The horror of potentially misleading movie trailers

How many times have you seen a trailer that bears no resemblance to the film it’s advertising? We take a closer look at a common movie phenomenon...

Most of the time, movie trailers are great. Both entertaining and informative, they’re a little cookie-sized taste of whatever film they’re advertising. Trailers are a handy way of navigating through the morass of films that compete for our attention every year – within a minute or two, you can decide whether you’re interested in the movie’s subject matter, tone and cast.

Not keen on seeing a coal mining musical starring Barbra Streisand and Mickey Rourke? No problem, here’s a trailer for Sandra Bullock’s emotional drama about sea bass farming.

There are certain trailers, however, whose tone varies completely from the film they’re supposed to advertise. This phenomenon seems especially common with quiet, character-based dramas – apparently convinced that dialogue-heavy films are box-office poison, movie marketing wizards will sometimes cut together a trailer that makes their product look far more gun-crazy and violent than it actually is.

Take last year’s The American, for example. Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney as an ageing, world-weary assassin, it was a wintry, slow-moving drama that was more about regret and guilt than John Woo-influenced murder.

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Now look at one of the film’s trailers, which appeared shortly before its cinematic release:

Admittedly, you’re not going to muddle this trailer up with one for, say, The Expendables, but the combination of rapid-fire editing, ratta-tat-tat action thriller music and portentous voice-over (“George Clooney… IS… [GUNSHOT] The American…”) suggests a rather more hard-hitting, aggressive piece of cinema than the one Anton Corbijn actually delivered.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was given a similarly high-octane promotional shove. The film itself was a meditative drama that only occasionally dipped its toes into the tentacle-infested waters of sci-fi. The trailer, meanwhile, carefully selected a few of the film’s shadowier scenes, beefing up Edwards’ passing reference to Jurassic Park, and suggesting a far more tense film in the process.

We’re not suggesting that movie marketeers are deliberately setting out to mislead, or that the above trailers don’t do their job – in both instances, they make two already great movies look like films you’d want to sit in a chair and actually watch.

I do wonder, though, whether such restructuring of footage isn’t doing these films a disservice in the long run. How many people took these trailers at face value, and were then disappointed when they watched two very different, far more philosophical movies unfold on the screen in front of them?

At the very least, there’s the negative word-of-mouth to consider, particularly in an age when disgruntled movie-goers can come straight out of a cinema and moan about a film on Facebook or Twitter.

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Films like Monsters or The American were never going to appeal to everyone, but many of the negative comments I read on social networking sites were from people irritated by the fact that the films were so much less violent or eventful than they were expecting.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, and neither is it restricted to action and science fiction films. Both In Bruges and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – two magnificent films, I’m sure most would agree – were depicted in their trailers as broad, quirky, knock-about comedies. While this isn’t a million miles from the truth, both clips cunningly gloss over the films’ more downbeat, emotional content.

The trailer for Eternal Sunshine starts accurately enough, but the late introduction of the Electric Light Orchestra’s up-tempo song Mr Blue Sky, along with some pacier editing, hints at a far less melancholy film than the one that eventually appeared in cinemas…

In the case of In Bruges, I ended up avoiding the film on its cinematic run because I assumed it was some sort of Belgian-set Guy Ritchie rip-off. it was only when I finally caught up with the movie on DVD that I realised that it was, in fact, far more intelligently written and acted than I’d been led to believe.

I could cite dozens more examples of trailers that could be seen as misleading. There’s the promo for The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, which made the film it was advertising look like a terrifying supernatural horror. The movie itself was largely set in a courtroom.

Then there are the trailers that appear to be made up from sweepings of footage not used in the finished movie, like National Treasure: Book Of Secrets. Or those that attempt to disguise the nature of the film’s content, such as the promo for Sweeney Todd, which didn’t exactly hammer home the fact that it was advertising a musical, or the one for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which cunningly excises any traces of Swedish dialogue.

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It’s a subject we could ramble on about for ages – and we may even return to it again in a longer, list-type feature, so consider yourself warned – but we’ll simply end with one final example.

The trailer for Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon AD used editing, psychology and Clint Mansell’s stunning Lux Aeterna composition to give the impression of a film that is exciting, dynamic and unmissable.

Now that’s what we call the power of advertising…

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