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Coming Distractions 

Movie trailers create their own buzz

In a world where bad forever tries to pass as good. . .where the forces of commerce clash with the dreams of art. . .where films are more expensive than ever and sink or swim based on their opening weekend grosses. . .only one thing stands between innocent moviegoers and cinematic crap: The Trailer! It's a post-modern occurrence that movie trailers, the advertising meant to herald new or upcoming motion pictures, have themselves become noteworthy events. Trailers are made by their own production houses, analyzed with their own news coverage and compiled on their own websites like www.movie-list.com. There's even a weekly television show called Coming Attractions on E! that previews, of all things, movie previews.

Some trailers actually prove to be their own draw for the ticket-buying public. In November 1998, portions of the audiences at The Waterboy and Meet Joe Black had no interest in seeing Adam Sandler play football or Brad Pitt play Death but instead wanted to witness the onscreen debut of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Some theaters reported that as much as 75 percent of their audiences walked out when the trailer was over.

"I spent $4.75 to see the same trailer twice," admitted one movie fan. "I saw the trailer before The Waterboy, then ran to another screen to see it again before Meet Joe Black -- and I wasn't the only person to do it. After the trailer was over the first time, all of us got up and left the theater. I ran through the lobby with at least 20 people to catch another showing."

Similar phenomena have accompanied The Lord of the Rings. In April 2000, when New Line posted the film's first Internet trailer -- a combination of clips and behind-the-scenes material -- it was downloaded by 1.7 million people (a figure hyped as being "more than any other film marketing footage in history"). When the final, full-length trailer of The Fellowship of the Rings was unveiled during the September 24 premiere of the WB series Angel, you literally couldn't tell if the TV show was being used to promote the movie trailer, or vice versa.

Trailers date back to the 1910s, and the term has become a misnomer, as they originated with movie serials, which would show snippets of the upcoming chapter at the end of the main feature. Now they precede movies, announced by the words "The following preview has been approved for all audiences..." against the now-familiar green background. (Those rare trailers for "Restricted Audiences" have a salacious red background.) Since "preview" also refers to advance screenings of a film before its release, purists prefer "trailer." There's even a sub-genre of trailers: the "teaser," 60- to 90-second trailers released several months, or even a year or more, before the film itself.

The universal complaint about movie trailers is that they give away too much plot, and that gripe is fully justified. Partly, the problem comes from increasing movie costs and the urge to "put the money on the screen" for prospective exhibitors and audiences. And as trailer editors emulate the MTV style of shorter scenes and faster cuts, more of the movie is shown, often building to an orgiastic montage of clips, climaxing with the title.

Trailers that give away the store routinely defy the laws of economics. The Fast and the Furious displayed that film's money shots, and Cast Away -- maddeningly -- revealed that shipwrecked Tom Hanks returned to civilization by the film's end. But that didn't prevent either film from being a huge hit.

All trailers want your money and are thus as compromised as any form of advertising. But occasionally, they can be trusted to reveal the truth about the films they hype -- if you know what to look for. Audiences who prefer not to be spoiled by trailers should avoid them altogether, but they can warn you of bad films that look good. One question to ask is, "Is anything in this trailer actually funny?" The now-forgotten The Road to Wellville, for instance, initially seemed promising, with a talented cast (Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick) and an original setting. But subsequent viewings of the trailer confirmed that all of its jokes were scatological and not very clever, aptly foreshadowing the film itself. On the other hand, the witty dialogue in High Fidelity's trailer anticipated that film's clever script. A lot of comedies have at least one decent line, but if a trailer doesn't have any, stay away.

A useful rule of thumb is that the more editing there is in the trailer, the worse the movie is likely to be. Trailers that show a few or even a single scene are confident in their own product. Ones that assault you with a flurry of images that pass so quickly you can scarcely register any one in particular are to be approached with skepticism. An example is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider's trailer, which showed so little entertainment value it ended up as a kind of camouflage, designed more to disguise flaws than display virtues.

Typically, the more songs in the trailer, the less promising the movie. Hear more than four, and the movie's likely to be dreadful, especially if they're all Motown songs in a movie about white people. Also, beware of trailers that fall back on overused tunes, like James Brown's ubiquitous "I Feel Good" or the operatic strains of "Carmina Burana" -- the latter of which is a bad portent for Martin Scorsese's upcoming Gangs of New York.

Trailers that emphasize one or two songs or pieces of music (or, in the case of The Blair Witch Project, no music at all) can make more of an impression. Ghost World's trailer recut the film's opening credits scene with Thora Birch dancing by herself to a kitschy Indian rock musical. It establishes a great deal about the sensibility of the film and the character both (and even makes you want to see the Indian movie). The Lion King got considerable mileage from a shortened version of its introductory number "Circle of Life."

Animated features can be highly effective as introductory teasers. The trailer for next year's Ice Age plays like a self-contained cartoon, with almost no music accompanying a squirrel's attempt to outrun an avalanche. And Monsters, Inc. has a charming teaser introducing the creatures' voices by Billy Crystal and John Goodman.

Some filmmakers appreciate the extent to which the trailer is part of the moviegoing process and play a role in its creation. "I consider [the trailer] an extension of my movie," Paul Thomas Anderson, director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, has said. "I consider it the first look at my movie. It's going to inform how you feel about my movie... It's my job to shoot it, it's my job to cut it, it's my job to mix it, and everything else."

Saying "the trailers are more inventive than the films" isn't always a joke. The most memorable part of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves -- the flying arrow-cam -- was shot and developed for the trailer. It went over so well, it was incorporated into the movie. And more people probably remember the stinger of the Twister teaser -- the truck tire that flies into the audience's face -- than anything from the film's final cut. But some studios occasionally shoot footage solely intended for the trailer, like the museum skeleton of a T-Rex stomped by a giant foot anticipating Godzilla, or a giant spider web snagging a bank robber's helicopter for Spider-Man (which was pulled for its inclusion of images of the World Trade Center towers).

Movie marketing has found a new frontier on the Internet, where it can target fans who are better informed about the making and marketing of films than the average moviegoer. "Insider" sites like www.aintitcool.com weigh in on every minor development in a film's journey from conception to opening weekend, including the debuts of new previews. Trailers particularly suit the online environment, being short enough to download relatively quickly. Now studios create specialized trailers for the Internet, like an early one for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, cut to emphasize the in-jokes aimed at Kevin Smith's online audience.

Expect future trailers to hype next summer's Spider-Man and the subsequent Rings and Star Wars movies, with the ones for the Matrix sequels to kick up the biggest fuss. The movies may ultimately disappoint, but a good trailer, holding out the promise of cinematic perfection, never lets us down. *

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