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Stop watching movie trailers

Maybe it’s not the movies that are the problem. Maybe it’s the marketing.

A young boy and his mother sit watching a movie.
The Fabelmans trailer barely matches the actual movie.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s the holidays, so I’m going to let you in on one neat trick to start enjoying movies more: Stop watching trailers.

At best they’ll just show you stuff you probably knew anyway, or don’t need to know — who’s in the movie, what’s on the soundtrack, the basic plot setup. Maybe the look or the tone or the vibe. But trailers aren’t designed to give you a glimpse of the movie; they’re mini-movies, designed to sell tickets (or maybe subscriptions to a streamer). And they’re starting to feel increasingly divorced from their actual movies.

Take, for instance, The Fabelmans. The trailer sells a “magic of cinema” flick about a teenage boy who has dreams of making films. He’s encouraged by his mother, stifled by his unimaginative father. And it’s all directed by Steven Spielberg, perhaps America’s best-known director:

I saw The Fabelmans at its premiere last September, before a trailer was cut, and I didn’t watch the trailer when it finally dropped. So I was baffled when people kept describing it as a corny film about making movies. Finally, I watched it, and I was amazed at how far away from the actual movie it is. The Fabelmans is a fantastic, emotional, autobiographical drama that is, in part, about a young man (Spielberg’s stand-in) who longs to direct films. But it’s really about him using films as a way to understand the things that scare him in the world, including this one. The Fabelmans is about realizing your parents are real, human people, with real, human failings and foibles, and processing what that means for you, and whether you’ll ever be able to go home as an adult the way you did as a child.

It really, really is not a love letter to movies. (It’s also great. Go see it.)

The Fablemans is not the only movie that ended up with a trailer selling an entirely different film from what it actually is. I’ve only just watched the Armageddon Time trailer and was horrified to discover that it seems to be selling Green Book redux, a facile tale of transformative friendship across racial lines.

I cannot emphasize how far away from the vibe of Armageddon Time this trailer lies. It in fact might best be described as an anti-Green Book, a movie that interrogates, uneasily and with pain, the glib assumptions that would underlie that kind of story.

On its opening weekend, She Said “bombed” — which is to say, it didn’t open to the studio’s expectations — and people were quick to blame it on the film (for being too arty or depressing) or on the audience (for not wanting to see movies in the theaters). All these factors may be part of it. But the problem, I think, is that the trailer sells you some kind of triumphalist journalism narrative, about brave reporters breaking an earth-shattering story and saving the world:

In reality, it’s a very measured and realistic story that’s mostly about what kind of arduous work it takes to get people on the record. It ends on a distinctly sobering, even ambivalent note. You won’t walk out pumping your fist — and you shouldn’t.

It’s no surprise to me that a discerning, eager movie viewer would see these trailers and decide they don’t want to subject themselves to that kind of Hollywood cheese. But it’s also surprising how many movie trailers just mess up the viewing experience for someone who wants to see the film. I watched both The Lost City (very funny) and Ticket to Paradise (intermittently funny) before I saw their trailers. Why, oh why, would you put all of your film’s best jokes in the trailer? Does that not telegraph immense insecurity on the studio’s part? I guess once they get you in the door, they’ve got your money?

Or why would you sell The Northman, a very weird film that outright declares that we can’t outrun fate, as a movie about how you can outrun your fate in triumph, like some kind of mashup of Braveheart and Lord of the Rings? You’re just setting up your audience for misery.

And is it not a little bizarre, and possibly a bit cruel, to cut an entire trailer for Bones and All without making note of the fact that the main characters are … cannibals?

And God help the viewer who settles in to see White Noise thinking they’re going to see a nice, quirky family drama:

Obviously, studios have an idea of why they are doing these things. Every studio on the planet seems to be putting out some kind of “magic of the movies” film this year, from The Fabelmans to Damien Chazelle’s Babylon to Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light (which has its own strangely misleading trailer, given it’s mostly not about the movies at all). Hollywood’s obsession with movies about the magic of, well, movies has worked for films like Argo and Cinema Paradiso and The Artist. But I don’t think it’s just me who’s starting to roll their eyes at every new “love letter to cinema” declaration, especially when preceded by the meme-worthy Nicole Kidman AMC commercial.

But, hey: people love journalism movies, as long as they end with stirring speeches and routs of the wicked. Green Book made a ton of money and won Best Picture. Braveheart and Lord of the Rings have an enduring fan base; telling people the movie’s characters are cannibals might turn them off; quirky family dramas have a good track record during awards seasons.

And trailers have, admittedly, evolved over time. The kind of huge, loud, overwhelming noise of the Northman trailer (or, say, countless trailers for Christopher Nolan films) is a hallmark of our day. But back in the 1940s, trailers for movies like Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Dr. Strangelove intrigued audiences by only kind of hinting at what they really were, relying on misdirection, wry direct address to the audience, and, in Strangelove’s case, almost abstract editing. When Jaws came along, the trailer told you everything there was to know about the movie, in a startlingly faithful way; you’ve seen the trailer, you know what you’re in for. Same for the first Star Wars.

What these trailers all do, though, is represent — pretty accurately — the movie they were selling. Perhaps it’s a sign of our risk-averse times, or maybe it’s just a case of studio executives thinking they know what an audience will like, deciding it’s not what the actual movie does, and deciding to pull a bait-and-switch. Or perhaps they just don’t trust audiences to be sophisticated enough to be intrigued by something new and different.

The average person has to pay for a ticket or a rental and spend two hours of their leisure time watching a movie, so I get why we watch trailers, and why Hollywood sells them. But maybe there’s a better way, especially if today’s trailers seem to be selling all kinds of movies they’re not and maybe hurting the movies themselves that way. (Studio executives don’t always know what audiences want, after all, or they’d be turning out successes left and right.)

My advice — selfishly, I know — is to pick a few critics, maybe three, who you like, and rely on their writing to help you decide what to watch. Or, Google a movie to see who’s in it, who directed it, who wrote it, and what their previous work is, and make a judgment based on that. Or, even better, just watch a movie with little to no idea what it is and see if it surprises you — one of the best experiences you could ever have.

But until Hollywood figures out how to give us trailers that don’t sell us the opposite of the movie — until the vibe sold is the vibe purchased — then maybe it’s time to boycott trailers altogether. You’re better than that, anyhow. You know what you like to watch and what you’re willing to risk at the movies. Let’s introduce some pleasant surprise back into our entertainment choices.

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