The James Clayton Column: trailers running off the tracks

Like the runaway train in Unstoppable, have Hollywood film trailers sped out of control? James thinks so, and Denzel Washington may be our only hope...

Unstoppable, now out on general release in cinemas, has Denzel Washington stepping up to the plate and attempting to stop a runaway freight train that a hysterical Rosario Dawson has reimagined as “a missile the size of the Chrysler building”.

Washington is a capable go-to guy, and – confronted with a crisis involving hazardous chemicals, school kids and out-of-control missiles the size of the Chrysler Building – I’d trust him to avert potential disaster every time.

After he’s done that – and because we know he’s a hardworking actor who can’t stay inactive for long – I’d like him to pursue and put the brakes on our out-of-control movie trailers. Looking around at the movie marketing machine lately, I’ve come to the view that maybe things have gone slightly off track and need slowing down.

Ignoring the awkwardly mangled train imagery, I do feel that there’s an issue and something odd going on with our trailers. Somewhere down the line, on the ever-evolving media landscape, the things that sell upcoming features to us morphed into being altogether very different creatures. What are essentially commercials have become a pop-culture phenomenon in themselves.

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We know the drill – we get a rapidly edited montage mixing music, title cards and scenes of action with flashes of exposition. We see stars mugging and get character clues (ah! Denzel Washington is the grizzled veteran good guy who can save the day!). We get intense dramatic pronouncements (oh! “We’re talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!”).

We also usually get a clip of comic relief (ha! The kid who thinks he’s Captain Kirk just made a joke about not wanting to work in a retirement home!).

So goes the conventional two-minute blast, but trailers now go beyond this, and have taken on a life of their own off-screen. They’re now an event in themselves in contrast to what they used to be way back when – and way back when is once upon a time when people went to the theatre to watch Pathé newsreels and double-bills through a fog of tobacco smoke.

In the past – before marketing whiz kids and focus groups got their greasy hands all over things – trailers were hammy, hilarious and horribly inept at doing their job, but I love them regardless. There’s a charm to them that modern commercials lack, and I could happily spend hours on YouTube or rifling through DVD special features discs just to experience the kitschy retrograde pleasure of old-school promo reels.

I and a few other hipster film buffs appreciate them, but in their day chances are no one actually ever watched them. They were probably too distracted getting supplies from the cigarette girl and the choc-ice vendor or fondling their date.

Already, then, they are failing in the purpose as adverts. Their futility goes even further when you see the trails that ruin the ending by showing the climax, where the monster loses the fight and perishes in flame. Some, such as the trailer for Forbidden Planet, do nothing but retell the entire plot in a cut-down three minute version of the film.

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In spite of it all, you can’t help but enjoy them as mini-epics, effervescent with bombast and melodrama. They scream out lurid titles promising “the most exciting adventure ever seen!” and threaten you with things “more horrifying than any horror known to man!” with a total earnest that I don’t think exists in the modern moviemaking machine.

Slicker and stripped of kitschy thrills, but still exhilarating articles of geekish appeal, today’s trailers can also conjure up a hell of lot of joy and excitement. Every time they release a new Tron: Legacy teaser you can feel a palpable wave of anticipation ripple through cyberspace, and it can only be a good thing that, within minutes, a montage blast of audio and images can lift people up and fill them with hopeful enthusiasm.

What’s strange is the way that these adverts have assumed a position in popular culture as events in themselves. The arrival of a trailer is now arguably as big a deal as the actual premiere itself. They have become an integral part – and in some cases the most vital aspect – of the film production and distribution process.

Last week saw the dissemination of trailers for The Green Lantern, Your Highness and Cowboys & Aliens in swift succession. The amount of buzz generated by this blockbuster marketing barrage was amazing and, if you take a step back for a moment, bewildering.

There are reasons to be stoked, what with these teasers offering the first glimpses of Ryan Reynolds with the power ring, some medieval stoner comedy and the men who double as James Bond and Indiana Jones appearing together in a sci-fi western. My concern is that there might be too much excitement. Perhaps it’s all distracting from the feature presentation, like a scantily clad usherette who’s shouting “cigarettes for sale!” and obscuring our view of the main event and the bigger picture.

We’re all guilty of being led by trailers and making judgements off the back of what’s a mere hint of something much larger. For me personally, last week’s possibly unprecedented flurry really highlighted how unusual Hollywood hype has become in the digital media age.

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When we have favourite lines from films we haven’t seen because we can’t actually see them until next year, something is surely skewed. Likewise, seeing reputable websites devoting tremendous amounts of energy to full analytical deconstructions of the Cowboys & Aliens commercial raises my eyebrows.

Sections of the blogosphere are ablaze weighing up Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and making evaluations of a montage probably compiled by some studio cog who wouldn’t know Kato from Kate Winslet, doing what the marketing executives dictate. This amounts to: provide hints of plot, humour and hail the big name stars, edit in music and titles and make sure the audience wants to come back in a few months.

There is no one absolute, right way to advertise an upcoming film, especially if you take viral marketing into account. What I fear, though, is that we might be too hyped up on these hot trailers and consequently the whole experience and actual end effect gets distorted.

Perhaps we need to refocus and reconsider the way we exhibit and experience trailers. Perhaps we need some Denzel Washington figure to usher in some order. Alternatively, maybe we need a choc-ice vendor to bother us next time they drop a Tron: Legacy promo.

James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie-spoof comics and they can be found here.

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