Saturday, January 12, 2008

REVIEW: The power of trailers is legend

Phelim O'Neill
Friday December 21, 2007
The Guardian

The Dark Knight
Batman returns... The Dark Knight

If you go to see Will Smith starring in the big-budget adaptation of Richard Matheson's influential apocalyptic vampire novel, I Am Legend, at an Imax cinema, you'll see some spectacular scenes - but perhaps not the ones you were expecting. You'll see an armed robber tear off his mask to reveal an even scarier visage: his whitened cheeks bearing scars cut from the corners of his mouth, with a crude, red smear of lipstick. This terrifying apparition, taking up all of the colossal Imax screen, marks moviegoers' introduction to the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger.

If you've read I Am Legend or seen the previous movie adaptations (The Last Man On Earth and The Omega Man), then you'll recall that Batman's nemesis has thus far been conspicuous by his absence. That's still the case, sadly, but Warners has tagged on to the programme seven minutes of its new Batman movie, The Dark Knight (six minutes being the introduction to the Joker, with the rest made up from snippets of key sequences), way ahead of the movie's July 2008 opening date.

This experiment marks the convergence of two trends in film marketing. Firstly, the practice of delivering exclusive footage with another film. You may recall the fuss when George Lucas's Star Wars: The Phantom Menace trailer hit cinemas. In the US, for many weeks, you could only view it in theatres playing the Denzel Washington thriller, The Siege. Washington's pre-9/11 piece of scaremongering had nothing in common with Lucas's space opera - yet screenings were packed with Star Wars fans who had paid admission simply to catch the two-minute trailer before leaving en masse as the main feature unreeled.

The Phantom Menace trailer leads us to the second of the new marketing schemes. Trailers are traditionally, by and large, as misleading and dishonest as they can legally be: they cut together the best shots of a film without giving anything close to a true representation of what it is about. So now, usually on the internet, it's becoming common to release a few minutes, often from the movie's opening, to give the audience a proper taste of what to expect. This has worked exceedingly well for films with impressive opening sequences that seemed almost tailor-made to stand alone and leave viewers wanting more, such as the remake of Dawn of the Dead or Joss Whedon's feature version of his cancelled TV show Firefly, Serenity. Perhaps that was always the intent.

It was definitely the intent this time: director Christopher Nolan was clearly looking for the big bang of the Imax trailer effect when he made The Dark Knight. Four of the film's big action scenes were filmed in the format, a first for a blockbuster. The air was sucked out of the room by a collective gasp from those attending the preview in London recently as Gotham city appeared in razor sharp detail on a 20-metre screen.

So what has the Dark Knight footage done for the buzz about its parent film? Apart from anything else, it has silenced any doubts viewers might have had about the controversial casting of Ledger as the Joker. It may not sound particularly vital, but the core fan groups of genre - and particularly comic book-adapted movies - are incredibly vocal on the internet and can be merciless on a perceived casting mistake or thematic alteration from source material long before cameras have even stopped rolling. The effect such criticism has is palpable: the studios have run scared since the demolition job did on Batman & Robin in 1997. And one happy side effect for Will Smith? It may just give I Am Legend the extra push he needs to survive a box office apocalypse.

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