Good Trailers vs. Bad Trailers: Where Movie Marketers Go Wrong

I feel like Gollum and the One Ring when it comes to film trailers: I loveses them and I hateses them. I'm always eager for a look at the movies I'll be seeing in a few months, but I'm always terrified that the trailers will ruin the experience of watching those movies. One of the first things I learned as a film critic was how much more enjoyable it is to see a movie with no preconceptions whatsoever about it, and more than once I've seen a trailer for the first time after I saw the movie and knew to a certainty that if I'd seen the trailer first, it would have greatly lessened my enjoyment of that movie.

Movie fans know why: Because trailers give away far too much. All the best jokes. (That's such a standard that when the jokes in the trailer are terrible, it's a guarantee that the movie will be awful, because if those are the best attempts at humor the film can make ... so maybe even bad trailers do offer a valuable service in this respect.) The resolution of the sexual tension between the protagonists. The most surprising of the plot twists. And often, the ending of the film itself ... or hints enough that you can guess.

So why bother even seeing the movie at all?

I don't mean to pick particularly on the doomed Nia Vardalos romantic comedy My Life in Ruins, because its terrible, terrible trailer is hardly unique in its awfulness. It just happens to be an excellent example at the moment of the worst that trailers can be. (Skip the next paragraph if you don't want the movie spoiled.)

It gives us sad-sack Vardalos who "hit rock bottom" a year earlier, and so she moved to Greece to be a tour guide. See, it's a pun, that title: not only is her life metaphorically in ruins, but now she spends her days squiring tourists around crumbling old buildings. Irony! The rest of the trailer offers unfunny jokes about stupid American sightseers, unfunny juvenile wordplay on Greek names that sound like toilet terms, unsurprising revelations about the goofy, unkempt bus driver Vardalos is forced to contend with on her tours, and finally a wacking huge nonbombshell in how that goofy, unkempt bus driver (played by Alexis Georgoulis) cleans up to look like a Calvin Klein underwear model who coincidentally is also perrrr-fect for lonely Vardalos. And everyone lives happily ever after.

I guess one could argue that the movie itself will be so cliched and obvious that even if you hadn't seen the trailer, you'd still guess from the opening moments of the movie how it will end ... and that that's exactly what most audiences want: no surprises, and the promise of a happy ending.

Maybe those trailers are doing their jobs correctly, then. Maybe I just don't like what they're selling.

I already suspected that I may well like Guy Ritchie's upcoming reboot of Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the world's first consulting detective and Jude Law as his sidekick, Mr. Watson. And now that I've seen the brand-new teaser trailer, that suspicion is even stronger. This is what a trailer should do: offer hints as to what's in store for the viewer without giving away the store. And here we have some slam-bang action, a dose of rowdy violence, a couple clues about the good-natured (and sometimes not) contentiousness between Holmes and Watson, and a few little suggestions that this is not quite Conan Doyle's Holmes (featuring Rachel McAdams in lacy Victorian underwear and Holmes in handcuffs). There's the merest implication that the plot will have something to do with a nefarious bad guy. Holmes devotees can guess that one unnamed character we see is probably LeStrade, Holmes' nemesis on the London police force. It's everything certain Holmes purists will need to know to know that they won't want to see this movie, without wrecking the experience for those of us who cannot freakin' wait.

Maybe the best example of a great trailer is for imaginary movies, which cannot possibly spoil a plot that doesn't even exist. Check out this fan-made trailer for a Green Lantern that will never be made, starring Nathan Fillion:

YouTube user jaronpitts was forced to be genuinely creative because he's got no real movie to work from, and he succeeds in selling us a movie playing only in his head. That's some trailer.

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MaryAnn Johanson has imaginary movies running through her head all the time at FlickFilosopher.com. (email me)