Of Course You Liked That Trailer: Why All Movie Ads Are the Same
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Of Course You Liked That Trailer: Why All Movie Ads Are the Same

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 31, 2013 | Comments ()


I loved movie trailers when I was a kid. A huge part of the thrill of going to the movies was seeing previews for coming attractions. Part of it was because this one of the few reliable ways I could learn about new movies — my family didn’t have home Internet access until I was in high school — but trailers also had an air of possibility, of excitement, that kept me riveted. Here was something new, and it could turn out to be amazing. I would happily zone out in front of E!’s Coming Attractions, which was nothing but an entire half-hour block of movie trailers with occasional commercial breaks. It didn’t occur to me that I was just watching ads compete with ads, broken up by ads; I just wanted to see what was coming out.

As I got older and started to really fell in love with movies, though, I felt apprehensive whenever trailers would start up because I knew, just knew, that some major moment or revelation or joke from the film would be spoiled. If a secondary character in an action movie found themselves in danger, I knew they’d survive because, e.g., I hadn’t yet heard them deliver the snappy line that had been drilled into audiences in the trailers. I started doing what I could to avoid watching the trailers before movies, which usually meant closing my eyes, plugging my ears, and patiently waiting for the show to start. (Surprisingly, I did not alienate many friends by doing this.) And for years, that was the main reason I avoided trailers: I didn’t want to be spoiled on action, dialogue, or plot that I could see in the film. I wanted to trust the movie to do its job, and I wanted to let it unfold the way the filmmakers intended, which meant watching the whole thing, not a blast of clips.

But that’s not why I avoid them now. Those things are all still true, but the real problem is different. It’s not that trailers spoil the action: it’s that they’re all the same.

A video editor named Vadzim Khudabets assembled a trailer for a fake film he dubbed Eterna earlier this year, splicing together scenes from dozens of movies to make one all-encompassing super-blockbuster. It’s kind of a joke, but also, not really. What’s more, it works incredibly well because it’s patterned on the beats of modern movie trailers that have turned almost every ad into the same overly somber, melodramatic collection of clips and tricks. Watching it, you feel like you’ve seen it before, and not just because it recycles images from other movies:

Earlier this week, the trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past was released, and it was met with mostly positive feedback. The ad is everything you’d expect from a modern trailer: lots of fading in and out, ominous dialogue, string sections, the works. It also uses the same music and emotional rhythms as the ad for 12 Years a Slave. Here they both are, for comparison:

They’re both built in part on music from Hans Zimmer’s score to The Thin Red Line, a selection that gets used all the time in trailers. Part of this is just business: all three films were/are being distributed by 20th Century Fox, so it makes financial sense to look in-house for intellectual property. But it’s also a sign of how trends can take hold. The theme from Dragonheart is everywhere, and several other major movie scores are go-tos for trailers. The same music and styles are played again and again and again, and though trailer fads come and go (it’s not an accident that you can’t get away from the Inception horn), the result is always the same: we get an ad that feels totally familiar, completely predictable, and never too challenging. I asked an editor friend of mine who used to work in trailer production about how trailer trends start, and he said, “I’m still not exactly sure how it happens. Zeitgeist in the trailer world, maybe? It happens with the cutting styles, too. Quick fade ups and downs, the Inception BRAAAAAHHHMMMMM sound. Some cues are suggested by the studios, but the better part of half of my time as an assistant editor (and editor some days) was spent just listening to hundreds of tracks for that perfect cue. Some cues are just right every time.”

The visuals are just as regimented. According to my friend, “Initially it is a nice balance of give and take between the post house and the studio, but as release dates near, it becomes a very tightly monitored and guided ship, as the film’s campaign and style guides have been set and most editing and storytelling follows that ship. There is a real tipping point in a campaign, and you can feel it, when it goes from being creative to pushing buttons for the studio decision-makers because they’ve locked in on the film’s jokes, story points, and imagery they feel is working. Any deviation from that gets questioned. This is why, as a campaign gels, you’ll often see the same shots from spot to spot and trailer to trailer.”

All of which is unsurprising. These are ads, after all. Their job is to get you to see a movie, and the best way to do that is to remind you of movies you’ve already seen and hopefully liked, and the best way to do that is to make the new movie look feel just like the old one. Of course trailers look awesome and fun and exciting, and of course they have little if anything to do with the actual film. It’d be amazing if the ads didn’t blow the doors off. Who doesn’t remember feeling the rush of excitement when, after years of rumor and myth, we finally saw the powerfully scored trailer for Star Wars: Episode I? Who doesn’t remember the stunning disconnect between that excitement and the confusion and regret that came with actually seeing the film? Pretty much every trailer is going to look great, or at the very least do a good job of covering up the sins of the product at hand. The new X-Men ad isn’t good in the sense that it’s exciting or flashy or moving; it’s good precisely because of how formulaic it is, how easy to digest, how tested and pre-chewed and evenly distributed.

Yes, there are still some trailers that manage to break from the pack and express something like an original voice or capture some small fragment of what the actual film could be like. They’re artfully done ads, though still ads. The majority, though, are created to be the almost identical, and the result is that they start to blur together. There’s not much point in watching one when you’ve seen others. You don’t even have to look to know what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be exciting and ominous, interchangeable with other trailers, and not much at all like the movie. Trailers promise a set experience like the ones you’ve had many times over, and that might be the most insidious thing of all. I (obviously) haven’t seen the forthcoming X-Men film yet, but I can’t imagine a single way it would look or feel like 12 Years a Slave. Every film is its own thing, full of individual successes and failures, but looking at the trailers, you’d never know it. As far as the previews are concerned, there’s only one coming attraction, and it’s always the same.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Stellamaris2012

    You want a perfect 'fake' trailer? The Green Lantern by Jarron Pitts, was, in my mind, a better movie than the travesty put out by the studios. Fillion FTW! It uses all the tropes you mentioned, to perfect effect.


  • e jerry powell

    On that music thing: as we learned a few years ago, oftentimes the trailers are run through by outside companies before the films have reached final cut (explaining how there are scenes in a trailer that never appear in the corresponding films). The score for a film is generally the last thing added before final editing (more often than not, requiring the composer to rework large segments of the score to fit frequently-changing frame counts as the film editors work), and, as such, score clips are rarely, if ever, available to whatever editing house is making the trailers, so it's not just a cost-saving measure with regards to in-house intellectual property, it's often a matter of having nothing else to use.

  • sanity fair

    I guess trailers don't bother me that much. I often find out about movies hadn't heard of before or realize that others are not going to be nearly as interesting as I'd thought they might be. Besides, I figure I already know the basic ending to 90% of the movies I see anyway!

  • emmalita

    Great article. I to want to see the Eterna Movie, but probably at a matinee.

    To be honest, trailer or no trailer, I was going to see Burn After Reading and Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy, but I loved the music in those trailers so much. I remember the trailers separate and distinct from the movies.

  • St

    Trailer for Alexander is so amazing. I can watch it again and again and it’s so epic. And then I remember how bad movie was... Fooled us on that one.

  • I remember I got suckered into paying perfectly good money to see 'Cutthroat Island' by it's trailer. That trailer was a work of genius, considering how the actual movie turned out. They ought to put that guy in charge of publicity for the Obamacare website, because if you can make 'Cutthroat Island' seem worth watching, there's not a pig in the world you can't put lipstick on.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Goddammit, now I want to see Eterna in the theater.

  • DarthCorleone

    Everything you express here is pretty much spot on with my feelings, save perhaps for the fact that my family didn't have home Internet access when I was kid because the Internet didn't really exist yet.. I've done the closing of the eyes, the plugging of the ears, and the humming and the grinding of the teeth. (You have to do that last bit, because merely plugging your ears doesn't cut it with that THX sound.) I once loved trailers, and now I not only avoid them but despise them.

    So, a while back I went to this test screening focus group for movie trailers. They showed us about twenty trailers and asked the audience for feedback on what they liked and didn't like. I stood out among the crowd as the hypercritical grumbler so much so that at one point more than one member of the audience asked me what I was even doing there if I didn't like trailers so much. I did my part to fight to fight, but I lost.

    Most teasers are o.k., though, just to remind that a movie will be released soon.

  • Miss Jane

    I can assure you, as someone who has tested hundreds of trailers, that your comments would be considered. You were probably in a qualitative setting and your comments would either be used to develop further quantitative questions (i.e. surveys), or would be used to explain results after the surveys are returned.

  • Bell Swerve

    The trailers that I love are the ones that give away the plot. Like the whole plot. E.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... What a waste of a cast, I can only hope the paycheck funds the next Nil By Mouth like Air Force One did.

  • The Iron Man 3 trailers played out as pretty standard fare, which was great because the movie itself went pretty strongly against type and of course the giant reveal with The Mandarin hadn't even been remotely hinted at. That was a pretty clever use of trailer norms to subvert the whole thing and part of the reason why the twist worked so amazingly in the movie.

    I see where you're coming from with the article as a whole, however I thought that the Days of Future Past trailer sort of stood out because it wasn't quite the BOOM SMASH BOOM affair that most superhero movie trailers usually are (athough generally speaking with the dips to black and music selections, yup). I think the Captain America trailer with all the money shots of destruction and fighting in the second half would have been a better example, despite not having the exact music cues to compare.

  • BWeaves

    I remember going with a bunch of grad students to watch a movie, probably "Babe" or something kid friendly, because we purposely sat behind an entire row of little kids who wouldn't block our view. The trailer was for "Ghostbusters II" and they start playing the Ghostbusters theme song, "Who ya gonna call?" and the entire row of little kids yelled "GHOSTBUSTERS!" It was adorable.

  • The most memorable trailer I ever saw was so because of the experience of seeing it. It was the trailer to the second Matrix movie. I think it was toward the end of my second year in college. I went to go see X-Men 2, and the theater was PACKED (sweet Jesus those first two films were awesome). The lights went low and the screen went black. And then a green DOS-style cursor blinked in the middle of the screen for a few seconds. Everyone went NUTS. As that "matrix" of green falling characters progressed, people stood up, cheered, clapped, hugged their neighbors, I shit you not. It was amazing, and there wasn't even any action shown. It was the most effective trailer ever. I smile whenever I have that memory.

  • BWeaves

    Of course they are all the same. They go through phases.

    I still remember when they'd show the director filming his latest movie, and then the director would awkwardly talk to the camera hoping that you'd come see his latest movie. And then the actors would wave at the camera while walking to the set. At least, those never gave anything away, unlike some trailers where you feel you've already seen the whole movie or at least all the best parts.

  • I remember catching "The Dirty Dozen" on TCM and then, after it ended, they showed the trailer, which was all about how they were filming in groovy London and had this dazzling cast filming this great WW2 action movie and all the actors were taking turns talking about it. And then showed about 20 seconds of the movie.

    That was the trailer.

  • Still one of my favorite all time trailers is "Memento". Gorgeous, creepy and evocative without giving away much of anything about the movie. I also love the trailer for Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" which famously used the score from Coppola's "Dracula" (and many other trailers copped it in the 90's too). That's another trailer that does a good job getting the movie tone across but really leaving all the twists and turns in the dark. Quite honestly, that trailer misdirected the audience really well because what you thought was going on based on the trailer ended up being a red herring. "Seven" also has a fantastic trailer and "Matrix" was just a brilliant melding of plot and marketing "No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself."

    On the flip side, a more recent one that pisses me off is still "V for Vendetta". The marketing campaign was tied around the money shot of Parliament exploding. An event that the entire movie hinges on and takes place in the last 5 minutes of the movie. It's a testament to how good the movie is that it is still tense even though you know damn well how it will end since you had seen it in every ad for the movie.

    A good trailer can definitely be a work of art and stand alone from the finished movie I think if someone really has put care in to it.

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