Movie Trailers: Bad Previews and the Misrepresentation of Films

movie trailers philomenaRemember that great line from Shakespeare’s King Lear that opines: “The worst is not. So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’”?

It’s not true.

I recently attended a showing of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) in New York’s Times Square where a nearly uncountable number of loud, obnoxious previews appeared before the movie started. These trailers were coupled with commercials and the usual cinematic pleas to turn off cell phones and enjoy the expensive refreshments provided by the concessions areas – making the wait even longer for the feature film.

Surprisingly, the audience didn’t groan in agony. In fact, everyone was quite patient. Most people were quiet.

I was not one of them.

I’ve elaborated in the past about my predilection for talking during movies. I haven’t suggested that my right to do so is any more enhanced by the proliferation of previews prior to the picture’s appearance. But it should be. I don’t hesitate to give a thumb’s down to any snippet that rubs me the wrong way while vocalising my displeasure. I did that during the preliminaries to Guardians of the Galaxy. Showing no fear, I just said no to those pooey previews.

What I couldn’t do, however, was transform them into clips that were worth watching.

I’ve been lamenting what’s become of the trailer for a while now – at least internally. My wife has heard a lot about it. This is not to say that I find the previews of yore any more appealing; Turner Classic Movies (TCM) often finds and shows vintage ones prior to their main events, and they’re invariably as quaint and ridiculous as today’s are abrasive. Still, one thing they didn’t do as much was misrepresent motion pictures, and that’s one of the issues that disturbs me most about today’s current harvest. There’s a tendency to suggest, in the preview, that a film is something else than what it actually is, and that’s a big problem.

The most offensive examples of this in recent memory to me are the clips advertising Philomena (2013), Stephen Frears’ sad, only semi-triumphant account of a woman who embarks on a search to find her lost son, whom she gave up years earlier for adoption. I remember the previews vividly: They focused on the charming, quirky nature of the film, homing in on the title character’s bemusement at the size of American portions, as well as her colleague’s admission that he’d actually met her son some time ago. These snippets were cute, wholesome, disarming, even sentimental. And entirely different from what the film turned out to be: dark and upsetting, an indictment of a controversial practice that occurred in the middle of the last century during which babies were taken from new mothers at a convent and sent away – with more of a scolding for the “transgressors” than consoling.

movie trailers guardian of the galaxyI went into the picture expecting the movie suggested by the preview. It couldn’t have been more off the mark.

There’s a marketing-slash-business point to trailers, and movie theatres probably couldn’t do without them. I gather some people like them as well. They’re part of our cultural fabric, an inextricable swath of our cinema heritage, and they sufficiently tout upcoming films to captive audiences. Yet they shouldn’t be saying one thing when the pictures deliver another. That’s an issue, and it should be corrected. It’s bound to cause a lot of disappointment, and possibly more, if it continues on this path of misrepresentation.

I don’t like how loud trailers have become or how sharply edited they are. I don’t like that they’re all advertised like “action” movies regardless of their genres. I don’t like how they use music from un-cited sources to pitch an unrelated film. I mean, how many times can you use Verdi’s Requiem in a preview, huh?

But worst of all is claiming a movie’s this or that when it’s actually something else. It’s akin to lying, and it lessens credibility. Do the studios really want that?

They may not care. We are captive audiences, anyway, and no one’s going to revolt in a theatre against a trailer that doesn’t do a picture a solid. You gotta wonder, however, if the powers that be do care about audience attendance and whether a plethora of putrid previews plus ads – coupled with upwards of 15 bucks for the price of just one ticket – could lead to viewers staying home. Recent numbers from Box Office Mojo may not suggest that this is exactly the reason, but they do speak to something: In August 2014, total grosses reached $655.4 million versus $841.4 million during the same period the previous year (at time of publication). That’s something, and even a big hit such as Guardians of the Galaxy hasn’t made up the difference … yet.

I’m not saying people are sick of previews, nor am I saying they’re automatically a bad thing. I do think, however, that they need to be better crafted to hold audiences’ attention and deliver the right goods. They can’t just say what the studios want them to say. They should say what the movies need them to say. Otherwise, people will just brush them off and find new reasons to watch on-demand flicks from their sofas.

We’ve come to the nadir already where previews are concerned. This is the worst. They can only get better, right?


Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

11 thoughts on “Movie Trailers: Bad Previews and the Misrepresentation of Films

  1. Awful trailers are one of the main reasons I very rarely go to see movies in the theater anymore. The trailers themselves are terrible, but the movies they pitch to you look absolutely fulsome, and all seem the same. Regardless of what film you’re there to see, during the 37 minute trailer orgy, you are guaranteed to see the following things: a knobby CGI monster destroying a skyscraper; a superhero leaping off a building (at night) followed by an explosion; someone dodging machine-gun bullets in slow motion; Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson saying something boorish and getting slapped by a woman; bizarrely androgynous animated Pixar characters gaping with vacant expressions at something unfunny that was just said by an anthropomorphic animal; and a butch action hero in body armor slinging a machine gun the size of a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher and saying something like, “We’ve got to DESTROY it!” Virtually all of these trailers make me certain to avoid the movies they’re advertising, so the trailers are in fact accomplishing the exact opposite of what the studio hopes they will do. There’s a name for this in advertising–when an ad for a product actually turns you against the product and causes you to avoid it–I can’t remember what it is, but the vast majority of trailers I see these days do it.

  2. My main issue with trailers for any film these days is, like Andrew, how much they ‘give away’. It seems that the companies are determined to show all the ‘best bits’ crammed into the trailer. By the time you have actually sat through the film, you realise that anything worth seeing was already in the preview. And they don’t seem to care about spoliers either, happy to literally reveal the ending at times.
    As I watch most films on DVD these days, I am fortunate to be able to skip through most of this stuff, but I agree that they are often misleading, and show films in a very different light on occasion.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Agreed, Pete — that’s definitely a problem. It’s amazing how many trailers can be stuffed into a DVD as well. We just got The Lunchbox on Netflix, and there must have been at least four or five previews on it. They weren’t all interesting, either. Sigh.

  3. There’s another trend in trailers which I disagree with in the ones that show far, far too much of the film. Prometheus was certainly guilty of this as it showed every single key beat from the movie including the finale. Recently The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also fell foul to that when every single surprise was revealed in the trailers. I wonder if critics may not have been so harsh on the film (which I thought was very underrated if a little scatty) had they not been shown the entire story before they went into the film.

    • I certainly agree with you, Andrew, that this is another big issue. I actually thought that was a problem with Philomena — that the entire plot of the movie was given away in the trailer. The film was quite different, to say the least. Even the advertising shown near the top of this article for the film seems to support a light comedy. But I do think in cases where the plot may not be all that complex or surprising, such as Prometheus, there is a problem with giving everything away.

  4. I saw two trailers for Withnail and I on its first release, very different in tone. The first was closer to the movie’s mood, emphasising the ‘comedy’ in dark comedy. The second… oh, my. Depressing is putting it mildly. ‘See it last thing before you suicide’ was the unspoken catchphrase.

  5. The rule of thumb, around here at least, is six trailers and 20 minutes at the multiplex and three trailers and 10 minutes in the art houses. I plan my arrival accordingly.

    I remember the much discussed shift in the trailers for Jerry McGuire. The original ones focused on Tom Cruise and football. But shortly before the movie opened, you began seeing trailers in which Renee Zellweger just talked about this great guy she had met. The trailer went from presenting a guy sports movie to a chick flick romance almost overnight.

    • Interesting, isn’t it, Jon? It’s further proof that these trailers can be adapted to suit — supposedly — various markets. I just wish they were tailored more to represent the films they purport to represent better.

  6. Interesting that you would talk about the trailers before “The Guardians Of The Galaxy”, because I think that film had very poor trailers. Based on the ad campaigns, my roommate and I had decided not to see it. It was only because of reviews from film buffs that we know personally that we changed our minds.

    The promotions had led me to expect a crude comedy–kind of a “Hangover” in space, and I hate that kind of comedy. Instead, what I saw had funny moments, but also had an emotional warmth that surprised and pleased me, and which was not hinted at from the trailers.

    • I was surprised at Guardians of the Galaxy as well; there was a bit of warmth there, as you indicated, and even a touching moment toward the end involving Rocket and Groot. I felt like Galaxy missed a number of humorous opportunities, but it was light entertainment, and that was enough. I don’t remember the trailers to it, but I’m not surprised that they may have misrepresented the film.

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