A Lie Agreed Upon: Good Trailers Don’t Mean Good Movies, by David Bax
Back in film school, I took an editing class. In one of our assignments, we were given a zip drive containing multiple shots in various takes from a student shoot. Our job was to assemble them into short films. Most of us simply sought to tell the obvious story as best we could (this was, after all, a 101 class). The more creative among our number, though, made films that, despite being constructed from the same stuff, were barely recognizable as having come from the same place, even compared side by side. I think of this exercise every time I see someone make the assumption that they will like a movie because they liked the trailer. That sort of reaction is not just the result of placing unearned trust in a movie’s marketing team. It also betrays a willful misunderstanding of what goes into creating cinema.
People have made exciting and wonderful trailers out of footage from bad movies. And fake trailers like the famous and hilarious “Shining,” wherein Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining becomes a milquetoast slice-of-life dramedy, have proven how well a film’s nature can be misrepresented by those with the know-how. Yet still, many are unable to break away from the logical fallacy of “I liked this trailer therefore I am excited for this movie.” Even in good trailers for good movies, illusions are conjured. The trailer for Todd Haynes’ Carol includes audio of Cate Blanchett saying the line, “We gave each other the most breathtaking of gifts.” In both movie and trailer, it’s a beautiful sentiment but the context, the implied “gift” and even the person being addressed are different in the film than is suggested in the advertisement.
That’s the point of trailers, of course, to advertise. We all know that but far too often, the skepticism that should rightly accompany the viewing of any advertisement falls away when many of us watch movie trailers. It’s happened to me, too. Despite months of doubt, I broke down and bought a ticket to see Prometheus after viewing the heart-pounding trailer. The ensuing disappointment may be the chief reason I feel so strongly about this topic. There’s a spectrum, a matrix upon which can be plotted any work’s ratio of art to commerce. Each movie exists somewhere on this spectrum. Films are expensive to make and very rarely are they undertaken without some hope of a profit. Trailers exist on the same spectrum but, it should be vigilantly remembered, are far more weighted toward one end than the other. Movie trailers can be stirring, thrilling, even cathartic. That jumbo-sized Cloud Atlas trailer brought tears to my eyes. But, in every case, artistic ambition must only be a secondary concern. The first priority of a movie trailer is to trick you into wanting to pay to see a movie. All advertising is underhanded at best and flat-out deceitful at worst.
A movie is not a homogenous object, where any piece extracted from it can be representative of the whole. That’s not how cinema operates. Editing and juxtaposition are key tools to filmmaking and the same content can be almost completely changed by a different arrangement. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating, even loving, a well-made advertisement. I’m certainly not so curmudgeonly as to pretend I wasn’t roused by the first Force Awakens trailer (I haven’t watch any new footage since, though; oversaturation is a problem all its own and best left for another time). But a good trailer does not guarantee a good movie. To avoid being duped, keep repeating, “It’s only a commercial… only a commercial… only a commercial…”