Destroy All Monsters: Maybe The Trailers ARE Better

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Maybe The Trailers ARE Better

The nicest thing about a trailer is that it can't hurt you. If you're not loving the vibe, any anxieties can be immediately dismissed with a simple "meh, it's just the trailer." If everything about the trailer, though, seems doooooope (see Star Wars: The Last Jedi), you're going to fall in love all over again with something you were already generally in love with, albeit now in more painfully specific terms. (Phasma! Poe! The last of the Jedi!!)

Of course, trailers in this decade have become a cinematic art form all their own. I doubt an audience of 100 years ago could have made heads or tails of them... although at least ninety years ago, the Russians would have loved them.

They are impressionistic masterpieces, knitting together disparate shot elements (shots which, in almost every case, were never designed to be edited back-to-back) to prove out the Kuleshov effect: across a cut, 1+1 really does = 3. We put a third, fused image into that cut, made up of what our brain synthesizes between the shot before and the shot after.

There's another, synthesized image that comes out of a trailer: a sense of what the movie will actually be like. Now, even before the arms of the studio megacorporations which create and market trailers was completely divorced from the arms that make the movies themselves (and they are), this was a painfully transparent shell game. It is routinely easy to cut a good trailer from a garbage movie, for the same reasons the trailers themselves can be so transcendent: they don't have to use the materials in the way in which they were designed to be used. Story, purpose, theme - rules, altogether - can be thrown out.

Trailers are concocted to conjure a mood, a material sense of what the movie itself will make the audience feel. So, from The Last Jedi again, we can sense that the movie will be a) darker than its predecessor (see shots 1, 2, 4, 7, etc.) and yet b) still Star Wars (shots 6, 11, 12, 14, etc.). The music braids together the original Force theme with the much newer Rey theme (both by John Williams) to propose both a cosmic and a personal set of stakes for the characters from The Force Awakens and the original trilogy.

It strikes a definitive tone - Star Wars is awesome, come see Star Wars, you will lose your shit when you see this Star Wars - and given Disney's finesse in the marketing arena at this stage in the game, it's likely a tone we will see play out in December.

Of the major studios, Disney tends to be the least likely to play bait-and-switch with their marketing materials (though I doubt Cars 3 will turn out to be the suicidal death cult its first trailer suggested). To use the past week's other great example, Thor: Ragnarok is probably gonna turn out to be that movie, pretty specifically, with or without the Zeppelin.

When a studio fucks that causality up - looking at you, Warner Brothers - audiences can be wholeheartedly miffed even while forking over hundreds of millions of box office dollars to see the thing that they were sure looked good from the trailer, even if all their friends are equally sure the final product has turned out to be terrible. That's how specific and compelling the mouth-feel of a good trailer can be: again existing outside narrative or logic, the impressionistic emotionality of a movie trailer can be crack so pure that it's hard for an audience to believe that the genuine article won't give them the same rush.

But, for those exact same reasons, and even in the best of circumstances, the genuine article can't give that rush. How could it? A trailer is a perfect, taster-sized morsel of candy; blockbusters are now, almost by default, two and a half hour marathons through crafts where shortcuts are a lot less available. Movies can be terrific in entirely other ways - ways that are still (I'd hope) harder, artsier, and more rewarding - but the dotted line between a great trailer and a great movie is, and always has been, a false narrative.

And when the movie is not working, all the more so. A bad script is a bad script, for example. If the basic mechanics of your story are not there, an angsty soloist covering a rock song from forty years ago is not going to carry your audience through a movie. (Hi, Suicide Squad!) If your director doesn't know blocking from a hole in the ground, and your movie drops beat after beat in front of the eyes of an audience that expected better, nostalgia isn't going to save it. (How's your week going, F8 of the Furious?)

This proposes, as a thought experiment at least, an idea: since trailers are essentially tonal collages anyway, what if studios started cutting tester trailers before they went into production on movies? Think of all the concept art being generated before a movie like The Last Jedi goes to camera, and take it into the 21st century with music and animation: concept trailers.

Imagine how much better (not to pick on it again, but here I am) Suicide Squad might have turned out if they hadn't shot the movie yet when its first few trailers dropped, and audiences made wholly clear that that was the movie they wanted to see - rather than whatever clumsy Escape From New York riff David Ayer had actually made.

If trailers do a better job of spelling out the tone of a movie than the movie itself in some cases, turn the bug into a feature: market the movies before you make 'em, and then make the movie the audiences want. Better directors would be better connected to movies better suited to their talents. Terms of engagement would be clearer. Trailers would serve as a marketing brief, before breaking ground on any new project.

No, it probably wouldn't work. Studios are dumb, even when they're incredibly smart. More and more, though, I'm thinking trailers are an art form better suited to this decade's audiences than the movies they advertise. They're quick, easily digestible, easily meme-able, and subtle enough to propose connections that never need to play out (FinnPoe, anyone?) while not outright denying those connections either. They're everything a fanbase desperately wants, set to kickass music, playing on a loop on all your social channels while your friends freak the fuck out about everything. Who needs an actual movie?


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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Unflinching_EyeApril 15, 2017 9:19 PM

I'm really looking forward to Rian Johnson directed Star Wars, but the teaser did very little for me. Don't get me wrong, I'm anticipating the best SW movie since Empire, but this week's teaser is playing things so close to the chest that I found it a bit dull.

That said, I'm glad they're playing it that way, because I'm sick of trailers that spoil their movie's best lines and images. I hope that Villeneuve and co continue to play this game with BR 2049 too.

Most stunning bits of trailer marketing over the last decade or so? 300 and Prometheus, the former living up to its potential, the latter... not so much.

jcoa2April 16, 2017 9:26 AM

Atomic Blonde has great trailers; you get to see the action scenes, the sex scenes and the jokes. Not sure I'm going to bother to see the movie.