could avoid the profoundly frustrating dilemma presented by the nature of advertising: get a good product, or lie.

The other option for studios is to let the movie be itself, love it just the way it is, the way Billy Joel loved his wife, before he divorced her and married a supermodel. This alternative is far worse than the lies, duping and general chaos delivered by the first option, since it signals the end of the road, for us, for humanity, for films. If people still queue up for the celluloid smack in the mouth virtually promised by Monster-In-Law, then surely nothing stands between us and a world hoaching with food porn TV and Top Tens and the reforming of the Spice Girls. So I guess the end is nigh, then.

I’m not sure what the folks at The Sun were watching when they called In Good Company hilarious

In Good Company, starring Scarlett Johansson and Dennis Quaid, recently came and went with relatively little fuss. It’s as good a place as any to perform a quick autopsy of the trailer and its habitual quirks. The music used in the trailer is Solsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel, a song that, if it were a colour, would be pale yellow, if it were a dinner it would be a jacket potato with beans, or some toast and if it were a man, it would actually be Peter Gabriel, and so the world makes sense again, for it is inoffensive and reliable, and perfect for a trailer. The wistful, nostalgic mood evoked by the song summons your textbook comedy/drama sentiment, automatically assigning each character a sense of longing, to be understood, to escape a rut or to confront their fears. The dialogue used, as Solsbury Hill reaches its acutely pedestrian crescendo, to pique our interest in the love story between Johansson and Topher Grace, who, after annexing a perfectly good first name the wrong way looks and sounds like a Varsity rapist, is the baffling:

TG: ‘I wish you weren’t so beautiful.’

SJ:  ’I'm not’

TG: ‘Yes you are.’

Then, startlingly, a voice over proclaims in proud tones “The Sun calls it: ‘Hilarious.’” I’m not sure what the folks at The Sun were watching when they called In Good Company hilarious but I’d bet my best dress it wasn’t any of the bits in the goddam trailer. The trailer ends on a new low as we are told “Sometimes it’s not about getting ahead”…more shots of Dennis, let’s just call him Nis, and Topher pointing and smirking their way through some vague catharsis…..”it’s about getting a life.” At this point with so many trailers, you find yourself hoping Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway doesn’t drive you out of your home like a malnourished rat and force you to see whatever is on offer, simply for the thrill of watching a movie in the dark.

The real pay-off comes when you spot the film beneath the marketing.

The trailer betrays the film rather than promotes it. We aren’t enticed, we’re threatened by what’s out there, what’s being green-lit and queued for the world over. In Good Company is evidently a film about a bland, possibly delusional man who becomes the boss of an older man whose daughter has a speech impediment and the tendency to stare when excited, sad or confused. According to the trailer, this movie is a sad, yellow, wistful, hilarious, frantic, edgy rites of passage zinger starring Scarlett Johansson as the only person on earth who doesn’t think she’s beautiful.  In Good Company may well have been more accurately named In Dubious Company but this may have impeded its box office takings and as it is the film flailed just as well on its own.

I keep my ticket stubs, and looking through them, I am confronted with an archive overwhelmed by terrible choices. I paid to see Marisa Tomeii in Only You at the Bromley Odeon. I saw Baise Moi at the Prince Charles theatre, a film I’m certain was commissioned by the Catholic Church to make men feel guilty about their penises. I’m not thrilled to have wasted so many hours of my little visit here on truly bad movies, but I can in all honesty only blame myself, I hadn’t seen the trailers. What we all need is to hone our trailer-vision, or some sort of discerning radar alerted by keywords subtly ensconsed within the coming attractions genre. The only way to ensure you turn away, you run and you spread the word is not simply to acknowledge the inherent danger lurking within a review quote from Top Sante or filmbanana.com or the phrases ‘starring Ross Kemp’ or based on an idea by the Virginia Andrews Estate.

The real pay-off comes when you spot the film beneath the marketing. The trailer tells you everything you need to know to avoid disappointment, and once you accept this, the trailer becomes your friend. Maybe if I had been warned, I wouldn’t have wandered into the Screen On the Green, with all my faculties, at no-one’s command, and willingly watched Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. After watching the trailer today, I can see the tell-tale signs, laid-out by some benevolent god of time and money and entertainment, screaming at me from the trailer with its good soundtrack and beautiful stars. The absence of a story, the mandatory ‘languid, dancing of disturbed European girl’ routine to be found in most fake art-house movies, the toe-sucking, the laughing, the running, the dialogue “your lips are so red, so ripe, so luscious”, these clues were there for me but I rushed ahead and I paid the price. The last line of the trailer for The Dreamers is “Why aren’t you just a tiny bit excited?”. I do wish I hadn’t forked over a tenner to find out.

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