This week’s question comes from reader Mica Hilson:
Suicide Squad made tons of money, in part due to a well-received trailer that—by most accounts—is tonally different and much better than the actual film. What trailer or advertising led you to watch a film or TV show (or music single led you to an album), only to find that you’d been bait-and-switched? (My answer is Inherent Vice as a comedy; I laughed more at the two-minute trailer than I did during the whole two-and-a-half-hour movie).
Crimson Peak is not a perfect film, and I wasn’t as high on it as some other reviewers were. But I maintain that the film was never really given a chance at the box office, not because of reviewers, but thanks to its own marketing materials. Trailers for Crimson Peak sold the film as a blood-chilling ghost story in the vein of director Guillermo Del Toro’s earlier film The Devil’s Backbone, when really, in the film itself, the ghosts were more of a tragic metaphor than a source of visceral fright. So the horror fans who came in expecting to be scared went away disappointed, and the romance lovers who otherwise would have reveled in its lush imagery and extravagant Victorian costuming stayed away. It probably wouldn’t have been a blockbuster either way—Gothic romance is a little too specific of a reference point for that—but at least it would have gotten viewers who really appreciated it.
Boy, was I ever excited to see Erik The Viking after first watching the preview. Being a young fan of Monty Python and Dungeons & Dragons, it looked like it was tailor-made for me: A Terry Jones movie with the sour chunks of fatalism strained out; a farcical and hilarious romp through Norse myth that also had super-badass-looking guys in horse-skull helmets. As it is, Erik The Viking wasn’t tailor-made for anybody. The movie stars Tim Robbins as a Viking who decides he just isn’t into the raping and pillaging requirements of the job, and instead embarks on a quest to save the world from Ragnarok. It’s tonally all over the place, a strange patchwork of philosophical noodling and goofy set pieces. Sure, it has funny parts, but they’re interspersed between slightly surreal ruminations on identity, obligation, faith, and the fundamental nihilism of violence. Watching it again as an adult, I’m much more appreciative of the movie. It’s always refreshing to see something that defies easy compartmentalization. As a kid, I was mostly baffled.
Revisiting it today, the trailer for From Dusk Till Dawn makes its intentions clear. But back in 1996, when trailers weren’t on the internet, all I heard was “Quentin Tarantino script, Robert Rodriguez director, George Clooney, Harvey Keitel.” I also knew Clooney and co-star (ugh) Tarantino were outlaws on the run with a pair of hostages (Keitel and Juliette Lewis). Somehow lost on me—and I swear I don’t remember this in the trailer—was the left turn From Dusk Till Dawn makes into a grisly horror movie, where Clooney et al. battle vampires in a seedy bar. In retrospect, it’s a clear antecedent to the Grindhouse project Rodriguez and Tarantino (among others) did a decade later, but I spent much of From Dusk Till Dawn looking at everything but the screen. I had little tolerance for horror or gore at the time, which made for a long night. I’m much more a fan of the former these days, but rewatching the trailer now, I still don’t have any desire to revisit it.
Inglourious Basterds has become one of my favorite Quentin Tarantino films, but when I saw it for the first time, I left the theater completely baffled and disappointed. Some of the credit for my initial reaction has to go to the chatty octogenarians who sat in front of me and decimated the tension on which Basterds thrives. The other culprit, I suspect, was the film’s marketing campaign, which had me all hyped up for a bloody, action-packed World War II romp. So when the majority of the film turned out to be prolonged conversations, punctuated with tiny spurts of that promised violence, I was mystified. In the end, it is a Tarantino movie, so I’m kind of an idiot for expecting anything else; but I must admit, those rascally Weinsteins really did pull one over on me. With my expectations adjusted and no senior citizens to distract me, my love for the film has grown with every subsequent viewing.
I saw a lot of movies in the theater during the Chicago heat wave of 2012, including The Avengers a few times, just to enjoy the air conditioning. I dragged my pair of 6-year-olds along because, hey, PG-13 means different things to different people. While my parental choice to take the kids to see the superhero blockbuster may have been questionable (even though Hulk punching Thor never failed to crack us up), I had no qualms about going to see Brave. The trailer made it look like an empowering story about a Scottish girl who would rather be a hero than a princess. What a great message for the kids, right? Wrong. Brave in the inside of that air-cooled theater was nothing but menacing and scary. The plot’s main twist terrified my kids, as did the frequent creepy magic spells. Plus the movie overall was so physically dark, sometimes it was hard to tell who was what in the forest and which bear was who and meh. Wanted a feminist fairy tale, wound up with a mothering parable that actually means more to me now than it did then, but Brave was a resounding disappointment on first watch. We should have just seen The Avengers again.
I wasn’t always such an attentive fan of the Fast & Furious franchise. I liked the first one well enough, hated the second, and skipped the third. But then the trailer for the fourth-entry Fast & Furious showed off what looked like an impressively amped-up array of new stunts and chases that, along with the tag “New Model. Original Parts,” (boasting of the return of the first film’s central four characters), got me excited again. So I ran out to see the movie opening weekend, and while it does have those original parts and a couple of decent action sequences, I felt burned. This was, essentially, just one more cops-versus-drug-dealers street-racing movie with tons of boring parts, not the crazy car-chase spectacular I felt I’d been promised. When the spectacular trailer for Fast Five made the rounds and enticed me again, I muttered to myself, “Every damn time,” assuming I’d be tricked again. But then the series started delivering, just in time to restore my faith in the dark art of movie trailers.
What do you do if you’re a movie studio marketing department suddenly tasked with selling a grisly horror movie about people being savaged by giant (but still darn-adorable) bunnies to the American moviegoing public? If it’s 1972 and you’re MGM, you slap it with a scientific-sounding new title, crop every clear shot of your “monsters” out of the trailer, and pray for the best. That’s the case with Night Of The Lepus (a.k.a. Rabbits), a movie I’ve only really seen in bits and pieces. (But what bits! What pieces! You haven’t lived until you’ve seen these floppy-eared man-eaters bouncing in slow-motion around their miniature city set.) The movie’s trailer though, is a breathtaking, almost heroic work of cinematic mendacity, focusing entirely on the film’s grim-faced cast and the (admittedly kind of creepy) close-up shot of a rabbit’s beady eye. I just wish I could have been there for the movie’s opening night, when horror-loving audiences found out that they’d signed on for a fake-blood-drenched film adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit books.
While I didn’t love The Grey, I’m still impressed by how thoroughly the marketing campaign managed to fool me into seeing it—and, even more impressive, how the movie actually turned out to be better than the movie I was expecting. The trailer, which leaned heavily into Liam Neeson’s Taken image as a badass who can take on all comers, seemed to be setting up a survival story about guys who survive a plane crash and end up fighting a bunch of wolves. That’s technically what happens, but in practice it’s a lot less wolf punching (a lot less), and a lot more “dudes sitting around a campfire discussing their lives, and dying one by one.” The Grey is contemplative almost to a fault, and while its exploration of masculinity isn’t as deep or as original as I might’ve liked, I love that someone even tried to make a movie like this, something so clearly allegorical and unwilling to give audiences an easy way out.
The Cabin In The Woods, if known only by its trailer, would be an excellent film. There are a few things a horror trailer can include that give me hope the film will actually be good and I will enjoy it. The most hope-inspiring is a few better-known actors, (which The Cabin In The Woods finds in Chris Hemsworth and Jesse Williams), because that means even if the movie is a flop, the acting might get me through. But this trailer doesn’t stop there—it also touts the names of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, which in hindsight, appears to be another good sign. It even shows a little snippet reminiscent of the meta-horror in stellar movies like Scream when one character responds to his friend’s suggestion to split up (a surefire way to get killed, usually) with, “Really?” Alas, none of this matters, because as I’ve said before, The Cabin In The Woods is not a horror film. Instead, it’s some sort of comedy that lacks the pieces needed to elicit a reaction based on real fear.
I worked in video stores for decades, and the sheer balls of deceptive VHS and DVD marketing—from making the writerly, meditative Smoke look like a cozy, feel-good comedy (and excising the film’s two black leads entirely), to turning the indie slice-of-life drama Hellcab (original title: Chicago Cab) into a horror movie—always just baffled me. One, people who are attracted by the image will be pissed when they watch the actual movie. Two, nobody who’d like the movie will pick up a box marketed to another audience entirely. (The third thing is that my conscientious co-workers and I would actively dissuade people from taking home movies we knew they’d complain to us about.) But by far the most common practice was to simply slather boobs all over the place, and no box art was more egregious in that regard than the 1997 version of Fever Pitch. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s memoir about his lifelong soccer obsession, the film is a sweet, thoughtful movie about Colin Firth choosing a mature relationship over his sports fetish. The cover, instead of going for the Firth-loving rom-com crowd that would embrace it, suggests nothing but Soccer Boobs: The Movie. No mention of the film’s star, just a generic image of a guy ogling a faceless, topless lady with soccer cleats covering her breasts. (Tagline: “There’s more than one way to score!”) We finally just put a note on the box saying, “This is a good movie. Ignore the cover.”
There was once a time when it was a big deal for musicians to take a break from their primary creative outlet and do side projects, but the members of KISS fucked that up for everyone with their solo albums. As a result, labels started changing their marketing tactics and getting shadier with their efforts to sell these sorts of albums to the fans. So when Ben Folds and Caleb Southern released their lone album as Fear Of Pop in 1998, Sony spun the promotion to highlight Folds’ contributions, hyping William Shatner’s guest vocal on “Still In Love” with the Shatman performing live with Folds and Southern on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, even though the rest of the album sounded nothing like that. In Folds’ defense, he made a point of remarking of the album, “Once you’ve sold a million records, you’ve earned the right to experiment self-indulgently at the expense of your record company.” Too bad his record company wasn’t as vocal about spreading the word.
“They have a funny way of making you feel at home,” says the voiceover artist describing The Family Stone in the movie’s lengthy trailer. The thing is, there’s nothing funny about The Family Stone. It’s one of the darkest, most depressing entries in the “Christmas family mayhem” genre, and nearly every one of the characters is uptight, cruel, pretentious, or otherwise insufferable. But touting “the feel-bad movie of the holiday season” doesn’t fill the seats, hence the most intentionally misleading movie trailer I’ve ever seen. It starts out reasonably enough, with Everett (Dermot Mulroney) bringing girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his extended family, only for her rigid personality to clash with their free-spirited ways. All of those things happen in the movie—so far, so good. The trailer lays out the story in chronological order, but instead of following the movie’s hard left turns into doom, gloom, and social violence, it pretends the second and third acts basically don’t exist. Rather than sell the actual film, the trailer spackles over it with help from Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From,” a go-to needle drop for light comedies. The Family Stone is a really off-putting movie, so I get the bait and switch. I just wish I hadn’t personally fallen for it.
The clearest recent example I can think of is Hail, Caesar! The ads promise a fleet-footed farce about the kidnapping of a dimwitted Hollywood movie star in the 1950s. It looked to be one of the Coens’ lighter, bubblier productions, pitched somewhere between Intolerable Cruelty and The Hudsucker Proxy. The most prominent song in the trailer is the catchy, upbeat “Rumble And Sway” by Jamie N Commons. The movie is a lot slower, heavier, and more ponderous than I was expecting. Not that I felt ripped off, necessarily, but it wasn’t the movie I thought I was paying to see. Yeah, there’s a vain actor who gets kidnapped early in the proceedings. But the heart and soul of the movie is Josh Brolin’s character, a long-suffering executive who acts as a sort of stern-but-loving father figure to his entire studio. Clooney’s kidnapping is only one of his problems that day. I can imagine someone going to the movie on the basis of the trailer and then being baffled by Hail, Caesar!
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.