Stop obsessing over movie trailers: Snap judgments based on commercials take their toll

Since when do sales pitches tell the whole truth about the products they sell?

Published September 19, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

"Bridget Jones's Baby;" "Suicide Squad"
"Bridget Jones's Baby;" "Suicide Squad"

If trailers were an indicator of quality, “Suicide Squad” would be the greatest comic-book movie ever made. Following the grim “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a movie so utterly joyless that it made “Angela’s Ashes” look like “Singin’ in the Rain,” David Ayer’s superhero-villain mashup promised to make blockbusters fun again. A preview released in April, just weeks after “BVS” proved a disappointment, recalled Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a lighthearted romp that didn’t take itself too seriously.

The problem was that the movie viewers were promised wasn’t the one Ayer actually made. The director’s original cut of “Suicide Squad” was dark and gritty, created in the Warner Bros. model of superhero movies. This was a studio that, following the success of Christopher Nolan’s noirish “The Dark Knight,” mandated that its franchises contain “no jokes.” But the online buzz — coupled with test screenings in which audiences were shown two different versions of the film, one rollocking and the other somber — convinced Warner Bros. to reshoot “Suicide Squad,” bringing it closer to the tone of the trailer.

Allowing buzz to dictate how a film is produced turned out to be a bad bet for the struggling studio. The “Suicide Squad” that debuted in theaters was a poor patch job — a stitched-together tangle of the competing visions for the film. A constant stream of pop songs punctuated the soundtrack, as if to suggest that the film was a comedy when it was not. The movie’s biggest laugh is Batman (Ben Affleck) punching Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in the face. “Suicide Squad” is so incoherent that as Devin Faraci pointed out, Deadshot (Will Smith) is “introduced no less than three times.” The movie that was supposed to save WB signaled that the studio has no idea what its audience wants.

Trailers are an important way to build anticipation and excitement during an era where the stakes of success have never been higher. Movies cost more to make and market than ever before, despite declining theatrical attendance in recent years. The number of movie tickets sold this summer, weighed down by costly flops, hit a 24-year low. In a crowded, high-pressure marketplace, it’s more important than ever that trailers make an instant impression, satisfying our desires for cinematic escape. This burden has created a culture where audiences are more likely to judge a film without having seen it — and that’s awful news for the cinema as we know it.


“Bridget Jones’s Baby” finally debuted in theaters last weekend after months of controversy over its trailer.

In the improbable third installment of the series, Renee Zellweger returns to the role that made her a household name — as  a boozy flibbertigibbet whose biggest worry is winding up alone, her body being half eaten by wild dogs. Bridget Jones is charming and lovable precisely because she doesn’t have it all together. Fifteen years after the original film became an international hit, Bridget is up to her old shenanigans. After rediscovering her inner sex goddess, she becomes pregnant. The issue is that she isn’t sure who the father is: old beau Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) or new flame Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey), an awkwardly named health enthusiast who runs a dating website.

The film’s trailer was reviewed very harshly after hitting the web in March. Best-selling author Jo Piazza wrote in Elle that “Bridget Jones’s Baby” was a disservice to the character that she loved so fiercely, someone who frequently made mistakes but was slowly coming into her own. In 2004's poorly reviewed “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” Bridget finds herself on the cusp of maturity. “She gained a newfound confidence and success in her career,” Piazza wrote. “She stopped making all the wrong decisions about men. She was slowly but surely on a trajectory to becoming an adult.”

“Bridget Jones’s Baby” seems to indicate that the character has taken a step back from adulthood, playing out a similar plotline as the previous two films. In the 2001 original, Darcy must compete with Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), his former best friend and Bridget’s boss, for the hand of our beloved compulsive eater. The two eventually get into a brawl so popular that it would be repeated in the sequel — but in a fountain instead of the street.

What’s refreshing about “Baby,” however, is that it subverts many of the hallmarks of the original movies. Darcy once described Bridget as “verbally incontinent” and an “appallingly bad public speaker.” While introducing a respected author, she stumbles over the name of her leering creep of a boss, who is able to think only of the nickname she’s given him: “Mr. Titz-pervert.” Now a top news producer, the Bridget of today displays poise and confidence; she's capable of even delivering a last-minute speech at a funeral. This is the woman we knew — but now imbued with age and experience.

Even her romantic leads have grown up considerably. Instead of treating each other as rivals, Darcy and Jack learn to support one another, becoming good friends. The men agree that no matter who the father is, the child will be loved. The vibe is so convivial that during the third act, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” threatens to turn into “Design for Living.” In Ernst Lubitsch’s pre-Motion Picture Production Code screwball comedy, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) can’t decide between two eligible bachelors (Frederic March and Gary Cooper), so she chooses them both.

“Bridget Jones’s Baby” is both subtly progressive and very good — a surprise to those who had written it off months earlier. If Piazza claimed that the issue is that Bridget has not changed, Variety’s Owen Glieberman griped that she was too different. Zellweger, known for her trademark pursed lips, emerged out of a years-long hiatus in 2014 with plastic surgery that transformed her features. “Celebrities, like anyone else, have the right to look however they want, but the characters they play become part of us,” Glieberman wrote. “I suddenly felt like something had been taken away."

Note that neither one of these people nor any other member of the public had actually seen the film when they wrote these reactions. The same was true of the (largely male) denouncers of “Ghostbusters,” who urged a boycott of the all-female reboot before production had even wrapped. The film’s trailers struggled with packaging its loose, freewheeling vibe into a two-minute highlight reel, and when the first teaser dropped in March, the effects had not been finished. This is extremely common, as big-budget tentpoles have to start building buzz months — even up to a year — before they come out.

“Ghostbusters” never quite recovered from the poor reception its trailer received, a massive fan outcry that led at least one reviewer to take a very brave stand against seeing the film. The Paul Feig-directed movie actually earned positive notices, sitting at 73 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Reviewers particularly praised a star-making turn from Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”) as a subtextually queer gadget girl. The damage, however, had largely been done: “Ghostbusters” finished with just more than $200 million globally, hit with a $70 million loss that all but rules out a sequel. Adding insult to injury, detractors still insisted that it received largely negative reviews.

The impact of online snap judgements appears to have also taken its toll on “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” The critically acclaimed film is nestled at a strong 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but is expected to finish with about $44 million domestically — about half of what the original made in theaters. It’s also little more than “The Edge of Reason,” an embarrassing misfire that became a punch line on “The Office,” earned back in 2004. The domestic box office was weak indeed for the opening weekend of "Baby," but it did very well internationally, especially in the character's native U.K. and has already earned back its relatively modest $35 million budget.

It’s possible that a film like “Bridget Jones’s Baby” will find its stateside sea legs when its target audience gets to the theater and finds out that, previews be damned, the movie is a real charmer. Many, though, will stay away. A 2014 study from Unruly found that trailers earn 42 percent of their social shares within the first 24 hours after being released on the internet. The conversation that happens during that period — when we judge a film based on gut-check reactions — is very crucial. The Think Insights research group found that there’s a direct correlation between what trailers people are searching for online and the film’s resulting box office performance.

When you’re appraising a movie based solely on its trailer, you’re not even judging a book by its cover. You’re judging a book by its marketing campaign. The issue, of course, with deciding your viewing habits on what amounts to a glorified sales pitch is that, just like any other hyped-up product promise, trailers can lie. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was packaged as a light comedy in order to heighten its terrifying impact. “Rope” was sold using fake footage shot just for the trailer. When tasked with getting audiences to “The Minus Man,” a justly forgotten Owen Wilson movie, marketers ditched previewing the movie at all. Instead the trailer featured two people discussing the film, having just seen it. Given the movie’s mediocre quality, that was a savvy choice.

A great trailer reminds us why we go to the movies. It stirs up our primal longings to be scared out of our wits, to laugh until our stomachs hurt or to see something unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. In the cases of “Prometheus,” “Sucker Punch,” and “Suicide Squad,” the previews are so good that the final product leaves us feeling disappointed and empty, promised a film that doesn’t exist. There’s a lesson in that anticlimax: When audiences and film studios let 60-second teasers decide our entertainment choices for us, we get the movies we deserve.

By Nico Lang


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bridget Jones's Baby Film Ghostbusters Movies Suicide Squad