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Unmoving Movie Trailers

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

The last forty times my wife and I watched movie trailers at a theater, she whispered to me, “They’re showing too much.”

I like to watch movie trailers because I don’t like most movies. Watching movie trailers confirms to me why I don’t want to see them. Is this the purpose of movie trailers--to turn away viewers from movies?

If I had spent two hundred million dollars on a movie and then saw a trailer for it that drove people away, I would be spitting furious. Yet, this appears to be the norm for the movie industry today.

Worse yet, movie theaters are now showing ads between movie trailers. Showing a car commercial between trailers washes away any remaining pretense of movie magic.

I sense that you don’t believe me.

“It’s your opinion against theirs,” you say, “and they’re the experts, not you.”

Lest you think me unfair, I have found for you a video for you to watch. It appears to be a joke, but it’s not a joke because it's precisely accurate. After you see it, you will see its point demonstrated in the next dozen or so movie trailers you’ll see:

What’s wrong with such an exciting way of presenting a movie? Nothing, except this approach has become a hardened cliché. Cliché destroys fiction. Instead of taking viewers (and readers) to a new place, clichés remind fans they’re watching (or reading) the latest copied story.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” the movie announcer says.

“Come see some upcoming fake stuff on the screen!”

Unimpressed guests

Some time ago, we showed a movie to guests in our home. They loved the movie and we talked about it for some time in our living room. We then suggested to our friends two other movies we could show them on a future night.

Our guests said, "No, no. We don't watch those kinds of movies."

"The movies aren't like that at all!" I told them. "That's what makes them great. That's why we like them. They were a surprise to us."

After talking up the movies for some time, I made a terrible mistake. I showed our guests trailers of the two movies. What both trailers did was cherry-pick bits of scenes from the movies that made the movies look violent, senseless, and empty.

I was embarrassed. The trailers were awful! They even included music that wasn't part of the movie.

Our guests sat there stone-faced and probably felt uncomfortable, wondering how we could ever watch such terrible movies.

Nothing I could tell them after that consoled them.

I'll never make that mistake again.

"You have it all wrong," you say. "The trailers aren't trying to appeal to you,

but to the common folk."

Not so, because if the trailer is a lie, both viewers and critics alike become angry because the movie doesn't measure up to the hype. This is exactly what happened to the movie The Village (2004). The trailers made the movie out to be a horror story, when in reality it was an elaborate and clever love story. The Village was maligned and panned for fifteen years before everyone forget about the misleading trailers and began to decide the movie was a success.

If trailers lie about their movies, what does that say about the faith the moviemakers have in their own work? Misleading trailers upset those who see the movie as well as turn away those who would actually have watched the movie had the trailers been honest.

So, what makes a good movie trailer?

What does a good movie trailer do? A good movie trailer gives viewers sufficient reason to see the movie. By “sufficient reason,” I mean a good trailer,

  • Introduces the story’s setting and theme

  • Introduces main characters

  • Provides the story hook

That’s all!

Here is what I consider to be a great trailer: Blade Runner 2049. The trailer introduces the main characters, introduces the world within the story, and provides only a vague notion of what will happen.

Scenes in lieu of trailers

For something really different, why don't moviemakers just show a scene or two from their movies instead of creating expensive trailers? Are their movies not good enough? "Movie scenes" are to "movie trailers" as "show" is to "tell."

If I were to make a $200 million movie, I would make at least one scene from the movie good enough to serve as my movie trailer. Then, I would use the money saved from not having to produce a trailer as bonuses to my writers, who should be paid the most, anyway!

The following two scenes from movies stand on their own like mini-movies. Why couldn't these scenes be used as movie trailers?

These scenes would make good movie trailers because they give the audience a taste of the story setting and a sampling of characters without banal, mind-dulling narration, and without giving away the entire story.

What makes a bad movie trailer?

By contrast, a bad trailer tells the entire story of the movie. See examples here:

I like each of these movies. But, had I seen these trailers before seeing their movies, I would never have watched them!

In the case of Evolution, I saw the movie cold. We were planning on seeing another movie. I had no idea whether Evolution was going to be a comedy, a documentary, or a lecture on the evils of religious thought. I enjoyed the movie because every scene was a discovery: I had no idea what was about to happen. I had the same experience with The Long Kiss Goodnight.

In fact, regarding The Long Kiss Goodnight, the entire point of the story is the heroine's discovery of her past. Wouldn't the viewers like to take that ride with her? But the trailer comes out and outright announces her past. What slobbering idiots!

The Dreamhouse trailer is infamous for being one of the worst ever made because it does worse than tell the audience the entire story of the movie. Spoiler warning! It misleads the audience into thinking the father is the killer. (But he isn't!) Why would anyone want to see the movie after the ending is given away? (except it wasn't--but viewers didn't know this) The movie trailer makers tried to be clever by misleading the audience, but all they did was keep people away.

Do you still think I'm wrong about this?

Are moviemakers really this stupid?

When I complain about moviemakers to my friends, I usually get the response, “They make money—so they don’t care if their movie trailers turn people off.” This is like the athlete who smokes and says, “I’m a fine athlete! Smoking don’t hurt me none.”

If I told my supervisor that I wanted to make only some money for the company, I would soon find myself looking for another job. Apparently, not so with movie trailer makers.

What does this have to do with writing fiction?

The first page of your novel is its trailer! Just like a good movie trailer, the first page of a novel should introduce the story’s,

  • setting and theme

  • main characters (at least one)

  • story hook

Let’s do a better job than the movie-trailer-makers. Let's write first pages in our novels that actually attract our future readers.

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