The lights went down, the screen lit up. I was at the movies with my five- and nine-year-old children. I relaxed into the seat, popcorn and drink in hand.
Soon, I was exhausted from the effort to cover my children's eyes and whisper comfort in their ears as unexpected violent and vivid images cascaded over them. I only relaxed when the lights went up. Bad movie choice? Not exactly.
These were the trailers, those three and sometimes four-minute film shorts chock-full of the most titillating parts of upcoming movies - all those elements we'd spent the better part of an afternoon negotiating out of our final film choice.
As we left the theater that night, I found myself wondering about trailers - who decides which ones we see? How can they show a trailer for an R-rated film before a G-rated movie? What's a parent to do about the sudden and unwelcome appearance of a trailer for a film children won't even be allowed to see?
Barrett Travis, who works in distributor relations at the United Artists Theatre Circuit, says a great deal of thought goes into choosing a trailer. His office pairs trailers with films for 420 theaters from New York to Florida and Washington.
"We do not want to offend the patrons," says Mr. Travis. "We want to market our movies and the best way to do that is to make the moviegoers happy."
But not all moviegoers have been satisfied. In 1989, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) passed a resolution stating that trailers shown before a G-rated film should be G-rated. But the effect of this resolution has been muted because the rating categories for trailers have merged into only two choices: G-PG or R.
The trailers are rated by Bethlyn Hand at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and her team of five mothers. She notes that 95 to 97 percent of all trailers are G-PG. Although you may have heard or seen otherwise, Hand's criteria includes "no guns to the head, no sexuality, no profanity. But everything is intensity," she says, adding "you can have action without violence." The result? Most R-rated films have trailers with a G-PG rating and could therefore be shown before a G-rated film.
Studios and exhibitors try to keep the genres together, she points out, matching an action trailer with an action film. But they have to weigh that need against the need to get the bodies in the theater for that all-important opening weekend. "Studios want to use every tantalizing thing they can pick out of a movie to get you into their theater," Ms. Hand says.
Movie studios have always used trailers, or previews as they used to be called. For decades, the pitch was nothing more than a catchy phrase and some star photos. As movies got more explicit during the 1960s and '70s, the trailers got slightly more so. But it wasn't until the big-event movies ("Jaws" in 1975, followed by "Star Wars" in 1977) that trailers became so important. Over time, as film budgets have burgeoned ("Jaws" cost $8.5 million vs. "Titanic" at $200 million), trailers have become even more important - especially during a film's opening weekend when attendance is at its peak.
According to United Artist's Travis, the trend has accelerated in the past four years.
"They are the key element, the single most important way of targeting a proven audience - people who are already in a theater," he says.
What's a parent to do? Wait until the trailers are over to enter the theater? The MPAA's Ms. Hand adds that it's either that or check the list of trailers with management ahead of time. "We can rate the trailers, but ultimately it's up to the parents to figure out what their children should see." These days, she adds, that includes the coming attractions.