Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ode to an Ad: "Unbreakable" Trailer


The majority of complaints about movie previews fall into one of two categories:

1. They give away too much of the plot.

2. They don't really give you a sense of how good (or bad) the movie is.

Point number one is well taken, but it's worth noting that in the "olden days," trailers gave away much more than even the most revealing one's do these days. Films were much more of a spectacle back then, and advertisers wanted to get everyone out of their house and into the theaters by showing them EXACTLY what they could expect see.

Times have obviously changed, as theater-going is no longer an event. It's just something you do on the weekend.

Yet advertisers are still faced with the obstacle of luring people out of their homes (or away from other activities) into the theaters. Even when dealing with lovers of film, the advances of home theaters and the convenience of Netflix makes it that much tougher to convince someone to spend an evening in the theaters (not to mention driving, parking, and likely eating somewhere).

Trailers need to show enough to gain the film-goer's interest, but if they show too much, that person will feel as if all of the surprises are gone.

The second argument, that trailers don't always let you know how good or bad a film actually is, is also valid, but it just means that people are doing their job. While I do feel that there is some art involved in the making of a great trailer, it is primarily advertising. When given a bad film to market, it should still result in the best possible trailer.

I think a more legitimate complaint would be that some trailers fail to give you a sense of the film's tone. That happens more often than you'd think. In order to appeal to a wider audience, a film's true style is sometimes hidden during the marketing campaign.

This trailer for Unbreakable doesn't hide the fact that it's going to be a slow movie. The entire two minute preview is spent giving us one real piece of information about the plot.

The film itself plays out at a similar pace. Some find that frustrating, but I think it's full of rich detail and totally works for the story it's telling. Whatever your opinion, the point is that the trailer lets you know upfront that if you're looking for a fast-paced film, you'd better look elsewhere.

And in this particular case, the slowness of the trailer makes it impossible to reveal too much of the film's plot. While this style wouldn't work for all (or even most) trailers, they could all learn a lesson from it when deciding how much story the audience needs to learn to be interested.

Granted, this is a bit of a special case because it came from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, hot on the heels of The Sixth Sense's major success. Name-dropping that film is all it takes to get a lot of people excited.

But ignoring that for a moment, the trailer gives us a tantalizing bit of information. Bruce Willis' character was in a horrific train accident, was the only survivor, and doesn't have a scratch on him.

It's impossible to hear all of that information and not wonder why. Your mind jumps to all sorts of places. There's lots of possibilities, but we want to know the real answer. And we're shown that Samuel L. Jackson's character knows something about what's going on, which leaves us wondering who he is and how he knows about this.

The answer to this question (at least the basic answer) is actually delivered fairly early in the movie. The rest of the film is Willis' character rejecting the idea, eventually accepting the idea, and finally learning what he must do with this new information.

Many people that make trailers wouldn't have minded showing all sorts of details from Unbreakable, probably stopping just short of revealing the final twist (which, for the record, I'm not a fan of, as it adds nothing to the story).

And really, it wouldn't have necessarily been an awful thing to answer that question in the trailer. (The equivalent reveal would be the "I see dead people" line from The Sixth Sense, which is shown in that film's trailer. And I'm pretty sure Unbreakable's first major reveal happens earlier than that one did.)

But by only giving us as much as was need to pique our interest, it allows that much more of the film to be a surprise. I saw the film because I wanted to know what the deal was with Willis' character, and the film delivered that...slowly and powerfully (which is also what I was expecting, thanks to the magnificently edited trailer.)

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