Have movie previews gotten to be too much?

Parents have been complaining for years about inappropriate coming attractions playing before movies aimed at younger or more innocent viewers—and it’s getting worse.

Part of the problem is simply more trailers. Enticed by marketing dollars, theater owners are cramming more and more previews in front of movies these days, as a recent Hollywood Reporter article notes.

What used to be two, three or four trailers ten years ago has ramped up to six, seven or even more—so many that marketers and exhibitors are starting to worry about poisoning audiences’ moods before the movie even begins. Plus, packing more trailers on more films only makes inappropriate trailer choices more likely.

In the US, recent changes in the MPAA’s approach to rating trailers have further mystified and complicated the problem, as BeliefNet’s “Movie Mom” Nell Minow (who broke the story last year) recently noted.

Until last year, trailers in American movie theaters were supposed to come in two basic flavors, “green band,” theoretically appropriate for “all audiences,” and “red band,” which could only play with movies rated R or NC-17. In practice, of course, a “green band” trailer for a PG-13 movie wasn’t necessarily appropriate for G-rated audiences. Still, at a basic level you could count on certain kinds of objectionable content not showing up in any green band trailer.

Those days are over. “Green band” trailers are now vaguely approved for “appropriate audiences,” which seems to mean that if you go to a PG-13 film you may see PG-13 content in the trailer—or worse. John Gholson at Cinematical recently noted raunchy humor in “green band” trailers for R-rated films like She’s Out of My League that seems to clearly cross the line into “red band” territory.

Beyond that, not all PG-13 content is created equal. Responsible parents may check out a particular PG-13 film and conclude that the content (fantasy violence, say) is acceptable for their 10-year-old—but then run into a trailer with unacceptably lewd content. Or maybe they’re okay with some bad language in an otherwise gentle film, but then they’re subjected to a terrifying trailer for a scary movie.

These trailers have supposedly been approved for “appropriate audiences”—a rather Orwellian term, Minow notes. Isn’t it the whole point of PG and PG-13 that parents have to decide when their children are the appropriate audience for something?

Obviously, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. A recent article in Hollywood Reporter complaining about overly intense family-film previews unwittingly made this point with the following dubious example:

I haven’t spoken to one parent who saw the [Alice in Wonderland] 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.”

Uh huh. So the trailer for Alice in Wonderland was too much for your kids, but you’re taking them to Avatar? Certainly, the Alice trailer is pretty creepy—but it’s also a reasonably accurate representation of the film. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine many people sitting happily through Avatar but getting freaked out by the Alice trailer. The industry gets a pass on that one.

Other times, though, not so much. Last year, a mother wrote to me to complain about taking her children to see Disney’s Bolt and being subjected to a preview for Coraline.

Coraline is also a creepy film (even creepier than Alice), and the creepiness of the trailer is, again, truth in advertising. But does it belong with Bolt, a funny, sweet action comedy with only mildly menacing and upsetting content? Because you’re the target audience for Bolt, does that mean you’re ready to handle the nightmare-inducing potential of even the preview for Coraline?

What’s the solution?

A somewhat drastic approach that may be helpful in some cases is to wait in the lobby until the trailers are over and walk into the theater just before the movie begins. (Ask at the box office what time the movie actually starts.) Good luck finding good seats, though, at least if it’s a popular movie early in the release cycle.

You might solve that problem by waiting several weeks before going to the movie. In the first place, though, that might be hard on your kids if they’re really eager to see the movie; and in the second place, who’s serving who? The industry should adapt to the people’s concerns, not the other way around.

If you do run into an inappropriate trailer, it may be helpful to ask for the manager and voice your concerns. Since many trailers are selected by the exhibitor, not the distributor, this feedback may have a direct effect on future viewing experiences at your local theater.

Then there’s the whole issue of trailers on the Internet, but that’s a problem for another day.

Your thoughts? Do you like to see coming attractions? How many is too many? Have you seen a preview recently that struck you as inappropriate for the movie you were seeing? Ever gotten satisfaction talking to a theater manager? Other thoughts?