Five Classic Previews That Mastered The Art Of The False Sell

10/13/2011 01:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I'm sure you've heard by now (first spread by The Hot Blog and about the woman in Detroit, Michigan who is suing Film District over what she felt was a misleading trailer for the Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive (review). Basically, she feels that the film was sold as an action-packed variation on The Fast and the Furious, but instead delivering a well, I'm guessing most of you reading this have seen the movie or at least know enough about it to fill in the blanks (my additional thoughts).

The lawsuit has the added spice of accusing the film of anti-semitism, I suppose because both of the villains were Jewish (as a Jewish film fan, I'm all for more Jewish bad guys).  While we may agree that the trailer was a little misleading, it is just a part of a longtime pattern of selling somewhat artier films as if they were just normal mainstream genre entries.  But you already knew that.  Actually, the trailer's biggest sin was blatantly revealing the entire movie (including nearly every action moment) in nearly chronological order, but that's another story.  So in honor of this relatively absurd lawsuit (long story short -- there were no real damages behind the movie ticket and no real pain/suffering to merit additional monetary reward), let's take a stroll down memory lane and look at some classic examples of film-marketing misdirection.

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

If you've seen the movie, you know it's a dark and depressing story about an alcoholic writer (Nicolas Cage, who won an Oscar for this film) who ends up in Vegas as part of a plan to basically drink himself to death.  Along the way he meets a prostitute (Elizabeth Shue, who was nominated) and they have a somewhat complicated relationship that ends when Cage, indeed, makes good on his initial goal.  But that doesn't exactly sell to mainstream audiences, so this trailer was cooked up to sell the movie as a redemptive and feel-good romance about two lost souls who find happiness with each other.  Needless to say, they don't reference the rather violent rape scene that occurs about 3/4 of the way through the film.  Despite, or because of ,this trailer, the film did gross a solid $32 million during its Oscar run at the end of 1995/start of 1996.  In other words, mission: accomplished.

Batman and Robin (1997)
People my age or older will recall the pre-release hoopla over the fourth Batman picture, which reached a fever pitch of sorts when the first trailer debuted in theaters February 21st, 1997 (attached to The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition).  The reaction was not positive, with geek outrage over Schwarzenegger's ice-puns, the overtly campy humor and the backlash over 'flavor of the month' Alicia Silverstone being cast as Batgirl.  I actually wrote a stunningly immature piece about it that I can only hope has long vanished into the realm of the Internet's infancy (although I stress that it contained neither homophobia or any grief over Silverstone's weight).

Point being, countless Bat-fans like me were up-in-arms about the apparently campy and kid-friendly Batman picture that was opening in just five months.  So Warner Bros did a token amount of damage control, releasing this second trailer a couple months later that basically removed as much camp content as possible.  The mood is grimmer, the potential of Alfred's death is emphasized, and the film highlights the various dramatic conflicts while removing any hint of humor from Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy (ironically, both trailers contain images of innocent people being frozen to death onscreen).  If you recall, there were even rumors that Warner Bros. had severely cut the film down and removed most of the 'offending humor' as a result of the backlash.  But, of course, the first trailer was the accurate one, as audiences discovered on June 20th, 1997.  It was a good try, but the film still opened lower than the other Bat-sequels (a still huge $42.8 million) and took a then-astronomical 63 percent second-weekend plunge.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
Call this one a master-class in the 'closing door' meme.  The first time I saw this trailer, I was genuinely shocked by the opening reveal, partially because it was the first trailer before a given film (
if I recall) and I was convinced it was some kind of ad before the chilling 'standing next to my window' reveal.  For the first 80 percent, this dynamite trailer set up the characters and the story, but the final 20 percent devolved into an action montage of sorts.  I was convinced that the film would surely start well, but end up turning into a rote suspense thriller in the final act.  But upon watching the trailer closely (it played a lot that summer) I noticed something a little odd.  That action montage wasn't really action.  It was merely a series of normal shots edited to make it seem exciting.  In actuality, it was merely a series of scene depicting people standing in hallways, doors opening and closing suddenly, Bruce Willis accidentally walking into traffic, the film's lone scene of real violence, etc.  How relieved I was upon the third or fourth viewing of this teaser when I (accurately) realized that the movie was probably an exercise in misdirection, selling a supernatural drama as a supernatural thriller.  But said technique, editing mundane images to increase intensity, is a classic fake-out used to make dramas and/or more slow-burn pictures feel faster-paced or more conventionally exciting than they actually are (i.e. -- Nicole Kidman swiftly turning her head in
The Hours
Reign of Fire (2002)
Astute trailer watchers will notice that this is a classic kind of fake sell.  While the preview sells the idea of a hard action picture with humans pitted against dragons, complete with helicopters and tanks galore, careful viewers will note that most of the trailer contains not actual action, but merely frenetic incident (dragons landing, fireballs bursting, people running, etc.).  In actuality, this Rob Bowman film, is a dark and depressing survival story not that disconnected from end-of-the-world dramas like The Road or The Book of Eli (another film that was more of a drama than it's action-filled trailer would imply).  And if you do watch the trailer, you will notice that the narrative does seem to be building to one big action sequence, which is indeed accurate, while tricking viewers into thinking that the film has several action scenes prior to the finale.  But the biggest cause of viewer consternation were those repeated shots of helicopters flying around.  If you've seen the film, you know that there is only a single helicopter in the film, and it's used pretty sparingly.  It's a slightly underrated movie (McConaughey and Bale are quite good) but the trailer is a classic fake-out, a way to make the film look far more action-packed and epic-scale than it actually is.

The Prestige (2006)

In a weird coincidence, one of the best films of 2006 and one of my favorite films of the last decade also has one of the most misleading movie trailers ever released for a mainstream picture.  I wrote about this two years ago, but it really is an astonishing achievement.  Using footage and dialogue that is 99 percent representative of the movie, and completely accurate onscreen text, the trailer concocts a completely false narrative that completely hides the actual narrative of the sweeping, amoral period drama.  Instead, Chris Nolan's The Prestige is presented as a mystical good vs. evil thriller, pitting a good magician (Hugh Jackman) against an evil magician (Christian Bale) who may, in fact, be a real sorcerer.  The best part about this trailer is that it's so disconnected from the actual film that it remains a stand-alone treat to watch after you've seen the real movie.  It is a magic trick all on its own, using only clever editing to create a false plot out of whole cloth.  It's still my favorite trailer of the last decade, even though I, of course, now know that it is a giant lie.  

And that's it for now.  For a look at marketing campaigns that didn't quit while they were ahead, click HERE.  What are some of your favorite 'misleading movie trailers'?  Please share below.