Movie trailers are a tricky thing. They have to do their best to get you into the theater off of just two or three minutes of footage and some go a bit too far with it. A famous line is “trailers give away the movie” and “all the best jokes are inside,” but it’s the daunting task of the editors to put the message out and get promotion going. It’s harder when they know they have a bad movie but have to do their best to win folks over and make it watchable. This summer alone has seen several movies far worse than their trailers indicated (Independence Day Resurgence), but a few that were actually far better (Zootopia). It’s hard to figure totally, but some take a different direction.
Sometimes, it’s a studio mandate, other times it’s the trailer editor taking a different tack but ever so often, you’ll see a trailer that paints a completely different picture of a movie than the actual finished product. Teaser trailers can fall into this; a famous one is Alien 3 which promised the Aliens attacking Earth. However, thanks to various complications, the finished film’s story took place nowhere near Earth. Many a time, moviegoers have been tricked into going into what they thought would be a wild comedy, but got a dark drama and vice versa. Some movies use that such as Cabin in the Woods making audiences think it was a dark horror movie when it fact it was a sharp parody of that genre. Slews of examples abound but here are the biggest, 15 trailers that totally misled audiences to what the final movie was going to be and why “never trust a trailer” is a rather popular trope.
SPOILER warning for all movies:
This is a major example of misleading trailers and still amazes you today. This 2006 drama featured James Franco going into the Navy with the trailers highlighting brutal training and then going into combat with slews of jet fighters shown like a new Top Gun. Anyone who expected that was surprised when the training segments took up only 20 minutes of the movie and the “jet combat” sequences were practically non-existent. Instead, the movie is centered on Franco’s character learning to train in order to take on Tyrese Gibson in a big boxing match. The boxing is a “blink and you’ll miss it” bit in the trailer which continues to push a big action battle that never occurs. So it’s basically a Navy-set Rocky promoted like the next action piece, a move that no doubt helped crush its box office.
Watch the trailers for this 2005 film and you can see it as a war drama of Jake Gyllenhaal as a Marine signing up for action in the Middle East. The trailers show firefights, fighters attacking a base, soldiers about, it’s set as a huge action piece with some personal stuff mixed in here and there. In truth, the movie is all about avoiding any actual combat with Gyllenhaal’s character shown as a mental mess whose driven to a breakdown over problems of his girlfriend, partying and unable to comply with a Marine’s harsh life. The only “action” is a confrontation with nomads that passes quickly and several of the scenes of the trailer aren’t in the final film at all. It’s a good film with Gyllenhaal praised for his great performance but trying to sell it as a pure “war” piece rather than character drama did it little favors winning over audiences.
13. Sweeny Todd
It’s a great idea: Tim Burton directing Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway hit about the life of a barber (Johnny Depp) out for revenge on the man who ruined his life by sending him to jail on false charges. The trailers did push the dark side of things with Depp and Helena Bonham Carter uniting as a team who slice up people and then cook them into pies. They promised the dark tone and wicked humor, as well as a recreation of a darker London. What they didn’t show was that the movie was not only a musical, but one where the singing was constant. The closest was a bit of Todd yelling at people in the street, but the delivery didn’t sell the music side as much. Given the entire point of the film was to adapt a Broadway smash, avoiding marketing it as a musical at all was a strange move and while the movie was successful, many a viewer complained over not being prepared for the musical aspects that the trailers didn’t hint at.
12. Red Eye
This 2005 thriller was hailed by critics for its great tone and storyline. Rachel McAdams is a woman on a flight who realizes her fellow passenger (Cillian Murphy) is a terrorist who’s trying to force Rachel to aid in their schemes of an assassination or they’ll killer her father. It’s a tight cat and mouse game between them, McAdams not sure who else to trust as she and Murphy play a tight battle before a wild confrontation. The trailers at first played with the audience to make you think it was a romantic comedy before becoming sinister. However, they also threw in Murphy’s eyes glowing and his talk of “I’m here for you” making it look like this was a horror movie of some sort. The film still works as a thriller so why the studio tried to make the threat supernatural instead remains a rather baffling marketing move.
11. Lost in Translation
This 2003 film has been hailed for its great dramatic story of Bill Murray as a low-level American actor doing a commercial in Japan and striking a heartfelt romance with Scarlett Johansson. Sofia Coppola won an Oscar for the screenplay with presents a heartbreaking romance and talk of aging. You wouldn’t have known any of that from the trailer which presented the movie as a pure comedy of Murray bumbling in a foreign land with cliché Japanese jokes and even some toilet humor. The movie truly lived up to its title when it came to how the trailers presented one of the best films of 2003 as a forgettable laugh-fest rather than the great drama it truly was.
10. Observe and Report
It’s no surprise studios can model trailers after other successful trailers (see Suicide Squad clearly inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy), but this is a time it backfired. Those who saw the trailer for this 2009, Seth Rogen movie saw what looked to be the slapstick adventures of a mall cop who takes his job way too seriously, a knock-off of Paul Blart. The actual movie is a very dark comedy with Rogen’s character shown to be borderline sociopath to the point of shooting a flasher and many jokes involving drug use and even sexual assault. It’s one of Rogen’s best roles and a shame the studio’s intention of trying to mimic Blart kept audiences from coming out to this sharp dark film and why trying to copy too much can be a bad thing.
One look at the trailer and you could sense this was your typical Adam Sandler brain-dead comedy. He plays a harried dad who gets a “universal remote” from a salesman (Christopher Walken) that really does control the universe. He can rewind to remember big dates, take time to be his wife and pause time to pay back his abusive boss (David Hasselhoff). However, the movie actually shows the darker sides of this as Sandler fast-forwards to miss so much of his kids growing up, distant from his family and missing the chance to say goodbye to his dying father. It builds to him dying himself while failing to connect with his family and Sandler showing real acting chops as it ends with a more upbeat message. It’s actually among Sandler’s better films, far more intelligent than his usual work and the trailer’s “frat boy” approach may have driven some audience away.
Between Ryan Gosling’s star power and the title, you could be forgiven for thinking this was an action movie all the way. The trailers made it look like the next Fast and the Furious with Gosling going about massive chase scenes, Albert Brooks as a mobster out to get him, Christina Hendricks as a femme fatale and more. Instead, the movie was a critical smash by being a slow-paced tale that was almost film noir, Hendricks’ character killed early on, Gosling a mostly silent guy and the direction by Nicolas Winding Refn doing more slow takes and pushing psychology over action thrills. A famous story is one female moviegoer being so upset about what she saw as false advertising that she filed a lawsuit on the studio. It went to nowhere but showed how a trailer promising an action hit overwhelmed a fun drama.
7. Rules of Attraction
A rather famous example, this 2002 film was pushed in trailers as some sort of whacky teen comedy. With James Van Der Beek of Dawson’s Creek highlighting a cast that included Jessica Biel and Ian Somerhalder, the trailers showed partying, drinking, sex talk and more so moviegoers could be forgiven for going in expecting some fun laughs. This threw readers of the book the film was based on who knew it was actually a character study of Van Der Beek’s character, the younger brother of the nutcase from American Pyscho who was a sociopathic drug dealer. The entire film showed the darker side of youth with drug addiction and an ending indicating the death of a character in a motorcycle crash, so those who expected laughs got something else entirely.
6. World’s Greatest Dad
Robin Williams was known for balancing crazy comedies with more dramatic work, especially in the last years of his life. This 2009 film seemed to promote the dark comedy aspects with trailers showing Williams as a sad-sack poetry teacher hurting over his ex-wife seeing someone else and trying to connect with his son. They showed the two hanging together with offbeat talks and dinners and a bit of Williams apparently running nude in the hallways of the school. So it must have been quite the shock when viewers saw that less than halfway through the movie, the son dies in an autoerotic asphyxiation accident. Williams covers it up with a fake suicide note and the attention over the “grieving father” gets his own writing career going. Critics praised the tone, but you can understand moviegoers thrown that a whacky family comedy turned into a black character study.
Believe it or not, many doubted this Disney movie was going to be a huge success. A key reason is because the marketing department actually seemed to send the wrong message about the film. First, the teaser trailer showed living snowman Olaf playing on a frozen pond with reindeer Sven, giving the idea it would be about them and more a whacky comedy. The second trailer did show more footage but also gave the idea that Elsa was the “wicked” sister using her ice powers on purpose (which, ironically, was the original storyline). Neither trailer indicated either the fantastic musical numbers (none used “Let It Go”) or the powerful storyline of sisterly love that led to the movie becoming a phenomenon. It turned out to work great for Disney but still amazing how the early trailers bore little resemblance to the now-iconic film.
4. Executive Decision
Here’s a fun example of the trailer actually working to mislead audiences. This 1996 thriller has a group of terrorists hijacking a passenger plane (Halle Berry is a flight attendant) and using it to fly a chemical bomb over Washington that can kill millions. Kurt Russell is a CIA operative not used to field work whose put with a commando team with the daring idea of using a special jet to enter the plane in mid-air. Steven Seagal (then at the height of his box office drawing power) is the leader of the team and the trailers show him and Russell clashing, and thus clearly the idea of the two arguing over the right methods but end up working together to save the day. Thus, it comes as a true surprise when the landing goes wrong, the hook-up of the two planes failing and Seagal shuts a tunnel between them to save the rest of the group only to get sucked away five miles in the air. Killing off a guy of Seagal’s standing a half hour in the movie was a bold move, surprising that the infamously egotistical Seagal went with it and adds an “anyone can die” feeling to the film. This is one time misleading the audience with the trailer actually worked to make the movie better.
This new epic based on the life of the Greek hero seemed the perfect late-summer blockbuster. Dwayne Johnson played the title role and the trailers promised incredible action of Hercules taking on various threats, going about his Twelve Labors and battling huge creatures. Those who watched the movie soon discovered that all those massive battles took place in a montage in the first five minutes of the film. Even worse, they weren’t even real; the storyline is that Hercules is actually a mercenary with a crew and they’ve created this grand myth of him as a super-hero in order to con folks while going about normal adventures. The movie itself wasn’t terrible, but trying to present it as a true legendary tale when it wasn’t that at all ruined a lot of its potential at the box office.
Back in 2010, the term “catfishing” wasn’t well known but this movie changed that by bringing it into the spotlight. The trailers seemed to show a massive docudrama thriller, a true story with one review actually calling it “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never directed.” It followed Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost as they film their buddy Nev, who’s in a relationship online with a woman, the two texting and messaging a lot and Nev eventually tries to track her down. The trailers promise it a true thriller, packed with twists and turns and a major shock ending, the idea something truly terrible and tragic is going down. Instead, Nev simply finds out his “girlfriend” is a middle-aged woman whose created various online profiles for attention. It’s a bit of a twist but in no way the major shocking turn the trailers made it out as. The movie was still successful enough to spawn an MTV series and that’s due to the trailer making it seem like a much bigger deal than it truly was.
1. Bridge to Terabithia
A major example to be sure when it comes to “the movie is nothing like this.” Based on the popular young adult novel, this movie was pushed by the studio as something like Chronicles of Narnia as two young children find themselves escaping into a fantasy world. The trailer showed them in forests with a variety of creatures, even using magical swords so families went in expecting this lovely fantasy adventure. Instead, they saw that the kids were neighbours and friends, and that “Terabithia” was just a made-up world they dreamed up to play around in the woods as they handled various family issues. The “fantasy” stuff was just imaginary play and then led to the downer turn as the girl (Leslie) dies in a freak accident while playing “entering the kingdom.” This was quite true to the book but thanks to the trailers, book fans were thinking it was changed to real fantasy while those who didn’t read the book were upset about it being a darker drama than expected. The movie failed at the box office and the director and writers have admitted annoyance at the studio trying to cash in on fantasy by presenting as something it really wasn’t.