Monday, September 9, 2013


I'm pleased to announce a new series for The Film Tome, Dialogues. Herein myself and a fellow film scholar will discuss a certain topic in relation to cinema. The possibilities are limitless. For this first edition Bill Mullan and I had a chat about movie trailers...

J.S.: So Bill, I was recently raving to you at the water-cooler about the new Gravity trailers (though they are really more like "clips" than anything) and you told me you were avoiding them, saving yourself as it were for that virgin theater viewing. Then I was telling you how much I  love this first trailer for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty only to learn you're avoiding this one too. What gives?

Bill: It's a recent decision I've made. I would consider myself a former trailer addict since the beginning of the internet. I would obsessively watch trailers for films I was excited for but wasn't allowed to see, like Moulin Rouge. Last year, I was pretty obsessed about the Prometheus trailers (who wasn't), which ended up being far better than the film. Those trailers were an incredible feat of promotional editing, but they set an extremely high bar for the film. After being disappointed by it, I wondered if the hype had gone above and beyond what the film could possibly deliver on. Now, that film had all sorts of problems that are easy to ignore when constructing a trailer like a poor script, and all the hallmark that make a great trailer such as a sense of atmosphere and striking image. I've always tried to avoid comedy trailers because they almost always put the best jokes in the trailer. And so, after being let down by Ridley and even Christopher Nolan with The Dark Knight Rises, I decided to ignore trailers for films that I was excited about seeing. 

I stumbled a bit in the beginning (who could ignore the trailers for The Master?), but I found myself rewarded when I avoiding pretty much all promotional material for Spring Breakers. I had no idea what I was getting into with that film and that fresh experience was a really welcome change. I had absolutely NO idea what to expect out of that film beyond the basic premise. Same goes for Pacific Rim. I didn't love that film, but I think I enjoyed far more than I would have had I watched the trailers. The element of surprise is incredibly important to film. In contrast, I did watch the trailers for The Conjuring because the hype on them was so huge, and when I saw that film I found that it's most memorable scares were in the trailer. I knew quite a bit of what to expect and therefore, some of the suspense was just not there for me.

J.S.: Well that settles it. Thanks Bill! Kidding... It's going to be interesting to see if you'll have another exception, say the first teaser for Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to The Master)?

Bill: It's really hard. Especially when I recall Paul edits his own trailers (or so rumor has it). So it's not just a trailer, it's an extension of his art. And with that comes my own inner conflict with this "trailer abstinence"... Some of these trailers are pieces of art in their own respect. They can exist beyond just a simple promotion. So there is this feeling that I am missing out on some of the fun. I don't know, I'll probably cave when it comes to Inherent Vice.

J.S.: Good point, a lot of those trailers for The Master were mere scenes left on the cutting room floor. Then again, maybe he won't be taking that same approach ever again. The guy is an auteur, no doubt, but an unpredictable one. Those are the most exciting filmmakers to me. Anyways, back to trailers in general. You stabbed one of the cores of the debate already: Excitement. On the one hand you get so pumped up for a specific film based on its preview that you go in with expectations so high they can't possibly be met (and if they are, all the better!). Or perhaps there is a lack of excitement felt during the trailer, thus lowering your expectations and if you ever do get around to seeing the film (though you may not because the trailer didn't sell it for you in the first place) it has a better chance of jumping over the low bar your mind has set for it. Does that make sense?

Bill: Yeah, definitely! I know there have been trailers that I found lackluster and the film was much better. I had seen The Bling Ring trailer in the cinemas and I thought it was lackluster-looking. I didn't think the film was especially good but I found it entertaining enough and I think my lowered expectations probably laid the foundation for that. Or the fact that I couldn't get through Somewhere.

J.S.: It’s impossible to say how my expectations going into something like World War Z would have been without having seen the trailer. I was feeling disappointed-approaching-dread after that montage of CGI zombie waves. To my pleasant surprise the movie was not all that; those sequences were scattered throughout the entire running time and all the human interactions (not to mention some plentiful usage of non-CGI zombies) really balanced out what was decidedly a poor advertisement for me. What’s the story with Somewhere?

Bill: The less said about Somewhere, the better.  While it’s an earnest, sweet film, it’s also indulgent and commits the cardinal sin of entertainment... it’s plain boring.  The trailer is pretty somber too, although it only lasts two minutes. If you watch the trailer, you’ll get the same feeling that the movie gives you without having to fidget in your seat to keep yourself awake.  Which, is what a trailer should do, if you ask me. A trailer should give you the logline of a film, i.e Man Must Kill Shark to Save Town and Protect Family.  After that, it should give us the mood. Is this an exciting romp? Is it dread-filled terror? Over the top gorefest? Slow-burn? Hilarious quirky comedy? Slapstick? The mood is where the art comes in.  I think there is this misconception where people think a trailer should show you exactly what to expect before you buy your ticket. But that seems so counterintuitive to the entire film-going experience for me. And with YouTube, some of these films are getting 4-5 trailers total. Each one revealing either spoilers or just beats to expect.

One of my favorite trailers of all-time is the trailer for Little Children.  It’s short and sweet, and undeniably unnerving and mesmerizing. It uses the sound of an oncoming train over images from the film to create and intense sense of dread.  We’re given the plot: a man and a woman, both married with kids, have an affair in small town suburbia that seems to have darker consequences than your average soap opera. The train, the artful compositions, and the pace that starts slow but intensifies as the train gets closer and closer, tells us that this is a slow-burn that probably builds to some nail-biting tension. But, we don’t really know much beyond that. We get some glimpses of scenes, but not enough to know the “beats” of the movie before going in.  Little Children has some of the beats you come to expect in a film like that, but we don’t know specific moments before going in. It’s a perfect trailer. Now, it wasn’t the most financially successful film of all-time. But to be fair, it wasn’t ever going to be. It’s not that kind of film.  Still, other trailers should take note. A better example might be the first Prometheus teaser, which was perfect.  It’s a short and scarily sweet teaser that tells us some basic info: a crew lands ship on a foreign planet expecting to find something only to discover it’s not what they expected and everything goes horribly wrong. Okay, we know what to expect with this kind of film. But the tone of the thing. It’s horrifying. It’s less than two minutes and you’re absolutely terrified. The screeching music, the use of the sirens (taken from the original and equally perfect Alien trailer) and the striking cinematography glue you to the screen for the entire time. Add the name “Ridley Scott” to it and I can’t see why you would want to sell the film any other way.  I am always a skeptic of Scott, but that trailer sold me on what I originally thought was not a very good idea. So there you go, two short and sweet trailers, one a blockbuster and the other a small independent drama.

J.S.: Wow, I just watched the trailer for Little Children. I hadn’t seen it before and it blew me away. I shouldn’t be surprised as that’s a product of Mark Woollen’s trailer house, undoubtedly the best in the business if you peruse their portfolio, but that’s a topic for another day…

I think we (and all sensible cinephiles) want more or less the same thing when it comes to trailers. Less is more. Mood is greater than plot points. Pitch us the premise instead of selling us the synopsis. And for the love of all things holy, don’t show us anything beyond the Act II! Teasers, for all their tyranny, (especially those that are mainly title cards) are better still than many trailers for studio releases. Perhaps the best are those that straddle the line between being a teaser and being a trailer (preview). I’d say the two you mentioned for Little Children and Prometheus do just that. I’ve read recent reports that claim the film industry is aware of our current trailer epidemic and is working to resolve the issue. “Spoiler alert” has become such a buzzword in recent years. It’s as much a punchline as it is a genuine cry, used by creators and consumers alike. You need only peruse a substantially entertainment-focused Twitter feed on a Sunday night to see for yourself. With East coast viewers seeing the latest Breaking Bad hours before us in LA to others who feel the need to announce to their followers that they’ve DVRed Game of Thrones but can’t squeeze it in until tomorrow night (and so you better not tell them anything!). We’ve become obsessed with preserving plot points. And yet you go to your local multiplex on a Friday night and you’ll get 15 minutes worth of reveals past the inciting incident for movies landing anytime in the next 12 months. Something has to change, but will it?

We’ve only seen steps further away from the ideal. Case in point, Fast & Furious 6. I believe we both have yet to see this one, but I have to keep reminding myself that I haven’t in fact seen it. After that first 3-minute and 22-second trailer I felt like I could write a review for it. Those who have seen the film and remember the trailer were sure to point out this problem. Mark Kermode went off about it for a while during his weekly show. A lot of the “money shots” found themselves in that first preview, especially that absurd bit when they drive a car through the front nose of a plane, apparently that’s climax material. All things considered, it’s a bloody miracle that Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 were able to keep their villain twists a surprise, even through multiple trailers - even if everyone saw Into Darkness’ coming from a mile away.

Last question, what do you do when at the theater? Is it possible to avoid trailers then? Do you hang out in the lobby until you hear the 20th Century Fox fanfare or some other cue? Or are your pure intentions simply impossible to adhere to in the advertisement-saturated existence (online and off)?

Bill: Yeah! Those Fast 6 trailers were basically the CliffNotes version of the film (from what I can tell).  It seems totally unnecessary as well considering all the marketing really needs to do for that film is basically just say: They’re back. Boom.  Maybe tease a little more, but the gist will get the fans in seats, especially after all the love that Fast 5 received.

At the theater, if I make it in time for the trailers, I’ll sit through them.  I still love watching trailers in a theater and it’s fun to be surprised now like I was when I was younger by a cinema trailer experience versus seeing it online for the first time.  Just like films themselves, the trailers play much better in the theater.  It’s part of the trip. Case in point, I saw the Captain Phillip’s trailer the other week for the first time in front of a film and I was pretty enthralled with it’s intensity. Again, I feel like I know a bit too much about it than I really needed to (Somali pirates hijack Tom Hanks boat), but I don’t regret the experience.  It’s anything goes once I walk into the theater. But after that, I’ll try my best to avoid whatever 3rd and 4th trailer they put out a few weeks closer to the date.

J.S.: When I was kid my favorite part of going to the theater was actually seeing the trailers before the feature presentation. Today I’m seeing more trailers than anytime in my life (and re-watching many, that’s the killer) leading to a sure overdose. Today it’s much easier to trade in the ideal experience (theatric) for that of convenience (computer screen). There’s pros and cons to both. Film news is 24/7 and you can now instantly be part of any conversation when a new trailer drops. It helps to be following the right people on Twitter. How we are seeing trailers is only half the conversation, the other half is how much the filmmakers and studios are letting us see - and that’s the part that clearly concerns us. Thanks Bill.

Thanks for reading Dialogues: The Trouble with Trailers, a discussion between myself and Bill Mullan. We’d hate to see it the conversation end here. Please share your mind regarding trailers and any experiences you’ve had watching them lately in the comments below.

Click here for more Dialogues.

Updated 11/15/13

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