How Movie Trailers Trick Us — Alan Zilberman

Posted on March 11, 2011 at 3:37 pm

My friend and fellow critic Alan Zilberman has a great blog post on how trailers trick us. He uses examples like “Battle: Los Angeles” to illustrate the way that trailers “use clever obfuscation to make our imaginations work against us.”
Of course, that’s their job.
And it’s a very specialized expertise. There are companies that do nothing but make trailers (remember, Cameron Diaz owned one in “The Holiday”). Almost-completed movies are delivered to them, many of them not very good. In a way, the good ones are harder to summarize. But in any case, the job of the trailer is not to accurately represent the movie; it is to get you to buy a ticket.
Zilberman’s description of the “Battle: Los Angeles” trailer could apply just as well to most of what is out there:

The trailer works because a) it reveals little about the movie and b) it makes you want to see it anyway. Watching the trailer again, its composition can be seen as clever marketing or – as I hope to demonstrate – a cynical ploy.

By presenting tense images without context, it forces the viewer to imagine what, precisely, is happening. There’s no need for basic storytelling elements like characters or plot, as we’re more than willing to create the heroic/crazed situations these figures find themselves in. Moreover, the juxtaposition of sci-fi action and haunting music suggests heft/drama that’s not necessarily there.

And Wikipedia describes the classic trailer structure:

Most trailers have a three-act structure similar to a feature-length film. They start with a beginning (act 1) that lays out the premise of the story. The middle (act 2) drives the story further and usually ends with a dramatic climax. Act 3 usually features a strong piece of “signature music” (either a recognizable song or a powerful, sweeping orchestral piece). This last act often consists of a visual montage of powerful and emotional moments of the film and may also contain a cast run if there are noteworthy stars that could help sell the movie.

Some trailers affirmatively misrepresent movies to make them seem more — or sometimes less — violent or racy than they really are. My current favorite example is the commercial for “Gnomeo & Juliet.” In the sweet, G-rated movie, there’s a brief sight gag of a garden gnome wearing a thong. When he walks away we get a little glimpse of ceramic gnome tushie. In the commercial, for some reason they show that scene but cover him up with a CGI-added pantie. Of course this takes away the entire reason for having the shot in the commercial in the first place. Steve Zahn got a similar pair of CGI underpants in the trailer for “Saving Silverman,” disguising what in the movie is some nudity and crude humor.
Cracked has my all-time favorite parody of movie trailers — you have to watch it a couple of times to get just how perfect it is.

Related Tags:



2 Replies to “How Movie Trailers Trick Us — Alan Zilberman”

  1. “This scene doesn’t make it into the final cut of the movie” LOL!
    I remember seeing a list once of the top 10 misleading trailers. The one that got me was for The Fifth Element. I went into that movie expecting a serious sci-fi and was so disappointed by the comedy I got instead that I absolutely hated the movie. A few years later I took another crack at it and loved it – go figure 🙂
    A similar situation with The Princess Bride left me *loving* a movie I was prepared to be bored to tears with, while my poor fairy tale romance-loving friend (who had dragged me to the theater kicking and screaming) was devastated. That one still ranks among my favorites.

  2. I agree with your assessment of both movies, monkie! I wrote a piece years ago about misleading trailers that included actual misrepresentations of the movie to make it look more — or less — violent or racy than it really was. I’ll go back and add my favorite current example to the post, so take a look.

Comments are closed.

THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik