Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Unbecoming attractions

Last time I submitted that Hollywood had figured out that people were more likely to shell out bucks for a movie if they somehow had some sense of having seen it already. After all, such mega-blockbusters as Titanic and Star Wars really have made lots of their money from people who have actually seen those films before. In fact, many times before. Repeat business is where it’s at. And if you haven’t made a movie that teenagers and cult fans keep flocking back to, then the next best thing is to make a movie that lots of people subliminally feel they have seen already so that there’s no sense of risk involved. (The antithesis to this “average” sort of movie consumer is the film fanatic who plonks down 25 dollars for a pass to the Secret Festival at the Seattle International Film Festival and stands in line, often in the rain, for hours early on a Sunday morning to see a movie that he or she has absolutely no idea what it is and which he or she can’t discuss with anyone afterwards.)

All of the make-you-think-you’ve-seen-a-new-movie-before ploys I enumerated last time involved adapting various source materials, in many cases other movies. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Tales have been recycled and reworked from generation to generation since the invention of speech. And, sure we know that sequels and remakes are almost never as good as the original, but sometimes they are (e.g. Superman II, Godfather II).

But for the past few years I have gone into movies with a very definite sense that I have seen them before even though I haven’t. The reason? I love watching movie trailers. I always make sure that I arrive at the cinema on time, so that I can watch them all. At home, when I fast-forward through TV commercials, I will stop and watch any movie trailers I spot. So, I guess I ask for it. But movie trailers used to be more teasers than tattles. They used to whet your appetite to see a film while still leaving lots of questions in your mind. You went to a movie because of what you didn’t know about it.

I first noticed a different trend around 1993 when I happened to catch the trailer for Free Willy. We watched as young Jason James Richter made friends with Willy the whale. We saw lots of scenes of them cavorting and then Richter screaming, “Willy’s in danger!” Then we watched as Willy got saved (hope I’m not ruining this for anybody) followed by a moving scene of the boy and Willy hugging (well, to the extent that a human and a whale can hug). I sat dumbfounded, and the guy in the row behind me asked aloud, “So, what’s the point of seeing the movie?” I couldn’t have put it better.

Since then, things have only gotten worse. I have ranted about this before (cf. Men in Black, Wonder Boys). Moments that would have made nice surprises are living in your head from the minute the lights go down and you sit there waiting for them. Is this where they kiss? So when does he go over the cliff? Did they forget the part with the car crash? No wait, there it is.

It’s not right!

Sometimes we are delightfully surprised. Sometimes we go into a movie thinking we have a pretty good idea how it is going to go, and then we find that everything in the trailer happens in the first ten minutes of the movie and that we don’t have a clue where it’s going to go from there. I had something like that experience with Oscar and Lucinda, which was a real treat. But then that was an Australian film that played U.S. art houses, so not that many people were going to see it anyway.

Sometimes, though, even a high-profile American film that has employed trailer saturation can provide a surprise. Take Erin Brockovich. I saw that trailer over and over for weeks in the States. Then, as soon as it opened here, I went to Ireland and saw the trailer for a few weeks more before it opened there. Sure, that trailer gave a pretty good idea of the plot, but at least it left a few details to be filled in. The biggest surprise, however, was the way that much of the key dialog included in the trailer was dubbed differently. Most notable was the scene where Julia Roberts sarcastically describes performing hundreds of “sexual favors” to get plaintiffs’ signatures. The trailer included a PG rendition, probably intended for the eventual TV broadcast. In the theatrical version of that scene, we are treated to a more clinical description of exactly what those “sexual favors” were. So I guess Hollywood movie trailers aren’t taking all of the surprises out of our movie-going experience.

-S.L., 11 May 2000

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