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Review the Movie, Not the Trailer

Review the Movie, Not the Trailer

“Thoughts on ‘Argo’?”

The movie at the end of the sentence may change, but some form of that line is an increasingly common remark in the online film world. A movie trailer premieres, like Ben Affleck’s CIA thriller “Argo” did this week, and it filters down through the Interwebs. But it’s not enough to simply post the trailer, you have to weigh in on it too; to say whether it looks good or bad, to comment upon the costumes or score or memorable shots. Trailers of geek-centric properties receive even greater scrutiny; some websites go through a shot at a time, screengrabbing and analyzing, judging all the way. We seem to be inching closer to a time in the future when sites will review movie trailers in addition to — or even instead of — the movies themselves.

Maybe I’ve still got the words of Charles Champlin ringing in my ears from the conversation we posted earlier today, but this strikes me as a dangerous path for critics. Don’t get me wrong: I love trailers. When the “Argo” trailer hit the web, I watched it. When I go to the theater, I always show up early so I don’t miss the previews. Back at IFC, I helped spearhead our list of the 50 greatest movie trailers of all time. I own one of the few books on the subject of trailers. I genuinely believe they’re an art form unto themselves, with a history, technique, and set of aesthetics that deserve to be studied seriously and separately from movies.

I’m just not sure film critics are the right people to do it.

Most articles about trailers don’t look at them for what they are (namely, scrupulously calculated pieces of advertising). Instead what you get are writers pre-judging movies months before they open. This looks good, that looks questionable, I’m excited to see this, I don’t know if I trust so and so to pull this off. What’s the opposite of a wait-and-see attitude? Hurry-up-and-judge? That’s what movie trailer writing on the Internet is all about.

Champlin said every critic needs to remember that there’s a bad film in every good filmmaker and a good film in every bad filmmaker. Trailer writing on the web is inherently incompatible with that view. Writing a blog post for a movie you haven’t seen — even a relatively short one — isn’t easy. With just the contents of a 2 minute, 30 second teaser to cover, you have to draw from other sources. Invariably those other sources become previous movies. Which means that, without fail, excitement greets the trailer for a new Martin Scorsese film and derision meets the trailer for a Brett Ratner film.

Is it wrong to get excited about a Scorsese movie? Or to be skeptical of a Ratner movie? Absolutely not. But to put Champlin’s mantra into financial terms: past performance is not always an indication of future performance. Martin Scorsese could make a lemon. Brett Ratner could make a masterpiece (maybe). I worry that audiences these days spend so much time obsessing over trailers that they form hard opinions about movies before they ever seen them. As I’ve written in the past on Criticwire, I think any opinion about a movie can be valid if it’s honest, open, and informed. If you write off a movie six months before its premiere because someone who’s almost certainly not the director picked a silly tagline for a trailer, how open can you be to the film itself?

I’m not saying we should stop posting trailers on the Internet; like I said, nobody enjoys watching them more than me. But we might need to change the way we write about them. If I ran a movie website that posted lots of trailers, here’s what I’d do: get someone who writes about advertising to cover movie trailers. Put this trailer in the context of others for similar movies, note the popular trailer tropes deployed, explain what the marketers are selling to their audience. I don’t want the film critic’s perspective on trailers; I want the film critic’s perspective on the films themselves.

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