Do filmmakers and studios pay enough attention to the humble preview?

Trailers have only a few minutes in which to pitch their product, but all too frequently they consist of hastily cobbled together collections of off-cuts. (I’ve seen countless previews featuring scenes or shots that ultimately didn’t appear in the movie.)

Often they give away too much plotline, or simply fail to present a film in the best possible light — an especially critical issue for foreign or indie films, which can no longer parlay lengthy single-screen runs from good word-of-mouth alone.

Consider, for example, the trailer for the acclaimed drama A Single Man (left), currently playing at the Piedmont in Oakland. A few months ago the film was garnering Oscar buzz for star Colin Firth’s performance as a lonely college professor. I’m a Firth fan, but the film’s trailer is awful: it reveals absolutely nothing about the story, makes no effort to emotionally connect with the audience, and doesn’t even bother to promote Firth’s performance, ostensibly the major reason to see the film in the first place. Instead, it’s a random assortment of dialogue-free scenes that look like outtakes from a ‘60s high-fashion photo shoot. It single-handedly dissuaded me from investing money and time in A Single Man.

The trailers for The Young Victoria and Creation, two small-scale British pictures currently screening at the Shattuck Cinemas, offer additional lessons in the art of film promotion. The trailer for The Young Victoria, a bio-pic starring Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria and Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne, is typical frock flick fare, with the focus firmly on elegant costumes, gracious living, and ballroom scenes. It’s not the sort of film I enjoy, but the trailer does a good job of summarizing The Young Victoria’s selling points: those inclined in favor of the historical costume drama will find no reason not to see the film.

Creation’s trailer depicts biologist Charles Darwin’s (Paul Bettany) struggles against the ingrained prejudices and strictures of 19th-century society, adding a dash of family conflict for good measure. The trailer is excellent: an engaging blend of gorgeous cinematography, provocative dialogue (“you’ve killed God, son!”), and, of course, chimpanzees, it firmly establishes the film’s historical and contemporary relevance. It’s a trailer designed to sell the film to educated cosmopolites, and does so very effectively — not that it’s going to sell many tickets in the Bible Belt.

A good trailer effectively sells its wares to the film’s target audience; a great trailer expands the pool of ticket-buyers beyond that target audience. All too often, this critical marketing tool seems to be an afterthought: even Avatar’s first trailer looked like it was promoting a new video game instead of a blockbuster featuring spectacular new visual effects. Besides not featuring Paul Bettany in any way, shape, or form, it seriously undersold the film. A far superior second trailer hit theaters in the autumn, and the rest is box-office history.

John Seal

John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...

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