MPW Blog: Two Trailers That Are Harbingers of Doom for American Cinema – by Jason Pyles

Harbingers of Doom

I realize that most of the people who listen to Movie Podcast Weekly or read this blog article are probably younger than I am. Yes, I’m 39 years old, and I promise if you hang with me through this article, my argument will amount to more than just a crotchety old man lamenting that “the times are a changing.”

If you’ve rolled your eyes or you’re bored already, then GET OFF MY LAWN!

The cinema has been evolving and changing ever since the very first motion pictures, circa 1895. Some historians peg the birth year at 1896, but I’ve mentioned both to cover my bases.

As remarkable as it seems, filmmakers and technicians are continually innovating and improving upon the techniques and technology behind film art.

To be clear, I believe this is exactly as it should be.

But please do me a favor here — even if you typically don’t watch trailers (Dino) — and watch the following two trailers as a personal favor to me, in order to give you context for the remainder of this article. Indeed, it was these two trailers below that have inspired this article.

Watch the “American Ultra” trailer:

Or here is the link for the American Ultra trailer

And watch the “We Are Your Friends” trailer:

Or here is the link for the We Are Your Friends trailer

Now, to be fair, I haven’t seen either of these movies yet. I’ve only seen these trailers. And admittedly, you can’t necessarily judge a film by its trailer. Naturally, I believe a film critic should watch the entire movie before passing judgment (Andy).

Having acknowledged this, I want to ask you if these trailers struck you as they’ve struck me.

Above all, these two trailers reek of studio demographic targeting and marketing strategy masquerading as “artistic merit.” What I mean by that is, they seem like some studio execs sat around and asked one another, ‘What are kids into these days?’ And the components of these films were born out of a lot of simple sentences that start with “Kids love _______.”

Thus:
Kids love pot.
Kids love violence.
Kids love anti-heroes.
Kids love getting high.
Kids love music.
Kids love DJs.
Kids love dancing.
Kids love Zac Efron.

Etc.

That’s just how these trailers seem to me. I don’t know the journeys these movies have made; perhaps these films were honest-to-goodness indie productions that were purchased by bigger production companies. And perhaps they were this way all along, or perhaps they had some studio interventions.

Chinatown

Either way, they strike me as “trying too hard” to encapsulate the young America of 2015.

Honestly, reader, have you ever sat down to watch “Chinatown” (1974). If you haven’t, you surely must.

But if you consider ‘70s films to be “old movies,” then what about “House of Sand and Fog” (2003)? Need something even more recent? How about “Blue Ruin” (2014)?

These movies are all rich with story. “Blue Ruin,” for example, is a simple story, but it’s rich nevertheless. The characters are plausible and they resemble what we know about human nature from our real lives, and their motivations are completely understandable. The three films I mentioned above were made because their filmmakers had a story to tell, not because “Kids love revenge plots.”

House of Sand and Fog

I fear that films like “American Ultra” and “We Are Your Friends” have been made because they reflect some sort of “perceived cultural tendencies” that “kids these days” will relate to and therefore embrace. Meanwhile, modern cinema suffers…

Dear filmmakers:
Instead of trying to lure your young moviegoers with one candy bar flavor that they may or may not actually like, why not metaphorically build a full-blown candy factory by creating engaging cinema that’s rich with story and sympathetic characters, and let the variety of flavors inherent in an entire factory lure the whole town on its own terms?

I’m sensing a continuation of that same, slippery slope-of-a-shift in American cinema that film alarmists like me have lamented for decades now. In other words, I know there are critics who have been bemoaning the death of the cinema for many years now, but I think trailers like the two we’ve seen for “American Ultra” and “We Are Your Friends” truly signal that the sky is falling on the motion picture industry.

Will I see these two movies? Probably. Will I enjoy them? Maybe. And maybe I’ll even love them and be pleasantly surprised by them, in which case, this blog article will all seem moot, and I’ll have to admit that I was wrong. I can live with that. I hope I am wrong about these two particular films.

But I fear I’m not wrong about the slow decline of the cinema. The Business is cannibalizing The Art, and once The Art is gone, the only way we can start to bring it back is for us moviegoers to take aim at The Business.

Who will stand with me?


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12 thoughts on “MPW Blog: Two Trailers That Are Harbingers of Doom for American Cinema – by Jason Pyles

  1. Oh Jay… you’re jumping the gun yet again, bro! I admire your passion for wanting to keep the cinema pure and alive, but I don’t think your concerns are well founded at all. So what if some movies are aimed at a younger audience? So what if some movies contain hip cultural trends that you don’t understand? This is not a new trend, it has always been the case with every generation. I think perhaps—and forgive me for being blunt—you’ve reached a point in life where you’re completely disconnected with today’s youth and so you feel a little bit threatened by this sudden change that you’re just beginning to take notice of. Let me share with you a personal anecdote that will hopefully make you feel better. I’m 33 years old and I try to stay current with trends and culture in general and I always thought that I had a pretty good idea of what today’s generation was all about. Well, as informed as I like to be, it’s a totally different experience when you immerse yourself in said culture. A few years back I went to a Tyler the Creator concert with a friend. For all of you not familiar with hip hop, Tyler is a rapper from California and part of the infamous group Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All. He was part of the “internet rappers” wave that was super popular just a few years ago. Anyway, a friend and I went to this concert and once there reality hit us and as soon as we had a good look around us, we said to each other “dude, we’re way too old to be here”. I don’t think anyone in the room was over 18 years old and here you had a couple of 30 year olds trying to party with a bunch of high school kids. The cultural gap that we thought wasn’t there suddenly seemed as apparent and large as the Grand Canyon. I didn’t even enjoy the concert. My mind was too preoccupied processing what was going on and how different things were from “back in the good old days”. I perfectly understand where you’re coming from, Jay, but you have to understand that your likes and wants do not necessarily align with this generation’s. And there is absolutely no way that you can make them like the artful stuff. They’ll like it when they’re ready. You were young once. I’m sure you remember how different your mind worked back then. We had different ideas and priorities. If what the young audience wants to watch are the two movies you listed above, then let them have them. That is not going to prevent you from having your Blue Ruins.

    Now, as far as filmmakers wanting to cash in on the sensibilities of today’s generation, that’s not going to change. Ever. Money is king. It has always been king and will forever continue to be king. This is nothing new. As long as that continues to be a fact, we will have Adam Sandler movies for ages to come. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t get quality filmmaking. If that were true, you wouldn’t have Blue Ruin. This year has been great for movies. I’ve watched tons of quality stuff and it’s barely the middle of the year. I’m not sure why you’re so worried about the cinema, Jay, but I for one am pretty satisfied with it. Could things get better? Sure. Things could always be better. But they could always be worse.

    And just fyi, I liked both trailers above. They seem like fun movies that I’d be interested in watching. We Are Your Friends might be trailing a little too close to the “trying too hard” line, but I think the DJ culture it’s trying to portray is not too far from the real thing. Trust me on this.

    <3 Juan

  2. Ok… so, I watched the trailers because I had to see what the hullabaloo was all about. And, here’s the thing – whether or not I enjoyed the trailers is irrelevant to the point you’re making about the actual movies.

    As you’ve said before several times on this very podcast, the filmmakers are rarely involved in making the trailers. That’s usually done by the studios and marketing types. So, yes, the trailers will most likely “reek of studio demographic targeting and marketing strategy” because they’re trying to get their hooks into a potential audience, not sell the artistic merit of the film. If these people could sell story and artistic merit in a 3-minute clip, then they’d probably be making films, not trailers.

    It’s true that I don’t normally watch trailers so I’m not speaking from a place of experience, but I imagine this is how most trailers go. Take horror movies, for example – a common complaint on HMP is that all the best scares of a movie were in the trailer. That’s because they (the people cutting the trailers) are trying to illicit a certain visceral response within their target demographic. So, naturally, they’re going to show the scary bits more than getting into the story. Same goes for action movies and comedies.

    In the end, the quality of the trailer has no correlative relationship to the quality of the film itself. So, getting all film alarmist over a bunch of trailers seems a bit presumptuous. Is there a lot of trash out there today? Yes, of course there is, but there are also far more movies being made now than ever before. So, with that, there’s bound to be a watering down in quality. I know this goes back to the “quality over quantity” debate, but money (quantity) will always win out. Like I’ve said before (over at HMP), I’m ok with that if it means the business keeps moving. That doesn’t mean I want crap movies, but I want these players to stay in the game so we can get the occasional gem.

    Also, Juan made a great point above about the generational disconnect, and how this isn’t a new phenomenon. When we were growing up, we had John Hughes films and other movies like WAYNE’S WORLD, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, REALITY BITES, CLERKS, and RISKY BUSINESS. All great movies in my mind, but I know my parents’ generation – the baby boomers – were likely lamenting the fact that they didn’t make movies like THE GRADUATE or ANNIE HALL anymore.

    That said, and to another of Juan’s points above, there’s a lot of really great cinema out there now as well. We’re only halfway through the year and I can comfortably say I’ve seen five 2015 films that can be argued as masterpieces in their respective genres. That’s simply astounding.

    So, J, I’m with you in the sense that I want quality films. I will stand with you on the side of The Art in the battle against The Business. I just don’t see evidence that it’s time to sound those alarm bells.

    And, for the record, the trailer for AMERICAN ULTRA actually makes me want to see that movie.

  3. p.s. I love that you’re so impassioned over film and the state of cinema. Stuff like this blog post and your latest HMP episode are absolute gold; well-constructed love letters to an art form we all love – the cinema. Even if I don’t necessarily agree with your every point, I certainly enjoy listening and reading your perspective, and the ensuing discussion.

    So, for that, thank you.

  4. I have to admit, I’m surprised at this article. Watching the two trailers before I read anything, I assumed that this article would be about Hollywood’s love of revealing too much in their trailers. In both trailers, I felt like I had watched the movies rather than watch a short snippet of a movie made to make me want to watch the film. I suppose it’s not so bad for WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS as it’s a pretty straightforward flick. However, in the case of AMERICAN ULTRA, it seems as if they revealed every twist. I know how the film begins, the big twists and ultimately what the last major battle will be. The surprise factor that AMERICAN ULTRA had going for itself is lost.

    This same thing happened to me with 2011’s DREAM HOUSE. In it’s trailer, it revealed a couple of big twists and to this day, I still haven’t seen the movie because I assume I know everything that’s going to happen in it already. I suppose it is possible that the big twists in the trailer are just things that happen early in the film and the real twists weren’t revealed, but again, I wouldn’t know because the trailer killed any interest I had to watch the film.

    Are the portrayals of young people in mainstream films these days unrealistic? Perhaps, but it’s hardly what stood out to me in the two trailers you posted. I’d have have paint-by-number young characters than feeling as if I watched a movie just by watching it’s trailer.

  5. Dino and Juan, and to some extent, Sal:

    First of all, thank you all for reading my article. You three are very kind. Second, thanks for taking the time to comment on it. MPW and HMP have the best Internet community period.

    Guys, I really believe I acknowledged your points in my article, and if I didn’t, I will acknowledge them now:

    Yes, times change. Yes, culture changes. Yes, as people (like me) start to age, we begin to resent the youth and their new ways, because we’re convinced that “they aren’t as good as my good old days.” Yes, to all your points along those lines. I recognize and fully accept the fact that I’m “losing touch.” I have no shame in admitting this, and in fact, I bet I’m even more crotchety than Karl, in terms of old man grumpiness.

    But don’t miss my point (which yes, is very similar to my argument for Jason Blum over at HMP). I will answer Juan’s excellent anecdote with another music-related anecdote that I think David might appreciate (wherever he is):

    I fancy myself a musician. I used to be a singer-songwriter. I was never famous, but I had some mild success — self-produced two albums and actually sold about 1,500 of them. In short, I know a little about music and musicianship. (If you don’t believe me, listen to my former show, The Songwriting Podcast, http://songwritingpodcast.com/ I recommend Episode 007.)

    I’m a child of the ’80s, a decade that wasn’t the height of musical achievement. But I grew up on voices like Michael Jackson’s. I will use MJ as my example here. Regardless of what you thought of him as a person, his vocal quality and ability was extremely impressive. In other words, it took a certain degree of “talent” and musicianship to be Michael Jackson. To write lyrics like Don McLean, that took some genuine ability.

    There are still musicians with ability today, but I believe there is a widespread epidemic in the lowering of the bar for musical talent. Some people who are “famous musicians” today would not have “made it” back in the 1970s, for instance. Now, a rough or out-of-tune vocal quality is just characteristic of a musician being “raw” or “real” or “organic” or “heartfelt.” (I know this is true, because I skated along on these same excuses with my sub-par vocal abilities. It’s a sham. Many so-called singers today can’t sing — not the way Michael Jackson could sing, for instance.)

    And yes, much like movies, I’m doing the same thing with music: Here we are with the same argument that has gone on for decades, where the older folks are criticizing “kids these days,” etc. I know. I know.

    I know that’s what I’m doing. But my point is, I believe I am at the point in my life where it has befallen me, as my duty as a lover of art, to raise hell during the mid-day to early evening of my life, because I’m worried about the artistic legacy that is going to be left behind for my children and their children.

    Juan and Dino — if we believe we know what “art” is, then is it not our duty (and of course, our right) to try to preserve it and further the cause? Your damn right it’s our duty, my friends! Even though I’m merely playing a predictable role in a recurring cycle, it’s my turn now to play that role so I had better beat these drums!

    And I predict that you’ll remember “ol’ Jay of the Dead” someday when the mantle of clarion curmudgeon has been passed to you. You will be griping, too. And it’s all we can do, but as long as we’re trying, futile as it may be, I think there’s nobility in that.

    Much love,
    Jason (aka Jay of the Dead)
    Lover of art … as I have come to define it.

  6. I don’t know if you saw Jay, but WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS ended up bombing at the box office to the extent that it’s doubtful they will even make back their meager six million budget.

    After two weeks, it doesn’t look like AMERICAN ULTRA is doing much better either. I doubt they’re going to make back their budget either.

    Maybe it’s a sign that what you said about the movie not offering moviegoers anything other than the cliche key interests that you spelled out in your blog post. Then again, maybe it failed for a completely different reason.

    • Don’t encourage him, Sal.

      I think the time of the year has a little something to do with it, too. Late August is a slow time for the movie theaters… back to school, and all….

      • Hey, someone had to make Jay feel better after practically predicting the death of the cinema with these two films.

        There’s a lot of reasons why the two movies may have failed, the time of the year being one of them. However, the reason why they were pushed to such lame release dates could be because they didn’t offer moviegoers enough of a reason to care about them. That could be total BS, but I’d still say it’s a tiny victory for Jay. He had a stance on something wrong with these movies and moviegoers showed with their wallet that they weren’t interested in them. Will this affect a single thing in Hollywood? Probably not though.

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