Studios don't exactly sell their souls to get audiences interested in a movie, though they often come across all too eager to sacrifice the movie's soul in the name of commerce. Of course, we should remember that Hollywood is a business first. Its role as patron of the cinematic arts follows a distant second. Naturally, when it comes to advertising new movies, trailer editors try to cook up the most attractive story they can possibly manage from the footage available, often at the expense of the films themselves.
As Kaleidoscope's Andrew Kuehn puts it, "It may not be the story they're going to see, but it looks like a story that they would like to see."
Inaccurate trailers such as the one that unfairly positioned Outside Providence as another There's Something About Mary may be entertaining in retrospect, but they can do tremendous damage to a picture before audiences actually get a chance to see it. Misleading trailers encourage unrealistic expectations. They suggest that a new movie might deliver something that it can't, willfully setting viewers up for disappointment.
Experience has taught us to distrust movie advertising. Whether we realize it consciously or not, we've all learned to ask the same questions: Do the scenes we're seeing in the trailer reflect the way they'll come across in the movie? Do the scenes even show up in the movie? How about the music we're hearing? (How many times have you seen a movie where you'd rather own a soundtrack to the trailer than the assortment of songs and score they actually use in the movie?) If the music was borrowed from another film or lifted from a pop song, is it fair to the real film?
Another way to think of it: When readers have nothing else to go on, they do judge a book by its cover. The same tactic applies to movies: Prospective audiences turn to the trailer, the poster, and the television spots to support the viewing decisions they make (pause for a second and consider how much impact video boxes have on the movies you decide to rent). We depend on the advertising to show us the style, genre, seriousness, even the length of a movie. Shouldn't the author have some control over those influences?
As director Paul Thomas Anderson (whose father recorded voiceover narration for trailers back in the day) understands, a trailer often supplies audiences' first impressions of a film, something he considers when involving himself with whatever promotional approach the studio advocates for his films. Anderson insisted on cutting his own trailers for Magnolia (he also designed the one-sheets used with the film) to ensure that audiences be properly prepped for the movie he wanted them to experience.
"I consider [the trailer] an extension of my movie," Anderson says. "I consider it the first look at my movie. It's going to inform how you feel about my movie, so it's my job to cut it. It's my job to shoot it, it's my job to cut it, it's my job to mix it, and everything else. I'm not just going to make my movie and then let someone else have first dibs at explaining it to someone, you know what I mean?"
The true enjoyment of Magnolia, like many other films, depends on discovering the intricacies and surprises of the narrative as they are laid out in the film. Anderson teased the surprise of Magnolia in the advertising (both the teaser poster and the previews featured frogs), but was careful not to reveal it outright. Recently, trailers for M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakablerevealed almost nothing from the plot while still guaranteeing audiences that they would see another The Sixth Sense-style movie starring Bruce Willis and featuring a twist ending.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stanley Kubrick carefully constructed his trailer for Eyes Wide Shut to tempt audiences without giving away what the film was really about. After Kubrick died, the studio sent out the film's most intriguing footage, lifted from the movie's grand orgy sequence, in electronic press kits to television stations around the country. Even film critic Roger Ebert, a purist in his belief that trailers give away too much, featured clips from the scene on his show. Eyes Wide Shut builds slowly and deliberately to the surprise development, clearly intended to come as a complete shock for audiences. When audiences found out about the orgy, many impatiently sat through the expanse that establishes the film's gradual descent into the sexual underworld in frustrated anticipation of the "good part" they'd seen on television.
Everyone complains about trailers that "ruin" the movie by giving away too much. Nobody wants a trailer to divulge the ending, right? That's not the story you'll get if you ask the guys who actually assemble the trailers. They'll explain that market research shows the exact opposite: People want to know as much about the film as they can ahead of time. Survey says: We want evidence of the wittiest jokes and the best explosions before we spend our hard-earned money on a ticket. Even the ending, which explains why some trailers let us know ahead of time that, yes, boy gets girl or hero saves the day.
But when it comes to judging how faithful trailers are to the films they represent, I don't want to know the ending. Sometimes, I don't even want to know the story. In my mind, a good trailer serves the same purpose as a sexy piece of lingerie: It shows just enough to get you excited. In theory, we should be able to trust trailers to give us an accurate sense of the film's narrative, the tone of a movie, and the chemistry between the leads. Nothing more.
Don't show us the movie we're going to see. Don't show us the movie we would like to see. An exemplary preview gives us some sense of the satisfaction the movie can offer, the pleasure or emotion it might incite. It lets us sample the feel of the movie, like trying on clothes before buying them to make sure they're a comfortable fit. Paul Thomas Anderson refers to it as "the vibe."
Put simply, can the trailer give us some sense of what to expect without spoiling the experience? Tantalize us. There's a lot to be said for the art of the tease...