When the Coming Attractions are the Main Attraction

09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

With the somewhat groundbreaking 15-minute national sneak preview of Avatar just one day away (I have my ticket, but only because the AMC Promenade 16 is basically walking distance from my house), it is worth looking back at various instances in the last 20 years when a movie was so highly anticipated that the preview was in itself an event. Of course, with the Internet, it is no longer necessary to actually go to a theater to see the must-see coming attraction of this film or that, and I genuinely miss the days when I would watch Entertainment Tonight, VCR all set up, hoping for a sneak peak at a major preview. Anyway, on to the show:

Batman (1989)
Premiered on Entertainment Tonight January 12th, 1989.
I can't tell you which new release or major movie this was attached to, because the only new releases that weekend were The January Man and Deepstar Six. I've written elsewhere about the 'throw-down-the-gauntlet' effect of this preview and how it pretty much erased any and all fears of the Batman fans regarding the casting of Michael Keaton and the overall dark and violent tone. But the trailer was also somewhat groundbreaking, as it contained no narration, no music until the very end, and no real attempt to explain a narrative or storyline (it's basically a 30-second Batwing action scene, then about a minute of random images). In my lifetime, this was the first trailer that I can recall people actually paying a full-price admission ticket for a movie (which was at most $5.00), watching the trailer, then going home.

Batman Returns (1992)
Premiered on Entertainment Tonight February 12th, 1992.
This first (and now difficult to find) trailer for Batman Returns premiered in theaters on February 14th, 1992, attached to prints of Wayne's World. Before the Internet, people generally had to wait for the first preview to get a glance at who would look like what in a given franchise picture. Needless to say, everyone was in for a major shock when they got a look at Danny DeVito's mutant variation on The Penguin. A second trailer was released closer to the release, which was a more coherent, narrative-driven preview. Ironically, both trailers depict the film as quite dark, twisted, and violent, further proving that the parents whose four-year-old children were traumatized upon the film's release just weren't paying attention.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
This may not have been a much-publicized trailer (and there was a prior teaser in 1990), nor did anyone I know trek to the theater just to see it. But I'm putting it on this list because it was the first trailer where a single shot made me desperately want to see a movie that I otherwise had no interest in at the time. Yes, the T-1000 effects looked neat, but the shot that astounded me was that climactic bit of the helicopter crashing into a truck. Up to that point, I had never seen an action stunt of that nature that looked so real. The whole trailer just promised a sheer scale of action that I had never seen before (as befitting the first $100 million movie). And of course, it more or less delivered on that note.

Jurassic Park (1993)
It may have seemed a forgone conclusion in hindsight, but at the time, this beloved dinosaur horror picture was actually somewhat of a risk. Steven Spielberg was in a quasi-slump. Having failed to get his more serious pictures to blockbuster levels, and having been critically torn to shreds over Hook, Mr. Spielberg hadn't had an original out-of-the-park home run since E.T. back in 1982 (box-office-wise, he pretty much coasted through the late 80s on Indiana Jones sequels). What this trailer did was instill confidence, assuring audiences that this was more of a horror film in the vein of Jaws or Poltergeist than something warm and cuddly like E.T.. So confident was the marketing department that they got away with showing almost no actual dinosaur footage.

The Lion King (1994)
Premiered in theaters on November 12th, 1993.
"Holy crap" was all I could say. My jaw dropped, I muttered those words to my friend, and then I started softly laughing to myself. Disney had just announced that it was going to own the summer of 1994 and no other studio or movie was going to be able to do a darn thing about it. Premiering with the opening weekend prints of The Three Musketeers, this teaser for The Lion King just went ahead and showed the whole breathtaking 'Circle Of Life' opening sequence and then cut to black. They didn't need to say or do anything else. Sure, we can now gently mock the semantics of such a scene (it's basically a jungle buffet), and the movie clearly lacks a second act, but one cannot overstate the sheer awe of seeing that sequence for the first time. The film went on to open with a near-record $42 million, and it ended with $312 million domestic and $455 million overseas. It did end up owning the summer, even if Forrest Gump ended up the domestic box office champ of 1994 via the Oscar season of 1995 (Lion King still leads globally by about $110 million). This was the first time in the modern age that a studio simply showed off an extended sequence, proving that if you've got the goods, don't pussyfoot around.

Godzilla (1998)
Premiered in theaters on April 3rd, 1998.
While there had been two teaser trailers during the summer of 1997 (premiering, I believe, with The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Men In Black), the first honest-to-goodness trailer didn't premiere until April 3rd, 1998. Forever known as the weekend when Lost In Space finally removed Titanic from the top of the box office, this was also the weekend where Sony debuted its first real look at the much-anticipated Godzilla redo (it was attached to prints of the Bruce Willis stinker Mercury Rising). Going the Jurassic Park route, they refused to show more than a hint of the titular monster, keeping the creature a secret until right before opening day. While moviegoers where shocked that the fabled creature more resembled an amphibious lizard as opposed to a giant dinosaur, bad acting, poor pacing, and a lack of compelling narrative would be far more terrifying than any revamped monster (although the finale is a doozy).

Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Premiered on Entertainment Tonight November 18th, 1998.
In one of those tragic ironies, 20th Century Fox was (presumably) precluded from attaching this PG-rated trailer to prints of the hard-R-rated The Siege, which opened and underperformed on November 7th, 1998. So, they waited two weeks, attached it to general prints, and watched as most fans saw the trailer attached to... the R-rated Enemy of the State (and, possibly, the G-rated Rugrats: The Movie). Something similar happened two years later, when Universal declined to attach the trailer for the PG-13 The Mummy Returns to The Grinch, only to have other theaters attach other, even more violent PG-13 movie trailers to the prints. Anyway, needless to say, this was arguably the first 'buy a ticket just for the trailer' preview since Batman ten years earlier. It was definitely a tease, with only one true 'wowzer' action image (that of Kenobi and Qui-Gon leaping to a nearby platform while in combat). This first trailer certainly didn't make the film feel any more adult that it ended up being. The second, plot-heavy trailer (released on March 12th with the Fox stinker Wing Commander) promised a darker tone than the final film provided, although it accurately acknowledged the politically wonky narrative that so many would complain about just two months later.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001)
Premiered in theaters on January 12th, 2001.
Although there was an online only teaser/making of featurette (which I now cannot find), this was the first look that most people got at the the much-anticipated trilogy. Attached to prints of New Line's Thirteen Days during its first weekend of wide release, there were signs in the lobby specifically warning people about buying Thirteen Day tickets and trying to get refunds after the Lord of the Rings teaser was shown. I'm sure quite a few hardcore geeks didn't mind, but the rest were simply forced to see an uncommonly compelling historical drama. As for the teaser itself, I wasn't crazy about that "You will find adventure, or adventure will find you." tagline, but the rest showed uncommon confidence. There was very little actual footage, but the climactic character role call was a nice way of showing off all the fellowship and the actors portraying them while assuring the uninformed that they would get all three movies no matter what happened with the first one.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Premiered in theaters on December 14th, 2007.
This was a classic bait-and-switch, another moment of flawless marketing by the WB team assigned to this picture. Everyone and their brother knew about the six-minute IMAX prologue teaser, a bank robbery scene which was attached to all IMAX prints of I Am Legend. But what no one knew about was the inclusion of a traditional trailer with 35mm prints of I Am Legend all over the country. A shockingly intense and violent two-minute tease, this introduced Health Ledger's performance as The Joker while reassuring fans that all of the old characters would be back (Morgan Freeman's single line was warm acknowledgment that we were in good hands). The bank-robbery scene works much better in the film than it did as a stand-alone teaser, but this two-minute clip made sure that every one of those $77 million-worth of ticket buyers who saw I Am Legend over that weekend were not talking about the completely worthwhile Will Smith sci-fi drama at all.

Ok, that brings us up to about now. I know I've left a few off (sorry folks, Independence Day is disqualified because its 'blow up the white house' teaser premiered during the Super Bowl), and I'm sure there were a few before my time that merit mention. Which trailers were worth going to the theater all by themselves for you? Feel free to share. For more trailer reviews, including the first 2-minute teaser for Avatar, go to Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson