Revisiting the Collective: Movie Trailers Selling Movies That Don’t Exist

(CS: I've had a complicated relationship with trailers. I've loved them since the first time I went to the movies, and I hate to miss them. But I also get annoyed with how much they tend to want to reveal about movie, and the older I get, the more I enjoy going in with knowing little more than the title. The other negative of a trailer is when it becomes completely misleading, because the marketing team and studio doesn't believe the actual movies will draw in audiences. I wrote about this issue for Collective Publishing and originally posted it on July 30, 2014.)

Everyone can agree that movie trailers are pure marketing designed to draw people out of their homes, part with their hard earned money to buy a ticket, then part with more hard earned money to munch away at popcorn, and then hopefully enjoy two hours of movie watching. (CS: Or now for big blockbusters, over two and half hours.) There is also the assumption that the purpose of the trailer is to also give the viewer a brief understanding of the basic plot and show the picture’s genre. One would assume the trailer is trying to give a better understanding of a picture so the movie goer can go in with proper expectations.  

Except that often isn’t what happens. And this past weekend would offer up two rather good examples in Lucy and Hercules. It seems that studios and the marketing department fear that the pictures their selling may not appeal to mainstream audiences and thus craft trailers to deceive people into wanting to see a movie that doesn’t actually exist. (CS: I think, there has been enough backlash from this practice and most modern movie are based off recognizable IPs that this practice does not happen much anymore.) 

Lucy looks crazy and absurd in the trailer, and it is definitely those two things. The trailer sells it as being directed by Luc Besson who is best known for action pictures like The Professional and La Femme Nikita. This trailer shows Scarlett Johansson fighting and shooting bad guys, and gives the impression it may be about one woman seeking revenge against the gang that turned her into a drug mule. It looks like a crazy action adventure that has some light sci-fi infusion. Except actually the action is fairly limited, the sci-fi is ramped up, and it is less about revenge and more about a woman dealing with the increase of intelligence but loss of humanity. It is a picture that explores the concepts of how humans have evolved and the possible future of humankind, and it is more about ideas and the abstract rather than shoot outs and brawls. It is ridiculous and kind of silly but in its own messy way it is a philosophical picture that explores concepts like existentialism. (CS: The marketing did lead to it having a great opening weekend, but since audience expectations were for a crazy action picture it ended up getting panned by critics and disappointing most movie goers. The actual movie probably wouldn't have sold as well, but it likely would have been better received.) 

The movie focuses a lot on visuals and allegorical imagery, and even if the narrative is rather straight-forward, the final act becomes a giant mind-trip. It is messy but ambitious, but definitely one of the most bizarre mainstream pictures since Noah. I want it to succeed, because I’d love for more quirky pictures rather than the safe and homogenized special effects spectacles that often get trotted out. The trailer didn’t dare to show this type of movie, and I was in a jam-packed screening with people expecting guns blazing and tons of stunts. (CS: And many did not leave the theatre happy. Except for me.)

Speaking of Noah, it also was a rather misleading trailer especially if a viewer was unaware of director Darren Aronofsky’s past work. He tends to do more surreal work that uses fantasy and imagery to dig deep into the internal struggle of the protagonist. The trailer seemed like a rather straight-forward depiction of the Biblical story, in an obvious attempt to appeal and attract Christians. It definitely left out any scenes with the Watchers, who are fallen angels turned rock people. I was at a screening that seemed to have a few walk-outs, which likely came from folks expecting a faithful adaption to the source material. It is a good movie that I feel properly explores some of the deep themes of the Biblical tale, but the trailer definitely tried to hide much of Aronofsky’s classic style, imagery and visuals. (CS: My guess, is that Aronofsky had almost nothing to do with the marketing.) 

Compared to those two movies, Hercules isn’t as guilty for having a dishonest trailer. It promises a goofy and over-the-top sword and sandal action picture with a bare chested Dwayne Johnson screaming mightily and flinging adversaries. This is exactly what happens, except the trailer also promises battles with an assortment of monsters and feels like an epic fantasy journey. All the monster battles are wrapped up in the first five minutes, and most of the action is kept to a few locations rather than being the sweeping adventure that was advertised. It is more about de-mythologizing the tale of Hercules as a demigod rather than incorporating any kind of fantasy. (CS: This kind of bummed me out when I watched it.)

In all three cases, we got trailers that seemingly promised a different movie, because the marketers and studios were fearful the pictures they had wouldn’t sell enough tickets. Then obviously, the hope is once people saw the movie, they’d realize they still like it and word-of-mouth would keep things going for the proceeding weeks. 

The problem is that when one goes in with certain expectations and is pumped up for an action picture but ends up with a bizarre science fiction picture tackling concepts and ideas, they quickly feel alienated and misdirected thus less likely to connect. A conservative Christian is destined to be bothered by Noah no matter what the trailer sells them, and being honest upfront alleviates any possible backlash (though some would hurtle venom towards the movie just because it wasn’t glorifying the “sacred” story). A person who wants to see the Rock body slam lions and slash away at hydras is going to be disappointed that it is just another ancient war actioner. 

There doesn’t seem to be much benefit in constantly churning out dishonest trailers. If anything, it will make the entire point of marketing movies pointless. Of course, the fact people still get fooled by trailers sort of disputes my point. It isn’t like this is a practice that suddenly was invented this year. Brave promises a sweeping adventure with a strong female lead fighting for independence and possibly trying to stop a war between the clans, when it is actually a more intimate story about a daughter trying to fix the curse that turns her mother into a bear. (CS: I don't think the crucial bear plot that is the main story even get any attention or even hinted at in the trailer.) Both Frozen and Sweeney Todd trailers almost entirely hide the fact they are musicals, likely in an attempt to attract boys who may not be excited for problems to be worked through song and dance numbers. Lost in Translation was sold as a light-hearted Bill Murray comedy, when it is really a drama with some dry wit and subtle humour that explores depressions and disenchantment. The Grey promises an action picture with Liam Neeson battling wolves, when it was more a bleak drama about coming to terms with death. Drive trailer looks like a movie similar to Fast & Furious with several high-octane car chases, but it is actually an art house film more focused on imagery and themes. (CS: Many of the above adult movies led to angry walkouts, and Drive even had a lawsuit for false advertising.) 

I’ve enjoyed most of the pictures that I’ve listed here. As a film critic, it is my job to go into every movie without any preconceived notions. I have to analyze and rate a movie on what I see, not on what I expect or wanted to see. A typical movie-goer doesn’t have to follow those rules, and I have several friends that hate the above movies because they were hyped to see something entirely different. (CS: I do believe some movies have been critically panned due to it not matching expectations, so critics are not immune.)

I realize the number one purpose of a trailer is to sell a movie. But it can be frustrating when it doesn’t properly showcase what a movie is about. Sometimes, this is actually to the detriment of a picture. If a picture is challenging and different, than often the marketing department wants to make it seem mainstream and safe. This often means the trailers are designed to trigger memories of past movies that were popular. This is why trailers often play the same song over and over in hopes it reminds someone of a movie they love. It is why “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in any movie trailer that wants to give off a hard Martin Scorsese-like vibe, since it was used in his popular pictures like Goodfellas and The Departed. Often the songs used in trailers aren’t in the actual movie, because again, the trailer is less about conveying real emotion (like in a movie) but rather just selling a product. 

It also means that movies coming out this fall like The Good Lie and The Judge have the typically uplifting music and feel like the usual Oscar-bait fare. I watch The Good Lie trailer and looks like the usual feel-good story that comes in the fall that doesn’t have anything that challenges or is the least bit thought-provoking. The reality is that might not be true. Both of these movies may have dark themes and dare to be real adult pictures that are provocative. The Good Lie may actually really explore the issues that exist in Sudan. The Judge may not have a predictable reconciliation ending but rather be full of twists and turns. Marketers don’t trust the average audience to actually want those things, and so instead we see trailers that promise dull and treacle fare. (CS: I enjoyed The Good Lie with solid performances and its attempt to tackle some deeper themes. The Judge made my worst of the year list.)  

It is the same reason that before Guillermo Del Toro was known for his dark and visually stimulating pictures that Pan’s Labyrinth was sold as a fantasy adventure with a young girl journeying through a mystical land. The picture is actually a nightmarish and gory allegory for fascism. The fact that really proves how studios don’t trust an audience, the trailer never once revealed that it was a Spanish picture and North American audiences would need to be reading subtitles the entire time. There likely are people that would have stayed away if they knew reading was a requirement. I also think the focus should be more on educating and encouraging audiences to embrace all forms of cinema rather than resorting to hiding key aspects of a movie. 

Even though star power isn’t as important as it once was, trailers still will often be misleading about who is the lead character. This year’s Godzilla trailer made many label the picture as Walter White vs. Godzilla. Even though the trailer was filled with the Breaking Bad star, Bryan Cranston, he actually only has a smaller supporting role while the lesser known Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) was the star. It is a similar thing with the horror picture Scream where the trailer made Drew Barrymore seem like the star, even though she is gone after the opening scene. I don’t think anyone came to see either of those movies for the stars, but it was an example of creating false expectations by promoting a currently hot star as a centrepiece. 

A trailer has always been about advertising. But often that advertising doesn’t actually mean one learns what the movie is actually about. Instead, you might be running to your seat for some fist-pumping action when instead you’re sitting down for a cerebral and methodical drama with one scene where a guy is carrying a gun. But on the plus side, at least the misleading trailers don’t spoil that Tom Hanks got off the island, Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a good guy, or Sissy Spacek uses her powers to kill everyone. (CS: This is still a big issues, but we've recently has some trailers for movie like Barbarian that only give away first act of the movies and leave out most of the big twists and reveals. These are mu favourite kind of the trailers that are effective honest teases of the bigger movie.)