Trailer Trash

After careful analysis of the many ways in which movie previews manage to be awful, investigative reporter Joe Queenan exposes a shocking conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of the federal government.


It is widely known that the unwieldy "QWERTY" arrangement of letters on most American type-writers is no accident. In the early days of typewriting, typists' fingers flew across the keyboard so rapidly that the keys got stuck together. The "QWERTY" configuration was concocted to slow down typists and prevent inadvertent mechanical sabotage, and it remains in place today, having long since outlived its usefulness in this age of computers. Why? There are numerous theories, but the most persuasive is that the aging white men who run this society are half-assed nitwits who hate to admit they are wrong.

A similar, but by no means identical, situation exists in the world of cinema. For many years, people have been asking themselves what function movie previews serve, since they are obviously not designed to make people want to see motion pictures. Loud, obvious and largely interchangeable, contemporary trailers are almost universally detested not only because they are loud, obvious and largely inter-changeable but because they invariably give away the entire plot of the film, making it unnecessary and in some cases incredibly annoy-ing to actually go and see the movies.

Since trailers are so horrible, the obvious question is why Hollywood doesn't do something to improve them. To answer this, we must examine the history of the motion picture preview, with particular attention to those produced in the last 20 years. In the early days of cinema, trailers were designed to make bad movies seem bet-ter and good movies seem great. This was achieved in large pan by selective editing, by deceptive advertising and by never, ever having people like Pauly Shore in them. In rhe 1960s, trailers became more enigmatic and arty, partly because everyone in America was influenced by directors from Europe but mostly because everyone was doing far too many drugs--some of them supplied by directors from Europe--and it seemed that making a coherent, intelligible trailer would have been pointless and completely out of step with the times. The next major development in the evolution of trailers occurred in the early 1980s with the birth of music videos. Because rock stars are young and exciting and blessed with great hair, and people like Robin Williams arc not, the éminences grises who run Hollywood decided that it would be a good idea to start using rock music in trailers as camouflage for bland, uninteresting movies. Thus was born the trailer filled with loud, viscerally engaging music that is never actually heard at any point in the Andie MacDowell movie being previewed.

The single most revolutionary development in the history of trail-ers occurred in 1982. With the country mired in a deep recession and interest rates spiraling out of control, the president's Council of Economic Advisers noticed that far too many people were going to the movies. Even though the films of that time were not particularly good, the trailers promoting them were so ingeniously crafted that everyone in America was desperate to see every single movie that got released. Even the ones with John Denver in them. The immense amount of time the public spent at the movies was exerting a crippling effect on the economy. Not to mention the culture. To combat this crisis, the Reagan administration offered the motion picture industry covert annual subsidies in the $12 billion to $20 billion range in exchange for the promise to keep movie audiences at manageable sizes. Initially, Hollywood tried to do this by making very bad films. This did not work, any more than serving bad food prevents Americans from patronizing fast-food chains. Then a marketing genius who will remain nameless seized upon the brilliant idea of releasing film previews that would make good movies seem bad and bad movies seem even worse. This would not affect those dyed-in-the-wool film fans who would go to see anything, but it would severely curtail ticket sales to casual movie enthusiasts.

The rest is history. Though film industry revenues continued to grow, the increase was mostly attributable to steadily escalating ticket prices. Today, the people who go to see a large number of movies even after watching cretinous trailers arc the kinds of people who would never have a productive role in this economy even if they had jobs: alcoholics, drug addicts, Trekkies. This is perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Reagan administration.

There is one other dynamic that must be dis-cussed in order to fully understand why movie trailers are so pitiful. Despite the currently robust state of the American economy, the United States government continues to subsidize the motion picture industry, fearful that a mass public resurgence in moviegoing could have a sclerotic effect on national productivity. Stared as bluntly as possible, the federal government does not want productive members of the labor force watch-ing movies during normal working hours or on weeknights, but it doesn't care what they do on the weekend. And this is where the true genius of the trailer becomes manifest. Yes, trailers are designed to discourage the public from going to see movies at movie theaters. But they are not designed to discourage the public from ever seeing them. The ultimate function of contemporary trailers--their very raison d'etre--is to allow the moviegoer to quickly and expeditiously decide whether the movie being previewed is a rental or a movie to be watched when it comes on cable or a movie to be avoided at all costs. According to data from the General Accounting Office that has come into my possession through contacts in the State Department, the judicious use of trailers as a cultural disincentive saves the United States economy $356 billion a year by subliminally cajoling most Americans into watching movies at home on the weekend when they're already passed out drunk or zonked on weed anyway. Besides preserving their productive capabilities, this makes ordinary people far less likely to get into their cars and kill smart people who are out having a night on the town.

With more intellectually gifted Americans, the system works a bit differently. In the good old days of unregulated moviegoing, the powers-that-be would have gone out of their way to make the latest Martin Lawrence movie seem interesting and entertaining. Today the attitude is: the sooner intelligent people realize that this is just another dumb-ass Martin Lawrence movie, the sooner they can get back to designing software programs or dreaming up an alternative to fossil fuels. In this sense, movie trailers have a powerful social role to play. If trailers were any better, this society would be even worse.

Anyone who has been to the movies recently knows that we are living through a golden age of pathetic movie trailers. Yet it is a mistake to believe that all trailers arc pathetic in exactly the same way. When I have explained the vital socioeconomic role played by the shadowy artisans in the manufacture and distribution of bad trailers, enlightened critics and moviegoers alike may reconsider their previous snideness and accord trailer-makers the huzzahs and kudos they so richly deserve. Though frankly, knowing what I know about critics and the public, I kind of doubt it.

To prepare this study, I recently spent one solid week looking at trailers for 20 upcoming movies. The films were of all sizes and genres; the only unifying element in my rigorously scientific cross section was that most of the movies being previewed sucked beyond belief". Operating on the assumption that movie trailers are designed with but one purpose in mind--to keep people our of movie theaters--I can happily report that the trailers I viewed generally fulfilled their stated mission. Not for a nanosecond did I give any thought to seeing Body Shots or Happy, Texas or Crazy in Alabama. Not for an instant did I entertain a thought of actually forking over any of my hard-earned money to see Jakob the Liar or Plunkett & Macleane. If it had been the last movie ever made in the entire history of mankind, I would not have shelled out nine bucks to see Blue Streak. Or eight bucks. Or one buck. The trailer made it look that bad.

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