Mark Harris explains how understanding a 90-second preview can help you avoid wasting eight bucks on pure junk

By Mark Harris
Updated August 13, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fight Club

  • Movie

EW names the five sins of this summer’s movie trailers

I saw ”The Sixth Sense,” last weekend’s surprise box office champ, the other day. It’s a terrific movie with a lot to recommend it — a knockout ending, a superbly sustained atmosphere of otherworldly dread, a finely calibrated performance by Bruce Willis, and star-making work by 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, one of the most mature and skilled child actors to come along in years. All in all, a very pleasant surprise — and a movie I had absolutely no intention of catching until I saw the trailer. Wow! What a trailer — that icy whisperiness, that elegant pacing, that killer tag line (”I see dead people”) — it stood out among the clutter of noisy summer junk and shot the movie straight to the top of my must-see list.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. In EW Online’s Critical Mass Movie Poll — in which, by the way, you collectively gave the movie an A- — 63 percent of you cited either the trailer or the good reviews as the reason you went to see ”The Sixth Sense.” That’s the highest percentage in those categories for any summer movie — so if Hollywood needed any convincing that trailers matter, look no further. Which leads me to my question: If trailers are so important, why are most of them so… how to put this?… completely, miserably butt-awful? Here’s a rundown of their multitude of sins.

1. Trailers that give away the entire movie Is anything in a theater (other than people who repeat every punchline of a comedy aloud) more infuriating? I recently caught a trailer for a cool-looking Paramount movie called ”Double Jeopardy,” with Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones. From the trailer, here’s what I learned: Ashley goes on a boat trip with her husband and wakes up in the middle of the night to find a bloody knife. He’s missing and presumed dead. She’s convicted, wrongly, of his murder. While in prison, she finds out that not only is he alive and well, he staged his ”murder” so that he could marry Ashley’s best friend and take their kid — Ashley’s baby! — away from her. Reasoning that she can’t be convicted of killing him twice (thus the title), Ashley gets out of jail and, pursued by Tommy Lee, who’s trying to stop her, she finally tracks down her husband and at gunpoint, demands their kid back.

Honest to God, does that trailer leave anything out other than the end credits? I haven’t seen ”Double Jeopardy,” so maybe everything described above takes place in the first half hour of the movie. Somehow, I doubt it.

2. Trailers that contain the seeds of their own destruction Sony’s trailer for the Southern coming-of-age drama ”Crazy in Alabama” rolls along pleasantly — the audience is semi-digging its small-town atmosphere and Melanie Griffith in wacky mode — until the voice-over announcer grandly utters the following words: ”The directorial debut of Antonio Banderas.” No offense to Antonio — loved him in ”Evita” — but the peals of hysterical laughter that ripped through the theater suggested that this is not the most brilliant of selling points.

3. Trailers that let no shot go on for more than three seconds and cross-cut everything to a thumping soundtrack Actually, these are perversely GOOD trailers, since they let you know in advance that the film in question is likely to be incoherent hog swill. Three words: ”Wild Wild West.”

4. Trailers that ruin a movie’s best joke That humping-the-dessert gag may have sold an awful lot of tickets to ”American Pie,” but admit it — you would have laughed harder in the movie if you’d been allowed to be surprised by that scene.

5. Any trailer that begins with the baritone phrases ”In a world where…” or ”It was a time of….” (And by the way, is it against some MPAA law for a woman to do a voice-over once in a while?) Any trailer that contains the line ”Only one man can stand in their way.” Any trailer in which the actors’ names appear to be made of riveted steel and are accompanied by slamming-metal sounds. Any trailer that promises to ”warm your heart.” And any trailer that reuses music from ”The American President,” ”A Few Good Men,” or ”Far and Away.” All of these devices are shorthand for ”We don’t exactly know what this movie is, but we do know what we want to rip off.”

My favorite trailer right now is for ”The Fight Club.” Have you seen it? Here’s what it tells you. Brad Pitt. Edward Norton. The director of ”Seven.” Dark, twisted atmosphere. A secret society of violence. A plot element involving an extremely sinister-looking bar of soap. And that’s it. If you want more, you’ll have to see the movie. I can’t wait.

Episode Recaps

Fight Club

  • Movie
  • R
  • 139 minutes