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Trail me Lies, Trail me Sweet Little Lies: Hollywood Trailers, Omission of Facts and Downright Lies

Movie trailers are a fickle bunch. Some spoil movies by revealing crucial plot twists. But there’s arguably something far more sinister than an advertisement which innocently gives a plot twist or two away: the movie trailer which actively lies to the audience. It’s a very dodgy advertising strategy, but sadly one that movie studios seem to be quite comfortable resorting to.

Machete: A Romantic Comedy...

In a way, all movie trailers lie. Many features scenes that aren’t included in the final cut. Such was the case with National Treasure: Book of Secrets:

For example, in one of the trailers, there are shots of the pyramids and other Egyptian landmarks. None of the movie takes place in Egypt.

Then there’s a flyover of the top of Mount Rushmore, revealing that there’s a rectangular door carved into the stone of the mountain behind it. That shot isn’t in the movie, either (and would have helped a lot with comprehension, by the way).

One of the most compelling sequences in the trailer shows Nicolas Cage at the Lincoln Memorial — three or four shots that make you think that this movie’s grand historical conspiracy somehow involves that famous monument. It doesn’t, and none of those shots appear in the movie.

Others simply include a compilation of the most exciting moments of the film, which can cause quite a bit of disillusionment when you realise you sat through the best two-and-a-half minutes of the film before you paid for it. That can quite irritating, but you can understand the reasoning behind such approaches. They are at least intended to put the best foot forward.

However, there are quite a few other ways that film makers can lie through trailers, and they are a lot more difficult to forgive. Rather than simply presenting the movie in a hyped-up manner, frontloaded with the best bits, these trailers are constructed to actively mislead the audience as to what the film is. It’s the job of the marketing executives to lie to you about the quality of the production, but it seems counterproductive to lie about the content. Since, you know, if you do a really good job of tricking people into seeing the film, they will be very ticked off.

The first warning sign if you see this during a hilarious-looking comedy trailer...

The most obvious example concerns foreign films. How often do we see an advertisement for a film, which features lots of atmospheric shots and quotes from highbrow film critics (or even just star ratings if the quote is too verbose), but you never see any of the characters talking? It’s as if the studios believe that foreign language films are immediately dead in the water, but – if they can somehow trick you into buying a ticket – you won’t be so angry you’d demand a refund. Indeed, it’s not even language that can provoke this reaction, but sometimes accents. Edgar Wright’s Don’t trailer for Grindhouse spoofed the trend in the seventies of completely cutting dialogue from the trailers for English imported films, lest they clue American audiences into the fact that this was a foreign film (because the red buses and the architecture weren’t a big enough clue).

Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that audiences seem to be so hostile to foreign films – a stubborn refusal to watch a subtitled movie has led my family to miss out on more than a few classics, for example (though, in fairness they will occasionally band watch something if there’s been enough hype like Ringu or Mongol). Regardless of my distaste at the idea that any good movie must have an English language version (or Hollywood will produce one, as soon as possible), it’s a fact of life. Some people don’t do subtitles. Their loss. I fail to see how trying to hoodwink people like that into seeing your film is good for business – cinema patrons can be quite aggressive when they feel cheated, and it isn’t like you can hide the fact it’s a foreign language film for the entire runtime.

Almost as bad as people talking funny is people singing. Everyone remembers those trailers for Sweeney Todd, right? The ones that glossed over the fact that it was a musical?

There were a few trailers out for this one and all of them reveled in showing the ever-popular Johnny Depp looking dark and brooding and slashing open people’s throats with a razor. What they failed to accent, however, was the fact that Depp would be singing at the same time. I can only recall one of the trailers for this movie that showed any singing whatsoever and it was awkwardly shoved in the middle of the trailer, as if to say “ohbythewayitsamusical” and get on with key selling points like Johnny Depp and throat-slashing.

However, even then there’s a more subtle form of trailer manipulation at play. Let’s say you’ve got a quirky indie gem, something a little bit outside the mainstream that maybe tackles a subject you aren’t comfortable with or maybe just doesn’t have a ready-made target demographic. However, you have a big name star who is looking to branch out from their usual more populist fare. What do you do?

Why, you sell it based on all the clichés readily associated with that actor, and lure their unsuspecting fanbase in to a film they weren’t expecting.

Apparently that’s what the studios have been doing with Cyrus, an Oedipal comedy starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. The marketing folks have been selling it like it’s a spiritual companion to Superbad or Step Brothers.

The poster seems to suggest that the film is a mad romp in the style of Reilly flicks such as Step Brothers or Hill comedies such as Superbad. In fact, it’s a greasy, largely handheld slab of mumblecore from a pair of brothers who, until recently, made films for the price of a bunch of bananas. The trailer is also somewhat misleading, but watch closely and you will spot two giveaway pieces of information: the news that Cyrus was an official presentation at Sundance and an unmistakable glimpse of the great Catherine Keener. Keener? Sundance? Keener? Sundance? Hang on, a moment. You, Cyrus, are no Talladega Nights (not that there’s anything at all wrong with Talladega Nights).

In fairness, this isn’t the first time this year something like that has happened. Earlier, cinemas in the United States started sticking up notices that they wouldn’t be offering refunds to Greenberg, the off-kilter Ben Stiller comedy for patrons who had wandered in expecting a companion piece to Zoolander. You can make a case that it is the audience’s job to inform themselves about the film they are going to see, but can you really blame someone who has been sold the marketing line that the film is something it isn’t?

I understand the logic from the studios. It’s all about bums in seats at the end of the day, but I can’t help but get the sense that this hurts far more than it helps. For example, every ticket sold to Greenberg as Dodgeball Mark II loses an audience member who might be interested in seeing the film that was made. But since the film isn’t sold to those people, they might not even know it exists. And while there may be more easily duped screwball comedy fans out there, it’s going to be pretty obvious that it wasn’t their movie. The word of mouth is typically terrible – and I’m not talking about newspapers or blogs, I’m talking about people in offices and friends. I know that the most obvious way to tick off a moviegoer isn’t to deliver an inferior example of what you promised, but to give them the impression you tried to “pull a fast one” as it were – nobody likes feeling conned.

Whereas the people who would have enjoyed it would have raved about it. It would garner a smaller opening, but I reckon that long-term gains would become obvious – particularly DVDs, for example. Despite being a box office bomb, how many releases of Blade Runner have there been over the years? This was a film that would never have appealed to a wide audience, but was sold honestly enough (and embraced its identity confidently enough) to earn an incredibly loyal cult fanbase. A small but enthusiastic following courted with honesty yields lower immediate results but great long-term benefits than a large but ticked-off audience. Don’t burn your bridges.

Maybe honesty really is the best policy.

8 Responses

  1. (Writing this comment as I’m listening to your appearance on The Film Cynics – very eerie!)

    I was thinking of this very thing recently when I watched the film MONSTERS. While it’s a good film, especially when one considers how low-budget it is, it is nothing like the “Mexican District 9” it purported to be.

    Another film that suffered from poor marketing lately is Corbijn’s THE AMERICAN.

    The hitch of course is that the marketing is all left up to the movie’s studio, and seldom by anyone all that close to the film. Such a shame.

    • Yep. The American is sold as George Clooney (Ocean’s Eleven) as a hit man. From what I understand, it should be George Clooney (Michael Clayton) as a gun for hire.

  2. It’s so underhanded, yeah, but without it I’d have never heard of half the movies I saw two years ago.

  3. Catfish is the latest example of this. It;s being marketed like a horror film by Rogue (Universal), but its an expose on social networking.

    • Yep. I don’t know what to make of that. And if they won’t tell me what the film’s about, I’m quites suspicious.

  4. Definitely “Greenberg” and “Cyrus” manipulated their trailer to appeal to the usual Stiller and Hill audience, the completely wrong audience for both of those films. I’m sure I remember someone leaving the cinema in the middle of Greenberg, obviously disappointed that it wasn’t a laugh a minute. I also remember a lot of Johnny Depp fans leaving “The Libertine” some years ago, but I think they were justified on that occasion! Although I can’t think of examples at this moment, I’ve definitely watched films and noticed the absence of scenes that had been included in the trailer.
    Cinema-goers do have a responsibilty to keep their eyes open though. It’s the same with the theatre. When I went to “Waiting for Godot” a few years ago, I remember two people behind me saying “This is boooooring. What time is the next bus home?”. That pretty sums up the reason that it is sometimes wise to be aware of the general plot of a film or play!

    • What was that great plot synopsis of Godot from a kid reading the play? “It’s about two blokes waiting for a guy who never shows up.”

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