Like young singles hoping to land a date by the end of the night, a movie trailer hopes to stand out from the crowd and make you take notice – make you want to approach it and learn more about it, ultimately leaving you with a sense of curiosity, wanting more. It wants you to call back, plan a date to come see it, invest your time, attention – and yes, your money – to get the full show.
But what happens when the deed is done, and in the aftermath you see that what you got isn’t at all what you thought it was? The makeup and dressings of marketing were used to cover up the reality – and that reality is something you’d never be interested in, had you known the truth going in. In that case, what is typically beautification becomes illusion – what is typically careful presentation becomes an outright lie, and our anger at being tricked is all we’re left holding on to.
Advertising is an industry that has been built on selling a vision or dream in a place of a real product. Everybody lies in advertising to some degree – just as people lie to some degree when they first court one another. Few people are honest upfront about their baggage or damage or raw, unsculpted appearance, and movie studios are the same way. All of us have experienced our fair share of movie duds – how many of them came out and told you they were duds upfront, rather than trying to show you some pretty picture first?
It’s one thing when a unattractive film tries to show off its best parts in a trailer, thereby creating the impression that whole show is as gorgeous or fun or witty. We get that. (Hell, its practically the written law of dating.) But when does a trailer go from being on the safe side of “good salesmanship” and fall into the territory of “con artist?” Lately we’ve noticed an uptick in the number people crying foul about what they thought were misleading trailers luring them into bad movie experiences; we decided to look at a couple of recent cases and examine what happened, and if there was truly a case of false movie advertising.
News hit a few weeks back that a Michigan woman named Sarah Deming is suing studio FilmDistrict over what she considers to be a case of false advertising for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver who gets caught up in some bad business with a local mob, and the trailers for the film sold it at as a gritty flick full of car chases, violence, thrilling action and suspense. Basically, according to Sarah Deming, she was expecting another Fast and the Furious-type flick – a sentiment that many other disgruntled movie goers have since echoed.
In our Drive review here at Screen Rant, we let it be known in no uncertain terms that Drive was no Fast and the Furious. Refn is more of an artistic director, and while the film had its fair share of action moments (and some serious violence), it was largely a slow-burn and understated piece of cinema, with characters who spoke very little dialogue and long scenes of imagery set to offbeat ’80s pop music. In short: it was “weirder” or more “boring” than your average movie goer is used to from an “action film.” So did the trailers lie, promising something that wasn’t there?
While Drive did seem like more of an action/thriller in the trailer above, in this case it’s hard to see Deming’s accusation holding much water. First of all, no one should walk into a movie these days with such a large false impression. For all their downsides, one great thing the Internet and social media have done is widen the scope of public discourse; if you want to know if a product is good, or a movie is worthwhile, you don’t just have to listen to what the ads are selling you, or what those “snobby critics” complain about – you can get the lowdown from other average Joes who now have the platform to share their thoughts alongside the industry elite. You don’t even have to read some basement-dweller’s novel-length blog on a product or film - a quick keyword search on Twitter or Facebook can bring you loads of public opinion on just about anything – including the truth behind any misleading advertising. Just imagine if you could do that for dating – who wouldn’t use that service?
That’s all to say: Deming didn’t do her due diligence, in my opinion. I myself threw a big WARNING in my own Drive review, letting people just like Deming know what they would and WOULD NOT be getting with the film. My review was posted well in advance of the film’s release, and I was preceded by many other reviews and people who had been to festival screenings, so the information was waiting out there on the Interwebs, just one search away from telling Sarah Deming what she needed to know.
More to the point: every single shot and moment featured in the Drive trailer was shown in the theatrical film. There are movies that never get accused of false advertising, yet they feature trailer moments that didn’t make it into the actual theatrical cut of the film. With Drive, what you were promised was what you got – even though the way you got it may not have been equal to initial expectation. So, was this trailer misleading, or just smart about how to show itself off and highlight its best qualities? For my money, it’s the latter case: and as with the dating scene, it may be annoying, but it’s far from illegal.
However, I can’t say the same for Paranormal Activity 3….
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS!)
Paranormal Activity 3 hit theaters this past weekend, bringing the latest installment in the found-footage / haunted house franchise hit. This third film was actually a prequel set in the 1980s, and had a simple task to accomplish: show us the events from sisters Kristi and Katie’s childhood that led to their house burning down, their mother going crazy, and a demonic entity coming back to haunt them in their adult lives – events all described in Paranormal Activity 1&2.
When the Paranormal Activity 3 trailers started to debut, it was strongly hinted that we would see all of the aforementioned events play out, and much more. Check out both the teaser trailer and full trailer below:
Just to be clear what the issue is, here: about 75% (if not more so) of what you see in those two trailers above doesn’t actually happen in the movie. This includes developments like the house on fire; the mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), being all-too-aware that the demon does in fact exist; a demonologist revealing facts about the entity’s connection to Julie’s family; the girls’ ‘Bloody Mary’ game revealing what is ostensibly a female-shaped ghostly silhouette in the bathroom, and so on.
Basically: the trailers showed off a completely different movie than the one we got in theaters. Imagine showing up for a date for someone you thought you liked, only to find their friend sitting there grinning at you.
We discuss the case of Paranormal Activity 3‘s marketing in the upcoming episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast, and as our editor Ben Kendrick pointed out: in terms of delivering what it promised, Paranormal Activity 3 didn’t stray. This franchise is built on the idea of home video being used to record an escalating series of freaky supernatural events (typically at night), interspersed with daytime plot and character developments. As we said in our Paranormal Activity 3 review, that’s exactly what this film (once again) delivered. But if a film like Drive is facing lawsuits over how it advertised scenes which are in fact in the movie – what are we to make of a film that advertised so many scenes that were not in the actual movie?
A case can be made for the fact that too often these days, movie trailers show too much of a movie. Not only do we get a detailed account of what the movie is about, we often get a pretty idea of how everything in the film is going to play out. We know the ending before it comes, the development of the characters, twists, character deaths, etc. When juxtaposed to movie trailer ‘TMI,’ it becomes clear why some viewers can view the case of Paranormal Activity 3 as “misdirection” rather “lying.”
To play devil’s advocate: we know in a Paranormal Activity movie that we’re going to get jump scares, a few twists, and freaky tricks of photography and sound that turn a home into a menacing realm of evil. If what we saw in the PA3 trailers still reflected those kinds of aforementioned tropes and occurrences, then weren’t the trailers honest about what kind of film they were selling us (a creepy, scary one)? Isn’t it a GOOD thing that the entire movie wasn’t spoiled for us before we sat down to watch it? That all the scares used in the actual movie were fresh and surprising? Some would say “yes.”
In my own opinion, this film crossed a line in terms a misleading us about what kind of movie we were going to see. Each of those unused scenes in the trailer represented a specific story beat or plot/character development, and those are the elements that define what a story is, and therefore, if it is a story we want to see. By showing us the deleted bits, Paramount was promising us a non-existent story; in my mind, that is deserving of the term, “false advertising.” (See also: Catfish, a film no-so-coincidentally made by the directors of Paranormal Activity 3.)
The cases of Drive and Paranormal Activity 3 offer an interesting juxtaposition on the issue of movie marketing: One uses pieces of the actual film to arguably sell itself as something different than it is; the other uses extraneous pieces not actually in the film to sell itself as something it actually is, while keeping the experience of seeing the film fresh and unspoiled. Which is the better approach? Which tactic crosses the line between ethical and unethical (or do they both violate that line?). Is there no foul to cry in either case – is this all just part of the courtship dance between movie studios and their potential ticket buyers?
Let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below.
Drive and Paranormal Activity 3 are now playing in theaters.