The common complaints against movie trailers — previews, coming attractions, whatever you want to call them — are well known. Trailers are deafening and assaultive when encountered before a movie you’ve paid to see. Trailers give away the best jokes. Trailers make no sense or, alternatively, they make too much sense by replicating the entire plot on the assumption that audiences prefer their meals pre-chewed.
To which I’d add: Movie trailers lie. They exist to lie. And I won’t watch ’em.
I bring this up only because previews are increasingly becoming a coin of value in the marketing machinery of our popular entertainment culture, and when the trailers start to carry more clout than the movie, things are getting out of whack. A movie preview is ready-made for our age of short-attention-span theater; it’s a two-minute bullet of jacked-up entertainment that’s small enough to stream to your phone but big enough to go viral and to commandeer the social media conversation for a day or two. It’s online candy, and it’s hard to eat just one.
Not coincidentally, the number of editing houses dedicated to cutting trailers has ballooned, growing from a dozen or so companies at the turn of the millennium to more than 100 today. Dedicated movie trailer websites exist, but YouTube has become the preferred platform for viewing most previews, with studios reaching millions of global viewers and a “Best Movie Trailer of the Week” feature.
A few weeks ago, the Internet had a collective seizure because the latest trailer for the upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was released. What’s in it? Don’t ask me. I think it has something to do with Porgs, but I have no idea what those are.
Last week, a smaller subsection of social media went bananas because the preview went public for “Phantom Thread,” the new Paul Thomas Anderson film starring Daniel Day-Lewis in what may be the actor’s final role before his announced retirement from the screen. What’s in the trailer? Again, I have no idea. Whatever it is, it’s not the movie.
Look, as a working movie critic, I can afford to be a monk on this issue; reviewers are almost never shown previews before the pre-release press screenings we attend. More to the point, I feel it’s my duty — to both readers and filmmakers — to react to the movie itself, not some butchered mini-me version cooked up by the marketing department.
It’s the same reason I stopped reading “Harry Potter” books after the first one: The movies had to stand on their own, as movies, and if you’re freaking out because they cut a subsidiary house elf on the way to the screen, I’d say you’re missing the point.
When it comes to trailers, the point is this: A movie can do many, many things. It can make you laugh or cry or think; it can challenge every notion you hold dear. By contrast, movie previews exist for one purpose only: to get you to buy in. Putting butts in seats — or DVDs in players or streamed films on your TV screen — is all they’re about. Their job is not to faithfully represent a screen experience; their job is to offer you a distorted version that you might be inclined to buy.
If a movie is a comedy-drama that darkens as it goes, the trailer will insist it’s a romp. If it’s a muted talkathon with a couple of busy scenes, the latter is what you’ll get in the preview. Anything that makes a film unique or unusual will get left on the cutting room floor, since the prevailing industry view is that audiences will only buy something new as long as it feels comfortably old.
All of this is fair game in selling a consumer product; none of it is fair to the experience of the movie itself. Why should that matter? Because if you go into, oh, let’s say “Dunkirk,” expecting the straightforward, linear war story promised in the coming attractions, you’ll probably be disappointed, maybe even angered by the complicated nesting-doll plot structure of the movie you get. Very few coming attractions accurately set audience expectations of the movies themselves. In fact, they do just the opposite: They set us up for a movie we don’t get.
Nor do the studios care. In fact, they’ve learned they can misrepresent a film in multiple ways, highlighting different scenes or swapping in music in a bid to attract, say, Hispanic audiences or teenage girls. A “Red Band” trailer will be cut with R-rated scenes and language to get the naughty boys talking online. There are even trailers for trailers; they’re called “teases.” Soon there will be awards shows for trailers. Oh, wait, there already are; the 18th annual Golden Trailers were handed out last February.
Resistance is futile. When the new “Star Wars” movie’s own director, Rian Johnson, said last week that audiences who want to “come in clean” should “avoid” the latest trailer, he was forced to beat a hasty retreat and admit that he himself watches “ALL THE TRAILERS.” Recant, Galileo, recant!
So get used to it. We’ve enabled a world where the brilliant but bleak “Manchester by the Sea” is, in its coming attractions, a healing human comedy with predictable dramatic beats. “Rogue One” becomes a triumph of teamwork instead of a paean to martyrdom. The trailer for “La La Land” ends with the lovers together, which ain’t exactly how it works out in the long version.
Movie previews exist for one purpose only: to get you to buy in. Putting butts in seats is all they’re about.
Would audiences have wanted to see these movies if they were told what the films were really about? Probably not, to be honest, even if they might appreciate the full product after consumption. Which leads to an uncomfortable conclusion: Maybe movie trailers lie because we can’t handle the truth.
That line, by the way, made it into the trailer.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.