The Trouble with Trailers

We all know what trailers are.  When’s the last time you saw a really good one, though?  I can’t remember.  I’m shocked when I see a trailer that doesn’t make me roll my eyes at least once.  Even movies I like have trailers that are stupid.  When I saw TERMINATOR: GENISYS, every single trailer I saw before the film either gave me too much information in the form of spoilers or stupidity, or they gave me not enough information to determine whether or not the movie would be any good at all.  Is there a solution to this problem?  Or is it just really really hard to make a good trailer?

Last things first: how trailers get it wrong with giving us too little
Horror movie trailers do this all the time.  They give us snippets of scary scenes punctuated with quick fades to black, with shots that get shorter and shorter until they climax with a long shot of silence followed by something creepy happening.  Like someone whispering something or a random scream or some other contrived thing.  But almost invariably, they will leave out any actual plot points.  In front of that TERMINATOR screening there was a trailer for INSIDIOUS 3 (or maybe it wasn’t INSIDIOUS 3–I can’t remember for sure now–isn’t that telling?) and it included clips of people running around a house being scared but didn’t bother to clue in the viewer regarding what the hell the set-up was.  I can’t think of a recent horror movie trailer that hasn’t been like this.
The trailer for INSIDIOUS 3. This is probably not the 
trailer I saw in front of TERMINATOR: GENISYS. 
Like it matters. This still pretty much fits my criticism.
Trailers for dramatic movies will show us all kinds of dramatic scenes that may or may not explain the plot to us.  The trailer for THE JUDGE painted a picture of a father and a son who’s relationship seemed so dysfunctional as to not be interesting to me.  Maybe I’ve seen too many father/son estrangement/restrangement(is that a word?) movies in my life, but that trailer simply failed at giving me a reason to see that movie. 

The trailer for THE JUDGE starring Robert Downey Jr.
and Robert Duvall. I feel like this trailer could have
been better if RDJ’s  character were actually likable. 
Or if the trailer focused on ways this film is different
from other father/son conflict movies. 
When a trailer gives too much–and insults your intelligence
I haaaaate stupid movies.  So, maybe I am biased, but when a trailer shows me scenes where people are goofy or silly without establishing some sort of context, the trailer loses me.  I need more than just silly or goofy to make me laugh.  I mean, I’m not a 5 year-old.  Sure, prat-falls and some limited silliness can still reach me, but the stuff we feed our kids is just pitiful (see: THE MINIONS trailer).  The stuff we feed ourselves can be pretty bad, too.  Did you see the trailer for the latest VACATION movie?  What the hell was that?  Why was Chris Hemsworth walking around in just his underpants with a fake penis down them?  Because it’s a “joke,” not because it actually makes any comic sense at all.  And what is funny about a hot model in a hot car getting into a car accident? It makes the original VACATION look like the CITIZEN KANE of comedy. 

The trailer for the new VACATION movie.
I must be a comedy snob or something because I 
think this movie looks incredibly stupid but clearly
someone thinks this is funny.  Do you?

Sure people will laugh, but would you see the new VACATION in the theater?  Or save $15 and wait for Netlfix? I thought the idea behind trailers was to put butts in seats.  Isn’t it?  Maybe not…
When a trailer gives too much–and ruins it for you
My favorite example of a trailer that spoils the whole damn movie for viewers takes us WAY back in time.  It’s the trailer for LORENZO’S OIL, which came out in 1992.  The trailer was made by a person who clearly thought showing every emotional beat of the movie would tug our heart strings all the way to the box office.  Instead, it told a complete story of a pair of parents who discover their child is sick, who then discover there is no cure, but that there is some sort of experimental cure, which they try, which works and THE END.
I still remember sitting in my theater seat after seeing it and thinking “well, that trailer saved me the effort of actually watching the movie!”

The trailer to LORENZO’S OIL (1992) starring Susan
Sarandon and Nick Nolte. OK, so it’s not exactly how I
remember it, but close enough to make my point.
Why would I pay full price for a ticket to see this movie
when the trailer gives me all the feelz all by itself?
Sidenote: LORENZO’S OIL was directed by GEORGE MILLER.
Yes, the same George Miller that directed HAPPY FEET and 
MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (and the other MAD MAX movies)
and BABE. What kind of film CAN’T that man direct?!?


What is a trailer really supposed to do, though?

You’d think the answer to this question would be obvious.  You’d think that the goal of a trailer would be to encourage people to see a movie.  If that’s true, then why do trailer’s suck so often?
They all look alike.  They all sound alike. 
How can a trailer sell you on a movie if it is edited almost identically to a dozen other trailers? 
I can’t help but wonder if the number of trailers that theaters run before a movie might have something to do with viewers having trouble remembering the movies they advertise.  I bet if there were two or three trailers before a movie instead of five or six, we’d have an easier time remembering them.
Fun fact: Did you know that the reason they’re called trailers is because they used to be run after movies?  It’s TRUE.
I feel like I’d have an easier time remembering movies if the trailers were still trailed the movie.  Or if the trailer was really good–that would help me remember a movie.

The trailer to TERMINATOR: GENISYS. SPOILER ALERT!
This trailer gives away a major plot twist that happens
early-ish in the film. The catch is, that twist is what got
me interested enough to see the film in theaters.
The good news is that, while one surprise was ruined,
So sad that I wrote a piece about it.
But I’m digressing.  On purpose, really.  Why? Because I’m putting off answering the inevitable question:
OK, Pete! Trailers suck–how do YOU think trailers should be cut?
I wrestled with this question before I started writing this piece.  My answer is lame:  I don’t know.
I’d like to say that making a good movie trailer is like making a good TV commercial.  However, you can’t give away the plot to laundry detergent.  I found myself considering the idea that making a good movie trailer might be harder than making a good movie.
About the best I can suggest is: cut together clips that set up the movie’s story and then STOP.  An example of a good trailer cut this way would be to cut one for STAR WARS that would show clips of Leia hiding the plans to the Death Star in R2, Darth Vader demanding to know where the plans are, then a shot of the escape pod escaping, then the empty escape pod in the desert with R2 and Threepio in the foreground, followed by Luke buying the droids from the Jawas.  Then, maybe a quick montage of gun battles, X-Wing dogfights and that’s it.
I wonder how a modern trailer editor would have cut a trailer for STAR WARS.  They’d probably give too much in the form of spoilers.

The original trailer to the original STAR WARS.
Uhmmmm… wow, this is pretty bad.
“The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.”
So, trailers have always been crap?!?
Closing thoughts on the trouble with trailers
The funny thing is, I decide if I’m going to see a movie based on its premise alone.  I avoid trailers most of the time because I feel like they’ll only turn me off of a movie.  I saw the trailer for PROMETHEUS after I saw PROMETHEUS and was like “NOW YOU TELL ME!” 
Though, I probably would have gone to see it anyway because it’s a hard scifi movie and there aren’t enough of those.

Do trailers get people into theaters?  I don’t know.  I think most of them don’t.