7 deadly sins of the modern movie trailer

Trailers that spoil the plot. Trailers that use exactly the same music. Here's a rundown of the modern movie promo's 7 deadly sins...

Some of us wait until the wee hours of the morning to see the release of a trailer, while others have learned to avoid them until after seeing the movie they’re advertising. Whichever group you’re in, it’s clear that the whole business of film trailers has never been weirder or more contentious than right now, with trailers for trailers, secretive comic-con clip screenings and countdowns to online releases taking up more of your average film fan’s energy than seeing the actual films.

If we’re not complaining about having too much information, we’re mad about seeing a film we weren’t quite expecting. Here’s our list of the seven deadliest sins a film trailer can commit. Add your further crimes in the comments…

Edit more action into your introspective crime drama

We’ll start with the most familiar first, with the furore over Drive a year or two back having gone down in history as one of the more ridiculous things to happen in the film industry. Having seen Ryan Gosling’s much-praised crime thriller, one moviegoer complained that she was misled by its trailer, with the film not delivering on the Fast & Furious-style action she had expected. She attempted to sue, saying the film “bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film […] having very little driving in the motion picture.”

Of course, this has happened before to less explosive ends, as George Clooney vehicle The American was advertised very differently to the movie people eventually saw in theatres. Trailers work a certain way, with certain stages of excitement edited together in a certain order, so there’s clearly a temptation to bypass the logic of the movie in order to get bums on seats: the Fast & Furious movies are popular, so here’s an arthouse version with the guy from The Notebook in it.

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Put in all the good jokes or scares


Were we the only ones who, after watching The Woman In Black, were left disappointed by the number of scares we were already aware of? Well, we actually counted them, and there was literally only one fear-moment not revealed in a trailer or TV spot first. That may be a sign of the internet age ruining movies for its most ardent fans, but the film’s marketing actively encouraged us to tease ourselves beforehand.

It’s as common in comedy trailers as it is in horror, demonstrated by most joke-light films starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller or Eddie Murphy. It sets up a hopeful crowd, keen to relive the chuckles they experienced while watching the ads, but only if they’re wrapped in more superior jokes along the way. Far too many aren’t, and we’re left with no new jokes at all.

The Final Destination franchise combines both mistakes (especially in later instalments) as, like with Woman In Black, people go to see the fairground-esque shocks, only to realise that all the best and most creative deaths have already been ruined by countless trailers and TV spots beforehand. Seeing as they contain little else of interest, it’s unsurprising that the trailer has to ape the suspense best saved for the final experience.

Cut the whole trailer from your film

The most famous example of this would probably have to be the trailer for National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, which contained a ridiculous amount of footage not actually found in the final film. Now, most trailers are cut before the film has been completed, so this sort of thing happens all too often, but there are some sneaky examples that merit special mention.

Black Christmas, which followed a group of teenagers through hack and slash tension and terror, actually made its trailer from 99% original footage, meaning that it actually turned out far superior to what it was supposed to be advertising. Apparently, the studio went behind the director’s back to shoot the scenes, and he wasn’t happy.

More recent examples include several bits of Paranormal Activity 3 that were either cut short or discarded altogether, and a scene from Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part II that, despite being used heavily in trailers, TV ads and featurettes for around two years, never actually appeared in the movie or the DVD’s deleted scenes.

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Promote the star, not the film

You can understand it – when your film has lucrative comedy stars like Bill Murray, Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell in it, there’s a temptation to advertise your bitter-sweet drama as a screwball comedy or wacky caper, just to draw in their fanbase. This is the quickest way to cheat said fanbase, and it’s often a dangerous game to play.

It can pay off, of course, as with Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, which was advertised to the comedian’s fans as another comedy to go with his previous output. They were so impressed and surprised by his straight performance that the film was probably more successful as a result. The same tactic was used with Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction and Murray’s Lost In Translation, to more mixed reactions.

Then there’s the trick of putting certain minor players at the forefront of your campaign, used with new mutant Angel in X-Men 3‘s trailer, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Expendables and Gary Oldman in Lawless. All three of these examples are either barely in the film they’re being used to advertise, or disappear after their brief appearance in its opening moments.

Wish the film was something else entirely

Countless spoof trailers on YouTube play on this idea, editing their favourite film into something entirely different, just proving that if you want your movie to be something else, you can easily make it so. Famously, early trailers for Steven Spielberg’s family favourite E.T. pitched the film as a sci-fi horror the director was known for at the time, using a creepy POV shot to sell it rather than the kid-friendly film we now know it to be.

In contrast, because E.T. had done so well, executives decided that the best way to advertise Gremlins was as a tale of a boy and his furry companion. Bridge To Terebithia, clearly not a sellable concept given the ultimately quite depressing final act, was marketed as a Lord Of The Rings-style fantasy adventure. Too bad the actual film included very little actual adventure, preferring to focus on the reality of the kids’ lives instead.

But first prize has to go to Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, which managed to construct an entire trailer without revealing that the film is a musical. This was before musicals were cool and popular, of course (Les Miserables is the second biggest film of the year at the UK box office), and marketing the film as such would have immediately signed its death warrant. There’s a brief snippet of Johnny Depp warbling, but it’s constructed to look like a singular event, rather than revealing the film’s true genre.

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Use the same ambiguously upbeat pop songs over and over again


This one is genre specific, as trailers for romantic comedies are slowly getting worse and worse – and it’s almost entirely down to the music. It’s bad news when one of the ‘ambiguously upbeat pop songs’ coined as such in a particularly on-the-nose scene in Friends With Benefits attaches itself to a trailer, as chances are, it will never leave.

All Star by Smash Mouth has only recently faded into the background. Dreams by The Cranberries. Anything by Michelle Branch. Recently, we can’t seem to get away from Pink’s Raise Your Glass. Surely it must be time for some creativity to bleed into the collective brains of trailer editors.

Aside from this problem with unimaginative rom-com teasers, there’s the growing issue with the Hans Zimmer Inception ‘Brrraaammm’ noise that seems to have leaked into every blockbuster film since Christopher Nolan’s 2011 thriller (as our chums at The Shiznit pointed out). It’d be weird to see a trailer without it at this point, included in everything from Battleship and Prometheus to Immortals and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Watch the video below for proof:


Spoil the entire plot (and ending)

I’ve been complaining about how much Hollywood loves to trick you, but what about when they’re too honest for their own good? The worst trailers are the ones that spoil the entire plot, twist and all, and still expect you to hand over your cash to see a longer, more complicated version. There’s obviously a pressing concern that viewers’ attention spans are so low that one day they’ll just feed us two-minute movies and dispense with the rest.

These are usually bad movies, as the marketing department charged with hacking the trailer together either had so little faith in the film’s capability of drawing people in, or there’s just not enough enticing footage in the first two acts to make an adequate teaser. When it’s a good film, that’s where the problem lies. Cast Away‘s trailer, for example, shows Hanks crashing on the island, Hanks surviving on the island, and Hanks being rescued and told, “you’ve been gone for four years.”

Then there’s Harrison Ford’s involvement in What Lies Beneath, essentially rendering 80 percent of the film completely redundant, and the trailers for both Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3 detailing every emotional beat of Peter Parker’s journey, from disillusionment to ultimate redemption.

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One of the worst offenders, given how much effort the director went to in order to conceal it, was Gandalf’s resurrection in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Thanks, guys.

Any other trailer trends get your goat? Leave them in the comments below…

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