The previews you see when you go to the movies are called trailers, but trai-liars might be closer to the mark. One man who makes them estimates most of them are lies.
Numbers like those probably won't surprise most movie-goers. St. Paul's Bob Connor, who goes to about 100 movies a year, says he has learned to take movie previews with a grain of salt. So he wasn't surprised when he went to "The Family Stone" last week and it wasn't the movie it appeared to be in its trailer.
"It's not that the movie wasn't funny. It was, but the trailer led you to believe 'The Family Stone' was a comedy," Connor says. "There are so many issues in the movie: same-sex relationships, multiracial things, adoption. Just a multitude of issues that were in the movie but that were not mentioned in the trailer."
Ironically, Connor and his wife, Nan, enjoyed "Family Stone" more than they had expected because it was richer than the slapsticky trailer suggested. Bob Connor has seen enough trailers to develop an inkling of what's going on: "I have the impression that Hollywood is sometimes afraid to be upfront in a trailer when they're going to talk about controversial subjects."
Bingo, says Greg Harrison, a filmmaker (his "November" was just released on DVD) who makes his living putting together trailers for CMP Film and Design, one of three companies responsible for assembling most of the trailers we see. According to Harrison, when movie studios make a trailer, particularly for a movie that doesn't quite hit its mark, the rule is: Don't advertise the movie you have. Advertise the movie you wish you had.
"Rarely do I work with studio marketing departments who are happy with the movie they have to sell. Usually, it's, 'Oh. We have this piece of garbage? How are we going to save it? How are we going to cut a trailer to sell it?'" says Harrison, who estimates 75 percent of the trailers we see are not accurate reflections of the movies they sell.
Little white lies
That can range from little white lies (trailers for musicals often don't show characters singing and trailers for foreign films often don't show characters talking because that might turn off moviegoers who don't like musicals or foreign films) to the frequent complaint that trailers sometimes show scenes that are not in the finished film
The current "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," for instance, includes a couple such moments. But that's not necessarily an attempt to deceive. Trailers are almost always assembled before the movie is completed (there's a trailer in theaters now for "Dreamgirls," a movie that hasn't begun shooting), so it's often impossible to know what will make it into the movie.
When Harrison - whose trailers include "Napoleon Dynamite," "Bend It Like Beckham" and the upcoming Outkast film, "My Life in Idlewild" - goes to work, he is sent a rough copy of the film or, in some cases, several key scenes. He edits that down into a couple of dozen character-defining moments, arresting visuals or snappy jokes.
Having culled the highlights from the movie, Harrison then meets with the film's producers to discuss who the movie is meant to appeal to - the answer is usually "teenaged boys," since that's the most faithful moviegoing demographic - and he edits the trailer with that audience in mind.
"My tendency is to try to withhold some information," Harrison says. "But throughout the revision process, the input is usually to give away more and more of the story. Each studio is different, though. Disney, which I've worked with a lot, defines 'word-of-mouth' as the ability of one person who has seen the trailer to tell another person exactly what the movie is about. So Disney trailers, you'll notice, tend to be very preoccupied with narrative."
In general, Harrison says movie trailers err more on the side of giving away too much than too little: "The studios don't want the reaction to be, 'Oh, that was cool. I wonder what the movie is about.' They want, 'Oh, I get it. That's what I'll see when I see that movie.'"
Since studios perceive that movie audiences like broad comedy, action and big stars, those are the things you're most likely to see in trailers. Director Chris Terrio - who characterizes his movie from last summer, "Heights," as a drama in the vein of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" - was dismayed the film's trailer made it look like a romantic comedy a la "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days."
"The guy who cut the trailer was just doing his job," Terrio says. "I think he thought, 'Let's make this movie seem a little friendlier to audiences.' "
Leave the director out of it
That approach can backfire if a movie is aimed at an audience that likes more complexity than "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." For instance, Nan Connor says the trailer for "Skeleton Key" almost turned her off because it emphasized the horror elements of the movie (which appeal to teenagers), but the movie was much more complex than the trailer suggested.
"I don't like that horror genre," says Nan, "but I really liked the movie. It was more of a mystery, more suspenseful."
One way to make trailers more representative of the movies they advertise would be to have the director make the trailer. But that rarely happens. Even Harrison, who is both a director and a trailer-maker, doesn't do his own movies: "Rule No. 1 is that you never let a director cut his own trailer. It's a known fact in the trailer industry. The mindset is too different - directors can't pick up the pacing of the story to make it work in a trailer."
Director Ang Lee, who hates almost all the trailers for his movies, agrees. "You craft your movie so that it plays out over two hours, then the trailer does it in two minutes. The studio's job is to get people into the theaters any way they can, and sometimes they do that by giving away too much or by misleading the audience," says Lee, who thinks the trailer for his film "The Hulk" misled moviegoers by not mimicking his character-based approach to the story.
On the other hand, he thinks the trailer for his current film, "Brokeback Mountain," is "very honest. It gives you a sense of what the movie is about."
Which is what Nan Connor says audiences want: "I like trailers like the one for the Johnny Cash movie ('Walk the Line'). That, in itself, was an entertainment mini-event. It was entertaining, it gave me the whole picture of the movie, but it didn't give away too much."