The Sunday Sermon

Biblically speaking, at least at the start of the Old Testament, too much knowledge is seen as A Bad Thing. Fall from grace, Adam’s first sin (or Eve’s: women, eh? Tch), that sort of thing. And then in the New Testament there’s a surfeit of knowledge: we get four Rashomon-like versions of the same story. Not one to belittle the central text of one of the world’s major religions, but film trailers can have this duality too. Too little information can be confusing; too much information rather gives the plot away to film-savvy audiences. And some information can be completely misread and a cinema-goer can go to see one film entirely expecting a different kind of film to the one she saw in the trailer, and then sue the distributor for misleading advertising. Like this woman did. After seeing a trailer for Drive she thought she was getting a film similar to the Fast and Furious franchise. Despite the fact that the trailer ends with Ryan Gosling’s character holding a bullet to a man’s head while holding a hammer in the other hand, and visibly shakes in stopping himself from following through with the inevitable action.

Trailers rarely get the balance between setting expectations and revealing information right. Teasers do exactly what they are meant to: whet the appetite for more. Normal trailers have become plot outlines. It was first really noticeable, among the relatively modern wave of films, with the Tim Robbins-starring film Antitrust. I never saw the film for I felt no reason to: the trailer revealed so much of the twisty-turny plot that either a) major plot points are revealed, or b) it all happens in the first 20 minutes which are densely packed that the rest of the film must be pathetically sparsely-plotted. Either way, it dissolved any and all desire to see the film. A more recent example was for the Sandra Bullock-starring The Proposal which appeared to reveal that the film did indeed follow all the expected plot beats of a standard unimaginative rom-com. I read once (although this could be urban legend) that Robert Zemeckis actively encourages plot point revelations in the trailers to his films. Which seems bizarre for a film-maker. Why desire for the story beats of your film to be known in a three minute trailer, when in the course of the film itself they will be far more effective?

Over-explanation is one thing. Misunderstanding is another. Films have been poorly-marketed in the past. Bridge to Terabithia was advertised on the back of the success of The Chronicles of Narnia: the special effects were similar, and the name in the title is a riff on a place that CS Lewis created. But the film itself is an entirely different experience. It’s nostalgic, sweet, heart-breaking, and more an adult film about childhood than a children’s film. It’s a perfect example of how a film’s trailer can be misleading. Drive’s trailer is in no way indicative of it being like the Fast and Furious franchise. It’s dark, moody, with a definite sense of menace and foreboding. It also doesn’t succumb to over-explanation. Which, perhaps, is what the problem is for the plaintiff in this lawsuit is. Not armed with full details of the plot for the film, she perhaps didn’t fill in the blanks with logic and common sense. Without being spoon-fed the film, it was apparently unclear what the style of the film was. What is potentially worrying is that, if anything should come of the lawsuit, what precedent will it set on what needs to be included in film trailers? Will they become even more prescriptive? The Radio Times used to have a little box (might still, I don’t know) informing one of the violence, nudity, swearing, and drug use in any given film. Useful information for a lad of 14. Will trailers need a similar system? Or, preferably, perhaps they just could wheel out Simon Bates to introduce each trailer.

Trailers are not a way to find out every plot detail. They are not a way to discover how clever the film’s twists and turns are. They are not to tell all. They are to give enough to determine the start of the story, the style, to give enough to satisfy a curiosity, but to leave you wanting more. If trailers spell out the film, they will also spell out the end of effective storytelling as the mystery of a film’s plot will be displayed prematurely.

Tim Popple works as a verger and has been involved in churches and cathedrals his whole life. He is also the editor ofThe 24th Frame, and can also be found on Twitter.


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