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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Movie Trailers That Turn Us Off

I used to look forward to watching movie trailers in the cinema.  On TV, trailers for an upcoming movie generally last only twenty or thirty seconds, whereas cinema trailers can extend up to two-and-a-half minutes.  Like miniature movies, movie trailers employ a three-act structure, and are crafted to tell a story that entrances the audience while leaving them hungering for more.  But nowadays, when cinemas screen TV-style ads, promote special one-night-only shows, then follow these up with eight or ten trailers, I’m sometimes exhausted, or at least annoyed, by the time the feature starts.  

Nevertheless, I still love trailers, whether I watch them online, in the theater, or on DVD.  Their creators must work to overcome certain limitations, such as making the trailer before the movie crew has wrapped up production.  In addition to piecing together video from rushes (scenes which may or may not make their way into the final movie), they must also serve as their own composers, and create their own sound effects, as the finished sound and score are often not finalized until shortly before the film is released.  The efforts of such unsung heroes are celebrated each year with The Golden Trailer Awards and the Key Art Awards.  Occasionally, such people even find their way onto the big screen: in “The Holiday,” Cameron Diaz plays Amanda Woods, a movie-trailer creator, who find love when she decides to spend Christmas in England.  

Like all art, trailers have gone through notable periods of mutation.  Sci-Fi movie trailers from the fifties, for example, often feature large text punctuated with exclamation marks.  “The flying squid monsters from Venus!  Watch your head!  They’ll eat your brains!”  Movies from the sixties and seventies, and perhaps even the eighties, show scenes from the movie, overladen with a presenter’s rich, deep tones saying things like “See the fantastic world of tomorrow,” “Watch [the hero’s] amazing journey,” “Thrill to his death-defying struggle,” or “Marvel at the spectacular special effects.”  While looking back on the trends of an earlier era can be fun, I wonder how today’s trailers affect us, given the current decline in cinema attendance.

Two years ago, my wife and I saw the movie trailers for the upcoming remake of Ray Harryhausen’s final film: “Clash of the Titans.”  Despite her love for the original story, the tremendously upgraded special effects, and exciting imagery, she refused to go see the 2010 film in the cinema.  This year, I finally convinced her to watch the movie on DVD, and she proved not only an ardent fan of the remake, but the motive force behind getting us out to see the sequel.  Yet, while she enjoyed last weekend’s “Wrath of the Titans,” she found herself losing interest in the upcoming Ridley Scott film “Prometheus.”  While earlier trailers had prompted her interest, she literally could not watch the latest one; she had to close her eyes to keep from growing ill. 

Current big-budget action movies, and particularly ones geared toward the Science Fiction and Fantasy crowd, seem to utilize several common elements.  Some of these techniques involve: interspersing brightly lit scenes with intensely dark scenes; using a moment of black or white to divide two intense scenes; or using black to break up a fast moving scene to produce a stutter-like effect.  Married with such violent exchanges of lighting are sound effects such as deep booms, clanging symbols, electronic wailing, or clashing notes or chords.  Alternatively, the moment of black separating two scenes may momentarily break up loud sound with silence.  The latest trailer for “Prometheus” maximizes the usage of such techniques: while the trailer begins with more sedate imagery, toward the end scenes are interrupted with repeated wailing and strobe-like flashes of white.

While I’m not an expert in any field of medicine, it seems likely that prolonged exposure to such interchanges of light and sound can stress the eyes and ears, tighten ones muscles, and induce headaches.  I’m not arguing that watching a succession of such trailers can provoke an epileptic seizure, or lead to other significant medical conditions.  But there have been a number of times in the past few years that my wife would turn to me after watching a movie trailer and say, “That one looks too intense for me.”  And that's it.  We may watch the movie later on DVD.  Then again, given all the demands of life, we may never see a movie that we might otherwise have fallen in love with.  

As for the 2010 version of “Clash of the Titans,” it may not have been the best movie ever made, but I nonetheless wish we could have watched it on the big screen together.  To a certain extent, I feel like we’ve been cheated.  For we’ve missed out on a unique experience that can never be repeated: experiencing a great film for the first time on the big screen (with or without soda, popcorn, and a box of Whoppers).  I wonder how many other people have been turned off by a trailer's over-hyped intensity, and thus contributed to the decline in overall theater attendance.  

We all yearn for a little intensity to spice up our lives, but as with the level of complexity in the dual-realities of the TV show “Awake,” sometimes too much of a good thing actually turns us off.  

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