Aren’t trailers an essential element of the cinematic experience? The brief window before a movie comes out is unique, when we have this impression of the movie based entirely on publicity. Especially if we aren’t paying attention to “entertainment news” and internet buzz. If we just look to the trailers for clues, we can get an impression of which movies the studios are counting on, and which ones they are dumping, and which ones they think people will actually like.
And a lot of the time this changes by the time the movie finally comes out. The marketing campaign might change, the film might be not what the studio was expecting 8 months earlier, or they might just re-orient the focus of their precious and potent promotional powers.
The following is a partial list of films whose trailers, in the absence of any other knowledge about the film, convinced me that they would be…not necessarily a massive financial juggernaut, but a major success by the standards of whatever genre they were. I’m not saying these were disappointing in any particular way. But for each of them, I was preparing for it to be a significant cultural event on which I might want to have an opinion.
Tears of the Sun [Antoine Fuqua, 2003]
The trailer made this look like literally the most expensive movie ever made. More expensive than Titanic. Yes, for Titanic they created a 90% scale model of the ocean liner…and from the ad I saw, it appeared that for Tears of the Sun they created a 90% scale model of the Liberian civil war. The trailers for this ran forever.
Stop-Loss [Kimberly Peirce, 2008]
Finally, an Iraq War movie relevant to young people! From MTV Films!
Get Low [Aaron Schneider, 2010]
I saw the trailer for this twice at my small small-town multiplex, attached to Inception and The American. It looked mainstream-friendly, quirky, completely original premise-wise, and definitely a source of best-actor nominations even if it only earned, say, three times the revenue of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Then Get Low didn’t even play my localplex, or anywhere within 50 miles except one of the tiny screening rooms at Harrisburg’s Midtown Cinema.
Run Fatboy Run [David Schwimmer, 2007]
Another one that came out about two years after the trailers started running. The idea that it was Edgar Wright who should be counted on for comedy gold, not Simon Pegg, was not intuitive in the least.
Eye of the Beholder [Stephan Elliott*, 1999]
The plot of this movie is utterly bizarre. It stars Ashley Judd as a serial killer and Ewan McGregor as a hit man only known as “The Eye”. It turned out to be not quite unavoidable enough to spark a controversy.
Windtalkers [John Woo, 2002]
This film must have been such a letdown, to literally everyone who saw it — on a Phantom Menace or Seinfeld-finale level of disappointment — for it to be such a flop, because up until its release it looked like a combination of all the best elements of Saving Private Ryan and Dances With Wolves.
A Man Apart [F. Gary Gray, 2003]
Maybe it wasn’t so much the trailer as the fact that this movie probably had more promotion on my college campus [posters, postcards, one-sheets slipped into the college newspaper] than any other movie ever. Maybe more than any thing ever. More than Vault soda, Wiz Khalifa, and the Steel City Derby Demons put together.
Hollywoodland [Allen Coulter, 2006]
What happened? Was this ever released? Or did they just play trailers for it for years at the Squirrel Hill theaters to put us in a glamorous Hollywood mood?
Waist Deep [Vondie Curtis-Hall, 2006]
The trailer I saw for Waist Deep made it look more like Training Day or Donnie Brasco than a formulaic project starring someone who became famous before he became an actor [albeit someone who impressed a lot of critics in Baby Boy]. I remember thinking “Wow, Tyrese is taking on an ambitious project here. Looks interesting.” They must have designed that particular trailer wrong, because it turned out it was supposed to be marketed to the audience for Cradle 2 the Grave and Never Die Alone. Maybe it’s a good movie, I’m still curious.
The Story of Us [Rob Reiner, 1999]
This wasn’t what every adult wanted to see? As a 16-year-old I was shocked.
A Smile Like Yours [Keith Samples, 1997]
I was under the impression that My Life, in which a terminally ill Michael Keaton, under the guidance of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, makes videos for his unborn child, was one of the seminal films of the nineties, and this looked just like that, but without all the cancer. Now I’m wondering what movie I was watching that A Smile Like Yours was one of the trailers. Jack, maybe.
Woman on Top [Fina Torres, 2000]
So, it’s like Like Water For Chocolate, but sexier, about Brazilian people, in English, involving some glamorous settings, and starring Penelope Cruz. It even got good reviews. And how can you ignore that title? But it did worse than Picture Perfect or Sliding Doors. Maybe people just refused to believe it was in English. Cruz needed to have Courteney Cox as her sassy friend or something.
Dragonfly [Tom Shadyac, 2002]
I have never had any idea what this movie is about, but the trailer was edited really, really well and it looked like it was from about two years in the future. The same can be said about The Glass House starring Leelee Sobieski, and The Minus Man starring Owen Wilson.
Perfect Stranger [James Foley, 2007]
This might be the present century’s most intriguing, cool, snazzy trailer for a Hollywood movie. Trying too hard to be stylish, and yet committing entirely to one brand of stylishness in an admirable way, I was looking forward to being immersed in this movie. THEN it revealed that yes, it had Bruce Willis and Halle Berry in it. Oh, wow. There is no way this will be less popular than, say, Kiss The Girls.
Secondhand Lions [Tim McCanlies, 2003]
The music swelled, and then it swelled again, and there was laughter, and there were reminiscences, and we saw that the little boy we loved from those other movies was growing up, and the Michael Caine we loved from all those movies where he shot people was accepting his grandfatherliness. This just looked like the most epic family movie ever made, a whole evolutionary level above Fly Away Home. It looks like it did make a profit, but is it anyone’s favorite film?
Note: Jack starred Jennifer Lopez, Fran Drescher, and Bill Cosby. I don’t remember any of that.
Note: The film whose trailer instilled the most confidence in its inevitable failure? Aside from the obvious correct answer, candidates include What Planet Are You From?, Lucky Numbers, Mr. Woodcock, about 50 other misbegotten comedies, and Surrogates.
* Stephan Elliott also directed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Welcome to Woop Woop, which was one of the worst movies I’ve ever watched with my dad.
Conclusion: if Bruce Willis is in it, and I think it will be a hit, it won’t.
Aside from that, are there any patterns here?
And I wonder if most others experience this…having a strong feeling that the movie will be one thing, and then wondering how you ever got that impression.