Trailers (or coming attractions, for those not up on the lingo) can be an art form in and of themselves. The best ones create a powerful gotta-see-it urge and are entertaining years after the movie itself has played out. The cool thing about laser/DVD, and now even some videos, is that you get to see the original theatrical trailer(s) for the movie. Most are dated; some, like the brilliant what-the-fuck-is-this-about-I-gotta-see-it trailer for the original ALIEN, are timeless -- the ALIEN trailer looks as if it could've been made yesterday.
Rarely, however, do we study bad trailers -- ads that actively put audiences off. The worst trailer in recent memory, hands down, is the one for MERCURY RISING. I've seen this fucking ad 7,000 times in the last two months. I know it by heart. I'm glad the movie is out now, because I won't have to see the trailer any more. Anyway, MERCURY RISING seems to exemplify all the don'ts of the art of trailers, so let's take it apart.
--> Cheesy, generic action-thriller music. Many trailers use snippets from the scores of other movies (James Horner's music for ALIENS has turned up in too many trailers to count). The music in the MERCURY RISING trailer doesn't sound familiar to me, but it goes from tinkly piano stuff (the autistic kid's theme?) to fake-JFK ominous evil-government music to generic orchestral burps cribbed from Howard Shore's style of moody music for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN.
--> The placement of the star. Fake suspense is created when a trailer goes on for about 20 seconds with no stars, giving the impression that the movie has none. Then the star makes his/her first appearance in a shot that looks suspiciously like it was filmed for the trailer. In this case, Bruce Willis struts into frame holding his badge aloft: "But for special agent Art Jeffries..." Hip audiences actually laugh at this moment: "Oh, it's a Bruce Willis movie."
--> Cheesy sound bites. The MERCURY RISING trailer is chockablock full of them. "These men have the ear of the president of the United States!" (Where do they keep it? Did they dump it in a field for Kyle MacLachlan to find?) "By this evening this situation will be resolved." "He's not your responsibility." "Whose responsibility is he?" Good trailers avoid anything that sounds remotely like a catchphrase. Wanna know how much dialogue there is in the ALIEN trailer? None.
--> Giving away too much. From the MERCURY RISING trailer, we know that the autistic kid's parents are murdered, that the Alec Baldwin character is scum, that Bruce Willis pulls the kid out of the way of the train, and that Alec and Bruce duke it out on a roof. None of this needed to be revealed. For a good example of an oblique trailer brilliantly designed to guard a movie's secrets, look at the one for ABSOLUTE POWER. Or ALIEN, for that matter. Both are so tantalizingly vague, so full of strobe editing, they're almost subliminal.
--> "Directed by Joe Shmo." Admittedly, MERCURY RISING isn't guilty of this one, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. The trailer for THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS announced with great pride, "Directed by Antoine Fuqua!" and everyone in the audience inevitably goes "Who the fuck is Antoine Fuqua?" Big-name directors like Cameron and Spielberg have a line of text, fading in and moving out at us: "A FILM BY JAMES CAMERON." Sometimes a voice will say, "From Joe Shmo, director of BIG MOVIE and BIG MOVIE 2" so you'll say "Cool, those movies rocked!" Occasionally you get "From the creator of/makers of." Columbia did this in the ads for I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, trumpeting "From the creator of SCREAM," and Miramax is suing Columbia for it. In fact, the IKWYDLS DVD was recalled because it contained those legally-shaky ads. According to its trailer, MERCURY RISING apparently directed itself; Bruce Willis appeared on the set, and the movie just sprouted up out of the ground around his feet.
--> "In a world..." Well, let's just quote Janeane Garofalo on this one, because I couldn't improve on it: "It's always In a world... Or In a town... And then Tommy Lee Jones comes out and does something."
--> Trailers that pile plot point on top of plot point, making the movie look like what it is -- an utterly predictable formula thriller. In MERCURY RISING you have the kid who cracks the code, and bad guys want to kill him, and his parents get whacked, and here's Bruce Willis with the badge, and the kid is autistic, and Bruce and the kid become like father and son (you just know Bruce is divorced with an estranged kid, too), and there's the business with the train and the roof ... Any smart viewer will watch this and say "Yeah, WARGAMES meets RAIN MAN," which is exactly what it looks like, which is exactly why we don't want to see it, which is exactly why it's gonna make two things: jack and shit.