Movie trailers ramping up the intensity

4:06 PM PST 05/03/2010 by Barbara Lippert, Adweek, AP

Commentary: Content often scarier than films they're selling

I'm all for marketing movies to kids, but how about being a little more honest about it?

Announcer: "From the director who gave your child nightmares for weeks and the producers who brought you the unbearable loudness of digital surround sound comes a tale with jumpy, swoopy, in-your-face 3D graphics that are so terrifying they would make Wes Craven wail. Yes, it's the kids' movie event of the spring!"

I mean, obviously, some children like to be scared, but that wasn't the case in my house. No matter how innocuous the movie, my son (who is now in college, and none the worse for wear) would put his hands over his eyes during the trailers. They petrified him when he was little.

With the tech breakthroughs in the last 10 years, trailers have only gotten more intense, chaotic and overwhelming.

Some would argue that they're only the messengers -- that the real culprits are the increasingly loud and CGI-based movies themselves. But because trailers have to squeeze so much into two minutes or less, they are often scarier than the content they're selling.

Take "Alice in Wonderland." Since its March 5 release, it has consistently been in the top 10 in box office and grossed more than $300 million, so quibbling about the marketing would seem to be a moot point. Besides, Tim Burton's dark and freaky vision is the whole draw of this film -- which is really an adult movie cross-marketed to kids -- and the story itself has been scaring children for generations.

Still, I haven't spoken to one parent who saw the "Alice" trailer before, say, a showing of the feature film Avatar, and said it didn't scare the stuffing out of the little ones. "My sons are 7 and 9," one mother told me, and after one look, they decided, "we'll skip that."

Another friend's fifth-grade daughter saw the trailer and said, "No way. I'm not seeing that. The Mad Hatter looks very creepy." The mom explained that the girl already had a bad association with Johnny Depp from the second Willy Wonka movie. "Sometimes she gets really scared by the trailers, and it makes her not want to go to sleep at night," she told me.

What about making a children's movie that isn't about a particular director's dark vision but about the beloved story itself? "How to Train Your Dragon" has raked in nearly $400 million worldwide in six weeks. It's gotten pretty great reviews as well, whereas the reviews for "Alice" were mixed. One of the "Dragon" trailers starts out pretty scary, with hatchets and fire and flying dragons, oh my. But the music goes from dark to lighthearted and triumphant, so most kids responded positively.

One dad told me his 6-year-old son loved the book and expected the dragon to be tiny. "When he saw the dragon's head, which was about 10 times larger than his, he got a bit freaked."

I remember getting nightmares from "The Exorcist" trailer (which did include the spinning head, as I recall). But today's visuals are far more assaulting and seem more real. And kids younger than 8 or so can't really distinguish between what's real and what's not.

Even if parents try to pick movies that are harmless, they have no control over the trailers beforehand. As a result, many parents I spoke to say they wait for the DVD, which often arrives just a few weeks later. One had another rule: "We don't do 3D. Too scary," she said. Well, that makes it easy.

As for the ultimate kids'-trailer tagline, I would suggest, "What? You were expecting sweet and whimsical?"
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