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…”
To which I reply, “What method, then, should we use when deciding what movies to see?”
To which you probably say, “Read reviews (especially those at BattleshipPretension.com).”
To which I counter, “I figured you would say that, but I can point to dozens of critically beloved films that left me lukewarm at best and almost as many films with mixed-to-bad reviews that I quite enjoyed.”
At which point you would probably stop responding because what would be the point.
I get that trailers are just commercials. They do help me decide what movies to see, though, mostly because I am a very visual person and I need to at have a general idea of what a movie looks like to foster any kind of interest in it. The movie that first leaps to mind is Snow White and the Hunts-man. Based on the premise alone I might have skipped it, and the middling reviews it got wouldn’t have helped its case either, but there was something about the trailer I found quite intriguing and so I felt compelled to give it a shot. Glad the marketing worked, because as you know, it’s a pretty great movie. Of course, the opposite was almost true of this year’s Cinderella. The trailers had a certain bland quality that turned me off initially, and I didn’t decide to see it until you raved about it on BP. And it’s one of my favorite films of the year.
Anyway, your thoughts on trailers are duly noted (and as a loyal listener they are nothing new for me), but based on my own experience trailers will have to remain a significant factor in my cinematic decision-making. Even if I’m occasionally “duped” by stuff like Prometheus, it’s all good. I can take the disappointment.
Finding critics I like and also following the careers of directors has worked fine for me for years now.
I like you and Tyler as critics, but I disagree with you almost as much as I agree. And since I’ve never made a habit of reading reviews, at this point I’m a little too set in my ways to go about combing the internet for someone with the same weirdly specific sensibilities as myself. On the whole I don’t have much use for critics (though like you I sometimes like to read about a movie after I’ve seen it, but that serves an entirely different function). My devotion to BP is a bit of an anomaly.
Following directors is definitely something I do, but that does me no good whenever some new person enters the scene, which seems like an almost weekly occurrence in this day and age. And even with a well-established filmmaker, you’re never quite sure what’s coming. I love Wes Anderson and was supremely excited for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite films of his career (rewatch pending). Oh well.
Trailers also put films on my radar that I may not have known about otherwise. Nobody I know is talking about The Witch right now, and I have no idea who the director is, but I saw the trailer on Hulu (I spend a lot of time browsing trailers on Hulu) and now I’m in. And hey, maybe I won’t like it. I still won’t think of it as a waste of time or money any more than I did Grand Budapest.
I think, though, that perhaps this article isn’t directed at me to begin with. I’m a seasoned and savvy filmgoer. I have developed a keen sense of what I’m going to like or dislike. I can read the language of a trailer pretty well, and as such I’d say I make the right choice more often than not. Even in the minority cases such as Prometheus…well, I was probably going to see that movie anyway.