Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bad Trailer, No Biscuit

I came across the trailer for the upcoming Glenn Close film "Albert Nobbs" last night, and I watched it, curious to get a glimpse of the performance that some awards prognosticators are predicting might send Close to the Oscars this year. The movie looks decent, but the trailer was awful. It told too much of the story, gave away several of the best moments, and did so with no subtlety or restraint. The tone was utterly lugubrious and maudlin, making the film seem like a broader studio feel-good film instead of a restrained Irish costume drama. A cloying Sinéad O'Connor pop song featured prominently in the closing montage of heartfelt imagery, even enjoying an extra bit of obnoxious marketing push during the credit blocks. Yikes.

It remains to be seen how the year for movies shapes up, but it's been a rotten year for trailers. What's odd is that some of the most promising upcoming features have some of the most dismal promos. The first preview for Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" was so saccharine and melodramatic, it elicited laughter from the audience when I saw it play in theaters. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is getting great early reviews, but has an utterly dull, generic trailer, that makes it look like every other children's fantasy film coming out this year. The same goes for David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method." Usually I can spot a Cronenberg film within seconds, but this time I couldn't see the director anywhere in the featured clips. What the hell is going on?

There have always been bad trailers, and there will always be bad trailers, but the sinking level of quality I've been seeing lately worries me. Marketers have been aggressively favoring familiarity over novelty, and in recent years seem bent on stripping out anything that makes a film look distinctive or original. I've grown to expect this approach to the trailers for mainstream films, but this is the first time I've noticed these tactics creeping into so many prestige pictures that have even a remote chance of being a commercial hit. It's making it more difficult than ever to tell the difference between the films with any real ambition and the usual studio fodder, which is probably the intention. There is a chance that these films really are as bad as their trailers make them out to be, but I highly doubt that all of them are. Over the summer, several films like "X-Men: First Class" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" turned out to be very good, in spite of clumsy, clueless promotional campaigns.

Bad trailers are also galling because many of them are so misleading. By now you've probably heard about that woman in Michigan who is suing the promoters of the movie "Drive," because it wasn't what the trailers represented it to be: a fast, loud, action movie in the vein of the "Fast and Furious" franchise. Instead, "Drive" is better described as a character study, and boasts a slow pace, meditative atmosphere, and a lot of kudos from the European film festivals. The suit is obviously frivolous, but it does reflect the frustration that many viewers feel about the dishonesty of many modern movie trailers. I can just imagine audiences going to see "Albert Nobbs" expecting "The Help," and reacting badly when they get "Remains of the Day" instead. I like both types of movies, but sometimes I'm just not in the mood for one or the other.

Some make excuses that a good film deserves to be seen, and sometimes the only way to get audiences in the door and in the position to give these films a chance is with a little bit of deceit. The whole point of a trailer is to sell a film after all, and you don't sell a film these days on the basis of the elements that are only likely to appeal to a minority of viewers. But how does it make any sense to alienate the most receptive audience in the process? Surely there's a way to make a film like "War Horse" look more accessible without making it seem incompetent, which I'm sorry to say that it does. The trailer is so obviously intended to tug on the heartstrings, it makes "Dolphin Tale" look subtle. I'm going to see "War Horse" anyway because I trust Spielberg, but Dreamworks is not making it easy for me here.

I think I'll be avoiding any more trailers this year. I've had enough. I'm going to put my money where my mouth is, stick to the reviews and recommendations, and avoid getting myself stuck with the wrong expectations, or spoiled, or misled, or manipulated. Until the Superbowl previews next summer's eye candy blockbusters - the only thing Hollywood really knows how to sell - I'm out. I'm done. No more trailers.

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