I once had a dream that I was a movie trailer editor commissioned to deliver a good trailer for The Holiday. Yes, it was a nightmare.
But when I woke up and told my sister all about my horrific dream and the impossible task I had been given, we soon enough found ourselves immersed in a conversation concerning the virtues of a good movie trailer, their power on building anticipation for an upcoming project and their great responsibility on addressing the right audience for the film. On countless occasions I’ve gone to see pictures because the trailer sold them just right, and even more often I’ve missed out on great flicks because of a poor teaser. Sometimes I know all the twists and even the ending before I start watching the movie – so half the fun is out — and other times I enter the theatre in such complete oblivion that absolutely nothing can surprise me; the sky is indeed the film’s limit.
Basically, trailers keep messing with my head – which doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the reasons behind their deception. Half-decent films are desperate for a wider audience than their value would normally allow, while some movies’ beauty lies in the details and an atmosphere only possible to adequately experience when getting to know the film’s world for a couple of hours. Some stories have nothing but twists, so they need to use them to their fullest to sell, and some others are so afraid to give away their obscure plot, that they rely on a brief demonstration of their general look and feel in order to attract attention. I get it, but still think we could do a better job with at least 80% of the trailers out there.
An obvious way to go about it would be to stop giving away the entire plot. Can’t anybody keep a secret in the film industry nowadays? It seems to me that no matter how determined I am to remain unaware of the major turning points and ending when I go to watch a film, I’m almost familiar with the sequel only by viewing the trailer. Of course not all films are only as strong as their resolutions, and some twists are so powerful that trailer editors know they should take the secret to their grave (The Machinist, The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Psycho, The Others, Fight Club, Shutter Island or Vanilla Sky, to name a few).
But what happens with those films that finish with less of a bang and of which the trailers feel free to end the journey before it begins? Personally, unless it’s Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola, Lisa Cholodenko or Wim Wenders – filmmakers that are to be felt and experienced, rather than chased down to their last shot for the big disclosure — I would like the trailer to merely present me with what’s happening in the first 20 minutes of the film. Tops.
Which means that trailers shouldn’t be too secretive either. We both know you’re meant to present me with a rough outline of a story, so why not do so? Smokes and shadows are just not enough. What is this film about? Yes, if something is to be enjoyed purely for its obscurity and layered metaphors, like Holy Motors, The Royal Tenenbaums or Delicatessen, I understand there is no other way of going about it. But if the film has a specific story to tell, with a beginning, a middle and an end, then I should at least get the first act’s gist. The atmosphere is of course essential, and very often enough to get my attention. But only when the film is truly original and its maker offers a fresh voice or a unique visual style.
I would like to know what the film is roughly about and I would also like to get the general feel of it. At the same time, it’s crucial that the trailer remains modest and refrains from promising more than the actual movie can deliver. A trailer that talks the talk for a film which doesn’t walk the walk, is a disaster. Yes, it will get me to the theatre but while playing a dirty game. And I will be onto it next time and know better than to fall for the trap second time around.
The characters should make me desperate to get to know them, but only when viewing the actual film. There are just too many trailers that give you all the quirks, problems, obstacles and even funny one-liners of the movie’s main character within three minutes. It feels like the-film-for-dummies and so a huge chunk of the anticipation is gone. But there are also those that wrap their protagonists in unnecessary mystery. I don’t want to be the hero’s best friend; we only just met, but give me something that will make me curious enough.
So yes, the basic premise, the atmosphere, the main characters – and perhaps a great musical score. Something that teases and intrigues but doesn’t reveal or push to sell. But at the same time, a piece of cinema that is worth something of its own; something one enjoys watching; not just a commercial or brief summary of the tale. More trailers like A Serious Man, Milk, Psycho and Eyes Wide Shut; and fewer as cheesy as The Tree of Life, Love Actually, Quartet, or even Pan’s Labyrinth. (I almost missed out on all of these incredible films because of their cringe-worthy trailers. Don’t get me started about that infuriating voice presenting the story, or the irrelevant writing – Lost in Translation, you know this is about you–telling us what we could easily understand for ourselves, in between shots. These two should be banned for good). And please, none of that happy-trailers-for heartbreaking-films business on my watch. No more misleadingly upbeat trailers like The Majestic, Slumdog Millionaire, Young Adult or Blue Valentine. And perhaps no more movies like The Holiday altogether – so that we can sleep at night.
And the Bad.