Two minutes of sheer excitement!

There was a time when movie trailers managed a rough poetry. Today, they're infuriatingly generic, manically edited and ruined by plot spoilers.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published June 20, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Anyone who loves movies has, at one time or another, had at least a grudging fondness for movie trailers. At their best, there can be a kind of rough poetry in them: The infamous trailer for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," in which a sea of blood splooshes silently out of a set of opening elevator doors, has a kind of chilly elegance that's lacking in the movie it was made to sell. Other times, there's something almost primally appealing in the way trailers make chop suey of a movie's most memorable images: The "Goldfinger" trailer is essentially a collection of jagged, vibrant snapshots (including the famous shot of James Bond spotting the reflection of a potential killer in the eye of a steamy seductress) -- a Cliffs Notes for the subconscious.

But over the years, something has happened to movie trailers. Technically speaking, they've always been more of a science than an art -- after all, they're designed to put fannies in seats, and not much more. But sometimes they could feel like art, if only in the way they sent a charge through you, building anticipation for something new and potentially thrilling.

But now, more often than not, they only sap your will to live. The trailers for most action movies are interchangeable, featuring various combinations of car crashes and explosions and snippets of dialogue showing this or that actor looking deeply concerned. The trailer for "Gone in 60 Seconds," the new Jerry Bruckheimer actionfest, is a haphazard daisy chain of the expected joy rides and collisions, a noisy procession of vehicles peeling out and spinning out, but in the end it's curiously inert. Even as it overloads us with visual cues, it doesn't tell us nearly enough. The trailer doesn't build any momentum; there's plenty of movement and commotion in it, but it's so unfocused, so reckless in its attempt to grab us, that any excitement it might have generated ends up being diffused and shattered like plate glass.

Part of the problem with trailers may be that we just get too many of them. One or two per movie used to be the norm; now we sit through a wearisome parade of four or five. And we've all seen trailers for comedies that give away every good gag, or run through every significant plot point, right up to the conclusion. Those authoritative voice-overs that outline the premise in storytime-for-kindergartners terms don't help.

Ideally, there should be something pleasurably anticipatory about movie trailers. They're a glimpse of something you've never seen before (even if, in the broad sense, you have seen it before), like miniature portals into your moviegoing future. When they're done well, they can be works of art in themselves. I never saw the trailer for Albert Brooks' 1979 "Real Life," in which Brooks announces that the trailer will be shown in 3-D but only in certain theaters, and that those in the unequipped theaters (that is, all of them) should turn to their neighbor and ask to borrow two pieces of red and blue cellophane. But I can easily understand why, among the people who've seen it, it has become the stuff of legend.

And yet even if we feel bludgeoned by trailers, or insulted by them, or annoyed by them, most of us still pay attention to them, whether we admit it or not. As sophisticated as most of us claim to be about all other kinds of advertising, movie trailers have nestled themselves into a separate and very special category in our brains. They're among the most blatant forms of marketing in the media: The fact that we're happy to point out all their faults proves that deep down we know that they've been conceived, crafted and test-marketed to get to us.

Most of us would blanch at the idea of buying, say, a roll of paper towels or a bathroom cleanser just because a commercial jingle had lodged itself in our heads, but almost all of us (including critics -- we'll get to them later) have at one time or another made a confident-sounding pronouncement about a movie we haven't yet seen, based solely on the trailer. Even the most rudimentary and blatantly sales-minded trailer gives us hard information about a movie's stars or its jokes or how many car crashes or explosions it might include. But those trailers also contain a kind of embedded code, information that's carefully massaged by the studio, and often fueled by its paranoia about how its product will be perceived. A trailer can be edited to make a movie look completely different, or at least significantly different, from what it really is.

Yet most of us, after seeing a trailer, tend to feel we have a reasonable idea of what a movie is about -- in other words, we're right where the movie industry wants us. We've mistaken information for knowledge.

I take the bait, too. All the time. And almost every critic I know does it as well, and sometimes we don't even catch ourselves at it. In casual conversation about upcoming movies, most of us have said things like, "I saw the trailer for that and it looks terrible." The good news is, reputable and honest critics ultimately review actual movies and not trailers. And for most moviegoers, after they've seen a movie the trailer (regardless of its quality or accuracy) fades from memory anyway.

But trailers that make a movie look "bad," or represent it in a way that the studio wants us to perceive it rather than in terms of what it actually is, can sometimes keep people from seeing things that they might enjoy -- or, at the very least, prevent them from seeing a fine picture on the movie's opening weekend, that crucial and tiny window in which a movie is deemed a success or a failure in the eyes of the studio.

What makes us pay so much attention to them, even though we know we're being sold a bill of goods? Perhaps one reason is that those of us who love movies want badly to be seduced by images, and even a shoddily made trailer usually has some kind of subconscious, or overt, visual appeal: The trailer for "Shaft" didn't tell me much about the movie, but Samuel L. Jackson looked so fab in that lean leather jacket that I found my heart racing. There's something deep inside us that wants to trust movie trailers; it's as if we fool ourselves into believing that they represent a kind of good judgment on the part of some omniscient movie god.

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Trailers are made to excite us, and they can do it honorably as well as dishonestly. When you happen to catch a trailer for a movie you've already seen and enjoyed (movies on DVD often come packaged with their original theatrical trailers, and there are a number of Web sites, including and The Trailer Park, that archive recent as well as classic trailers), you might still feel a rush of anticipation even though you've already seen the movie. I don't recall the trailer for David O. Russell's "Three Kings" making much of an impression on me when I saw it before the release of the movie. Watching it afterward, though, I realized that the trailer gave a pretty accurate sense of the movie's intelligence and hipness, even simply in the way the images were edited against the music (Rare Earth's "I Just Want to Celebrate" and the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" as an aural backdrop to sun-bleached sand and trundling Humvees). What the preview didn't do was give much of an indication of the picture's depth. There's not much room for subtext in movie trailers -- their aim is to hit you fast and hard.

They're also designed to titillate, part of a long-standing tradition in movie previews. The whole idea of accuracy being trampled by bodacious selling techniques is nothing new. The primitively made trailer for the 1936 "Tarzan Escapes" features stylized illustrations of stars Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, generic stock footage of lions and assorted other jungle creatures and a detailed but rather inaccurate synopsis of the plot done in voice-over, the assumption being that Tarzan fans would be sure to show up for the next Tarzan picture no matter what it was about. (It's also likely that the picture was far from completed when the trailer was made.)

Even odder are the way trailers for foreign films used to be tailored for American audiences. In the old days, foreign pictures, especially French ones, spelled sex to American audiences. Which explains why the American trailer for Roger Vadim's 1956 "And God Created Woman" makes mincemeat of the story and splashes the picture's racier sexual undercurrents right up front. "And God Created Woman" is sexy -- its star is Brigitte Bardot, after all -- but it's not particularly salacious. The trailer does its damnedest to hide that from us, dubbing Bardot's soft, melodic voice with a harsh, haughty, baldly American one (turning her character into a shameless hussy who refuses to control her desires, instead of a confused young wife) and adding a carny-barker American voice-over. ("Set in the pagan paradise of the French Riviera ...!")

As absurd as those selling techniques might be, there's something to be said for keeping your audience awake for the duration of a preview. There's a certain kind of foreign film that always gets the same kind of trailer (usually featuring peasants laughing heartily at a family gathering, even as you know they're bracing themselves to struggle against famine or some other adversity), using the same kind of music. (Some of us will never again be able to listen to Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings.")

By and large, the same old movies are being sold in the same old ways. A foreign movie's distributor wants to make sure the picture looks fairly familiar and comfortable to the audience -- in other words, another heartwarming film about peasants set to a pleasant classical-sounding score; nothing to be afraid of -- instead of something jarring and strange.

But would a little old-fashioned showmanship hurt? Something aside from the loud, forced-sounding critics' blurbs that generally get slapped all over trailers for foreign movies? As John Waters argued in his book of essays, "Crackpot," "What's the matter with a little hype in these situations? ... How about 'See Bibi Andersson slit her wrists!' or 'Watch as Bresson directs an entire film where nothing happens' or 'At last! A film that is black and white, four hours long and with subtitles -- The Mother and the Whore -- coming soon to a theater near you!'"

On some level, when it comes to trailers, people want to see things they've seen before. They want reassurance that the movies in their future will be something like the ones they've enjoyed in the past, and the studios know it. That's part of the reason you can almost smell the sense of desperation around certain movie trailers: Studios have a way of preordaining which movies are going to be flops (which, of course, has nothing to do with whether they're any good or not) and will often go for broke to get as many people in to see them as possible, hoping to quickly cut their losses. The trailer for Brian DePalma's "Mission to Mars" -- an elegiac and largely misunderstood space-exploration picture that ended up faltering at the box office -- made it look like a rehash of "2001." In retrospect, that wasn't the worst approach Touchstone could have taken: How does one sell a movie about space that's less about action than it is about poetry? At least the trailer wasn't cut to make the movie look like "Armageddon" or "Independence Day." But the studio's modus operandi was obvious: Fill as many seats as possible, fasten the seat belts and wait for the crash.

Very often it's impossible to know what to expect from a picture based on its trailer, and that in itself is supposed to be a selling point. The trailer for "Eyes Wide Shut" (which, it should be noted, was approved by Stanley Kubrick himself, and not a case of a studio's mucking around with an artist's vision) wasn't much more than a montage of images. It was selling a mood more than anything else, making the picture look far sexier and more sultry than it really was -- presumably because if you told people the picture was a tedious, overly intellectualized meditation on the nature of sexual jealousy, no one would be very interested in seeing it.

It only makes sense that a studio should go after a movie's most marketable selling point. Unfortunately, though, there are plenty of times when marketing sticks and an audience's perception of a picture ends up being permanently skewed by its trailer. The previews for last year's "American Pie" made it look like a simple teen yukfest -- and although it is largely a teen yukfest, there are more subtle angles to it that many moviegoers (and plenty of critics) completely missed, probably because they'd pigeonholed the movie early on. The pie/masturbation sequence may be the one most people remember the best. But the movie also dealt surprisingly intelligently with teenage sex from the point of view of young women. The men are always the buffoons, the butt of the joke; the women are far more together emotionally.

And I've seen very few pictures that deal as sensitively with a woman's first sexual experience as "American Pie" did, in the sequence where Tara Reid's character finally agrees to have sex with her boyfriend and finds the experience massively disappointing. The scene focuses solely on her -- we're waiting to see evidence of her pleasure in the act, and instead we're made to face up to her disappointment.

Of course, that's way too much subtlety to convey in a trailer. Yet even after "American Pie" became a hit, I had trouble convincing many people that it was anything more than a succession of stupid gross-out jokes. "American Pie" was marketed well in terms of reaching its most obvious audience, but it's still something of a wonder that any adult moviegoers bothered with it at all.

One of the reasons "American Pie" would never be marketed as a "quality" picture is that movies are almost always advertised according to their genre, and movies within a certain genre are basically marketed in the same way. That means that the trailers for "American Pie" and, say, "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Clueless" -- three movies that are all designed for teenagers but that are significantly different in tone and approach -- are practically interchangeable in terms of how they try to snag their audience. Similarly, action movies or dramas or thrillers each seem to have their own trailer template. The trailer for "The Insider," for example, is almost textbook in the way it shows beleaguered Russell Crowe looking puffy and troubled and anxious, intercut with a red-faced Al Pacino looking hot under the collar. It's an effective enough trailer, and it gives a sense of what the movie's about. It's also edited in such a way that it feels vaguely modern. But if you were to analyze it shot by shot, you could probably make a pretty simple diagram of the studio's directives: Stress the drama and the actors' flashiest moments (the picture is filled with terrific performances, but the actors' best moments aren't captured in the trailer) and, more important than anything, keep it simple.

When the studios have so much at stake with every movie, it's unrealistic to expect much creativity from movie trailers. The most intriguing trailer I saw last year was for "The Blair Witch Project" -- a creepy piece of work that did little more than build a mood, and one that certainly didn't follow the typical trailer format, including the obligatory voice-over outlining the plot.

But "The Blair Witch Project" wasn't a big studio effort with millions of dollars riding on its success. Trailers can be costly to make (ranging from around $100,000 to $500,000), so experimentation can be risky. Another reason there's so much uniformity in most movie trailers, particularly those for mainstream pictures, is that, like movies themselves, they're heavily test-marketed by the studios. Often they're broken down shot by shot, so an audience can be asked about them in detail. A more oblique, creative approach to selling a particular movie is less likely to fly with a test audience, not because that audience is necessarily stupid, or because the preview doesn't make sense to them, but because a more imaginative trailer is probably going to be much harder to talk about in specific terms than a linear, straightforward one. That points to one of the central underlying problems with any kind of test-marketing: Studios know the answers they want in advance, and they don't stop until they get them.

Studios can't, of course, do whatever they want to sell a movie. To prevent sprawling monstrosities that outline a plot in excruciating detail (which seemed to be the trend earlier in the 1990s), the Motion Picture Association of America imposes restrictions on how long trailers can be. For example, a studio is allowed only one preview per year that's longer than two and a half minutes. If you think trailers have gotten louder and more aurally assaultive over the past few years, that was indeed a trend. But last year the MPAA placed a ceiling on the decibel level of trailers, and the organization has since lowered it further.

But the existence of regulations doesn't come close to explaining why trailers are so maddeningly generic these days. Nearly all action-movie trailers (and trailers for many other types of movies as well) feature fast cutting, a trend that's so old now it can't appropriately be called a trend, and one that shows no signs of abating. In fact, the cutting only seems to get faster and faster, particularly for action movies like "Gone in 60 Seconds." It's an obvious ploy to excite audiences, but the result is usually a trailer that's just a chopped-up mess. Either it's difficult to get an idea of what a movie is about because its trailer is so manic or you feel there's nothing left to discover on your own because so much of the plot has been laid out for you. There's very little middle ground.

The problem isn't that trailers have suddenly become nothing more than blatant salesmanship. In fact, they're probably less about salesmanship than they are about something even more insidious and slippery. There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to entice people to come out to the movies. But if you know how to read between the lines of a trailer, you can look right into a studio's eyes -- and if you see anything at all, you're likely to see fear. That's not the same as genuine excitement. It can't even be called salesmanship.

Movies have to make their money back, and today's trailers constantly remind us of that. Yet as a collective audience, we seem to pride ourselves in judging movies on the information we're given in a trailer, even though we're not really being given very much at all. We're too advanced, too hip, to buy into simple bamboozlement, and maybe that's the big problem. Our sophistication, whether it's alleged or genuine, is our own worst enemy. I still long for the days when extravaganzas like the 1976 "King Kong" (a picture I love) were made to feel like thrilling events. "The most exciting, original motion picture event of all time!" the voice-over declares in no uncertain terms. Who wouldn't want to be part of that? Maybe it's true that there's a sucker born every minute, but mostly I think there's just a sea of people out there looking for the next wonderful thing, the movie that's going to give them so much enjoyment that it will make the price of a movie ticket seem like a pittance. I'd lay my money on a giant gorilla and a girl in a skimpy dress any day -- and two minutes would be plenty of time to sell me on the idea.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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