Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The old switcheroo

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Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz in Vanilla Sky

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What makes a great trailer?”

A few years ago, in a post about The Cabin in the Woods, which is one of a small handful of recent films I still think about on a regular basis, I wrote:

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about American movie audiences over the past decade or so, it’s that they don’t like being surprised. They may say that they do, and they certainly respond positively to twist endings, properly delivered, within the conventions of the genre they were hoping to see. What they don’t like is going to a movie expecting one thing and being given something else. And while this is sometimes a justifiable response to misleading ads and trailers, it can also be a form of resentment at having one’s expectations upended.

I went on to quote a thoughtful analysis from Box Office Mojo, which put its finger on why the movie scored so badly with audiences:

By delivering something much different, the movie delighted a small group of audience members while generally frustrating those whose expectations were subverted. Moviegoers like to know what they are in for when they go to see a movie, and when it turns out to be something different the movie tends to get punished in exit polling.

And the funny thing is that you can’t really blame the audience for this. If you think of a movie primarily as a commercial product that you’ve paid ten dollars or more to see—which doesn’t even cover the ancillary costs of finding a babysitter and driving to and from the theater—you’re likely to be frustrated if it turns out to be something different from what you were expecting. This is especially the case if you only see a few movies a year, and doubly so if you avoid the reviews and base your decisions solely on trailers, social media, or the presence of a reliable star. In practice, this means that certain surprises are acceptable, while others aren’t. It’s fine if the genre you’re watching all but requires there to be a twist, even if it strains all logic or openly cheats. (A lot of people apparently liked Now You See Me.) But if the twist takes you out of the genre that you thought you were paying to see, viewers tend to get angry. Genre, in many ways, is the most useful metric for deciding where to put your money: if you pay to see an action movie or a romantic comedy or a slasher film, you have a pretty good sense of the story beats you’re going to experience. A movie that poses as one genre and turns out to be another feels like flagrant false advertising, and it leaves many viewers feeling ripped off.

Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky

As a result, it’s probably no longer possible for a mainstream movie to radically change in tone halfway through, at least not in a way that hasn’t been spoiled by trailers. Few viewers, I suspect, went into From Dusk Till Dawn without knowing that a bunch of vampires were coming, and a film like Psycho couldn’t be made today at all. (Any attempt to preserve the movie’s secrets in the ads would be seen, after the fact, as a tragic miscalculation in marketing, as many industry insiders thought it was for The Cabin in the Woods.) There’s an interesting exception to this rule, though, and it applies to trailers themselves. Unless it’s for something like The Force Awakens, a trailer, by definition, isn’t something you’ve paid to see: you don’t have any particular investment in what they’re showing you, and it’s only going to claim your attention for a couple of minutes. As a result, trailers can indulge in all kinds of formal experiments that movies can’t, and probably shouldn’t, attempt at feature length. For the most part, trailers aren’t edited according to the same rules as movies, and they’re often cut together by a separate team of editors who are looking at the footage using a very different set of criteria. And as it turns out, one of the most reliable conventions of movie trailers is the old switcheroo: you start off in one genre, then shift abruptly to another, often accompanied by a needle scratch or ominous music cue.

In other words, the trailers frequently try to appeal to audiences using exactly the kind of surprise that the movies themselves can no longer provide. Sometimes it starts off realistically, only to introduce monsters or aliens, as Cloverfield and District 9 did so memorably, and trailers never tire of the gimmick of giving us what looks like a romantic comedy before switching into thriller mode. The ultimate example, to my mind, remains Vanilla Sky, which is still one of my favorite trailers. When I saw it for the first time, the genre switcheroo wasn’t as overused as it later became, and the result knocked me sidways. By now, most of its tricks have become clichés in themselves, down to its use of “Solsbury Hill,” so maybe you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that it was unbelievably effective. (In some ways, I wish the movie, which I also love, had followed the trailer’s template more closely, instead of tipping its hand early on about the weirdness to come.) And I suspect that such trailers, with their ability to cross genre boundaries, represent a kind of longing by directors about the sorts of films that they’d really like to make. The logic of the marketplace has made it impossible for such surprises to survive in the finished product, but a trailer can serve a sort of miniature version of what it might have been under different circumstances. This isn’t always true: in most cases, the studio just cuts together a trailer for the movie that they wish the director had made, rather than the one that he actually delivered. But every now and then, a great trailer can feel like a glimpse of a movie’s inner, secret life, even if it turns out that it was all a dream.

Written by nevalalee

September 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

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