Blog: Film Trailers: Selling the Experience vs Selling the Product

October 8, 2018
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Trailers are obviously nothing new to the industry, film or otherwise. They help advertise the best and most exhilarating parts of an upcoming project or event and try their hardest to sell you on something that needs to be had, experienced, or known about. They pitch you on the idea that whatever they’re trying to sell is something you want or need to see, and usually – outside of the relatively recent trend of showing way too much footage in a less than two-minute span – trailers do a pretty decent job of hitting those goals. It doesn’t take a lot to notice how good or bad a movie might be based off of the trailers, and most of the time, the way they’re cut and the specific footage that’s being used says more than anything about how the final film might turn out. Granted, trailers can either make a great movie look terrible or a terrible movie look great, but most fall somewhere in the middle, telling you everything you need to know about the upcoming film and giving you a reason to want to come back to the theater on opening night. They allow us to silently (or out loud) judge a film before we decide whether it’ll be worth our time or money, or simply helps in hyping us up for the next must-see blockbuster to a point where purchasing advanced tickets is a no brainer.

But trailers – at least in the theater – are usually a little different than the advertising blitz on, say, a film website or what you see on TV. They’re usually a little more dramatic, a little less invasive, more so focusing on the story, acting or spectacle of it all rather than on a blatant sell of the film like how many post-release TV spots or “#1 film in the world” type of ads typically play like. Theater trailers (or I guess internet trailers too since they get released there first nowadays) aren’t trying to sell you on a film that’s already out, so they have to do the legwork another way by selling the experience instead of the product. Until someone sees the film a trailer is promoting, and until all of the “best movie of the year” or “random positive quotes from a less than reputable review outlet” kind of trailer rolls out (usually closer to the release date and after pre-screenings), the inherent sell for these ads is all about convincing the audience that the film in question is a full-blown sensory experience that not only will you enjoy watching, but will laugh to, cry to, or cheer for. The list goes on and on, but it all boils down to one thing: selling the experience of it all.

I bring all of this up only because I was able to see IT over opening weekend, twice in fact, and both times I had a problem with a certain trailer that was shown beforehand that sold this particular film as a product rather than as an experience, sloppily I might add. Now I know that trailers are basically glorified and dramatized advertisements for a film, as are TV spots, news coverage, preview articles and the like, but something in particular about this trailer rubbed me the wrong way, and personally, I was sort of put off by it. The trailer in question was for a film called mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s new twisted take on what seems to be his version of Rosemary’s Baby, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. I’ve seen a lot about this film recently, even watched the trailers put out before this one, and my general feeling towards it was relatively positive, but something was off about this trailer, something I didn’t appreciate at all that had me wondering why the powers that be would allow such a seemingly interesting film directed by an avant-garde filmmaker like Aronofsky be “sold” in such a petty and, quite frankly, lazy way.

The trailer started off strong by setting the tone and creep factor of the film with some truly unsettling music and beautiful cinematography. We see Jennifer Lawrence creep around and generally look scared, the dark shadows and low light selling a perfect image of what I expect this film to be, but then something weird happened. A title card flashed across the screen reading “in one week”, then another reading “in this theater”. At first, I didn’t think anything of it, just that it was weird and out of place and threw off my deep dive into getting ready for the feature film I was about to see. The trailer continued to play, a few more odd title card choices sprinkled throughout, and by the time it ended with yet another title card reading something along the lines of “after the film, go buy tickets in the lobby”, I realized that I was being sold on something that wasn’t the experience, but the product, a tactic trailers shown in the theater very rarely, if ever, use.

In those weird moments in between trailers where the silence of a new one loading up exponentially makes every crunch of popcorn sound like its coming from right behind your ear, I, along with most of the theater at both showings, let out a confused laugh, one of those “are they serious” type of laughs usually only reserved for times when you can’t believe something you just witnessed actually happened or when you’re too confused to process what has just entered your eyeballs. It wasn’t so much that I was being sold on the film – that’s the point of a trailer after all – it was the sloppy and out of place way it was being sold that got to me. It was telling me about this movie instead of showing me, it was breaking the “fourth wall” of trailers and acknowledging that the film is a product that is made to make money, rather than an experience that you’ll want to be a part of.

Now this might not seem like a very big deal, and if I’m being honest it’s more of an annoying nitpick than anything, but when I go to the movies I’m going for a reason, mostly to escape for a little while, enjoy a great story or spectacle – a great experience – and leave. I’m not looking to be bombarded with ads trying to hype me up to any particular film as a product; I want to be sold on the experience of it all, the thrill of being transported to a galaxy far, far away or the fear of being stalked by a masked crazy person in the dead of night. When watching TV, listening to the radio or surfing the web I expect to see ads, I expect to be sold on the product because all of those activities are relatively mindless to a point that the only way to sell something is to shove it in your face so you notice it, but in the theater it’s different. Inside you are essentially stepping through a portal and into a new world. You’re heading into a more relaxed atmosphere as the lights go down and you sink into your chair, the theater comfortable and air conditioned with the sound system booming all around you and the picture up on screen clearer than anything you’ve ever seen before.

During this time I’m in the process of getting into the mindset of being whisked away to whatever world I’m about to see, ready to grow attached to new characters or ideas, or simply getting hyped to see things go boom. It’s bad enough that we have actual commercials before films now that push products completely unrelated to anything cinematic, but the fact that a trailer like this one could pull us out of this mindset – out of the experience that we’re waiting to be a part of – made no sense to me, nor to anyone else in either theater I was in. Real commercials plague the TV shows I watch on a daily basis and real advertising campaigns plastered across billboards and shoved into every nook and cranny of our lives are enough to get me to want to see the film as a product, but watching a brand new trailer inside a real theater is a totally different sell which makes sense considering it’s the holiest of places to watch a new film. To that end, selling a film as a product through any other outlet makes sense too. It’s all about the balance and what works best in any given situation to give your film the best chance at succeeding, and to me, this was an odd and rare misstep for a director and film that seems to deserve better.

While I still plan on seeing mother! at some point, my enthusiasm has most definitely taken a hit, less than middling reviews notwithstanding. With the ability to sell a film as both a product and an experience, filmmakers and marketing gurus alike should take the time to understand the difference between the two as well as the places where each tactic is most effective and sensible. I’m sure this won’t become the new norm for what we’ll be seeing moving forward in a trailer, but if it does then you can be sure I’ll be showing up a little later than usual to avoid anything that follows in this (hopefully) fleeting trend. And to that, all I have to say is experience over everything!

Brian is first and foremost a nerd in every way shape and form. He likes to compare himself to a black hole, consuming any and every form of entertainment unlucky enough to get caught in his gravitational pull. It's not uncommon on any given day for him to read a couple comics, settle down with a good book, watch a few movies (inside and out of the theater), catch up on his ever growing but never depleting Hulu queue, challenge himself with a few good video games, listen to any music he can get his hands on and, of course, write his heart out. He spends every waking moment dreaming up interesting and intriguing concepts and ideas that will hopefully one day inspire and entertain anyone looking for an escape from their daily lives. Graduating from Full Sail University in good old humid Florida, Brian currently lives and works in New York City and is waiting for the day when all he has to do is wake up and create something unique and new for people to enjoy. He is always in the process of writing scripts and stories and is constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance and build his creative drive. After all, life is just one big story, all that really matters is how you strive to make it the best story possible. Disclaimer: Brian does not actually have powdered green skin in case anyone was wondering. A Skrull I am not. Blame the guys at the Color Run for this one.

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