Teasing moviegoers: Sometimes the movie trailer says too much

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Should moviegoers be teased or spoiled?

That's the question facing studio marketers who decide how much to reveal in trailers.

Some fans complain that commercials, like one for the new thriller ''Changing Lanes,'' give away too many plot twists and amount to condensed versions of the films they promote.

Studios counter that the practice often results in box-office success.

The ''Cast Away'' trailer revealed how Tom Hanks escaped from the island. The ''Double Jeopardy'' spot showed Ashley Judd discovering her missing husband in the film's climax.

Promos for ''Serendipity'' included footage of star-crossed John Cusack finding his long lost love's phone number in an old book.

''I think these spoilers come from insecurity over the product and the heavy demands put on studios to generate a strong return. ... They think the only way to draw an audience is by giving everything away,'' said Evelyn Brady, a Los Angeles advertising executive who created the Golden Trailer awards three years ago to honor the best movie commercials.

She has a personal gripe with the trailer for last summer's ''Captain Corelli's Mandolin,'' which sets up Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz as World War II enemies -- only to reveal scenes of them falling in love.

''Watching that, I said: 'What am I going to buy the ticket for? I've just seen the whole movie,''' Brady recalled. ''I think it's far better to tease and taunt and not give those crucial plot points away.''

Regardless of whether a surprise ending is kept under wraps, critics say outlining large parts of a story's buildup in trailers can sap a film of its drama.

Consider the trailer for ''Changing Lanes,'' in which Samuel L. Jackson is a desperate father heading to a family court hearing and Ben Affleck is an arrogant attorney sent to deliver a secret file on deadline.

The strangers meet when they crash their cars into each other on a New York expressway. Jackson is stranded and about to miss his court appearance, but Affleck refuses to give him a ride. As Affleck speeds away, he accidentally leaves his file behind. Jackson retrieves it, and blackmail ensues.

In case that wasn't enough to attract audiences to the movie, Paramount included other scenes from the feud, including Affleck hiring a computer hacker to bankrupt Jackson. Then Jackson starts threatening to destroy pages of the document, and Affleck attempts to withdraw his interference with Jackson's credit file. After he learns it's too late, the ad shows Jackson getting his revenge by sabotaging Affleck's car and causing a major traffic accident.

The trailer ends there, but has it already given away too many surprises?

Paramount executives refused to comment on their marketing strategy for ''Changing Lanes,'' but veteran trailer producers and even some directors say spoilers are a necessary evil.

''Cast Away'' director Robert Zemeckis has compared coming attractions that give away a lot to McDonald's fast food, saying both are successful because most consumers prefer to know in advance what they're buying.

Studios often prepare two versions of the same trailer -- one that gives away a lot of detail, and another that shows exciting shots but little plot, said Philip R. Daccord, a trailer editor at the advertising firm Giaronomo Productions.

''When the studio tests them in front of an audience, the one with the whole kitchen sink tends to test better than the one that only teases,'' he said. ''So if people say they're more likely to see the movie because of that trailer, logic dictates that's the one you go with.''

Some major films that withheld much of their plots from advertisements suffered disappointing box office returns, suggesting audiences were not given enough material to pique their interest.

Commercials for Steven Spielberg's ''A.I. Artificial Intelligence'' teased with images from its robot-boy tale with virtually no plot revealed at all. Stanley Kubrick's ''Eyes Wide Shut'' teased with only a sultry kiss between Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, but the movie was more about loneliness and mistrust than sex.

And the trailers for Cruise's ''Vanilla Sky,'' promoted it as a romantic drama and avoided allusions to its time/space-twisting conclusion -- an unexpected ending that annoyed some moviegoers.

Some directors withhold elements of their films to make sure climactic details aren't revealed. For instance, ''Seven'' director David Fincher refused to give trailer producers any scene from the final act of that 1995 thriller, which made the identity of the serial killer a surprise to moviegoers.

Other times, a film is shot on a tight deadline and trailer-makers set to work before it's finished. In those cases, marketers assemble the coming attraction from whatever completed footage they have, even if those clips spoil some of the story.

The Directors Guild of America says most filmmakers have no control of trailers for their films, although those with clout, like Spielberg and Zemeckis, tend to enjoy boundless control.

In one recent case, however, the little-known director of the Oscar-nominated drama ''In the Bedroom,'' persuaded Miramax Pictures to protect his movie's twists from being undermined by the trailer.

''In the Bedroom,'' about the divisive parents of a young man whose new lover has a violent ex-husband, begins as a love story but changes course violently.

Director Todd Field wanted that to remain a surprise, so Miramax released a trailer that alluded to an unspecified tragedy while focusing on the ensuing tension between the parents.

The result was a non-spoiler trailer that Miramax still credits for helping push the $2 million film toward its $34.5 million box-office take.

Marketers insist, however, that a good film satisfies an audience no matter how much plot those viewers know ahead of time.

''It's a complaint we've heard for years and years,'' Daccord said.

''But if I could really give away a whole movie in 2 1/2 minutes, there can't be a lot there to begin with.''

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