They depict more blood, gore, and violence than usual. They display more skin and include cruder language. But movie studio execs insist that "red band trailers" – so called for the red, "restricted audiences only" warning that precedes the explicit previews – do not represent an intentional coarsening of American sensibilities.
Rather, they are a marketing phenomenon that has resurfaced with the proliferation of R-rated movies and the growth of the Internet, especially the popularity of viral mediums like YouTube.
With the Hollywood box office faltering after years of record-breaking income, the proliferation of these trailers is also being seen as more evidence that movies feel the need to grab customers by the lapels to get their attention.
The film industry claims the additional freedom helps them more accurately portray what's in their R-rated films. "These have become a growing part of the marketing campaigns for all the kinds of films that can take advantage of what red band trailers offer," says Adam Fogelson, president of marketing and distribution for Universal Pictures.
"We have been severely hamstrung in selling these kinds of movies without the ability to get a trailer that accurately represents the content and style of these films. It's been very hard to help audiences make an informed choice without these," he adds.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) – the body responsible for the red, yellow, and green color band designations on trailers – has approved 30 red band trailers this year, equal to the number approved in the previous seven years.
Once in more common use, red band trailers fell out of favor when a Federal Trade Commission report in 2000 targeted the trailers as evidence that moviemakers were aiming R-rated content at children.
Studios resurrecting them now claim to be using them as a niche marketing tool to reach select audiences for selective content.
The practice gained momentum in March this year with the announcement that Regal Entertainment Group – which operates 6,388 screens in 39 states – announced they will be showing restricted trailers in their theaters, though only before NC-17 or R-rated movies. The corporation declined to comment on the reasons for the move.
According to the MPAA, distributors who have long lobbied for the use of restricted trailers were pleased with the decision because it allows them to market restricted content to the right audience.
"Having trailers play only before appropriate audiences for a movie provides the filmmaker with the opportunity to give the audience a more accurate preview of an upcoming film, while at the same time fulfilling MPAA's primary obligation to parents to preclude marketing of inappropriate content directly to their children," says an MPAA document.
As with all forms of digital media, the skunk at the garden party is piracy. Many red band trailers are available on the Internet, primarily on YouTube – the free website where users can post and watch video clips. This means that such trailers can be watched by underage viewers.
Universal Pictures' Mr. Fogelson says the company is working with YouTube to have inappropriate content removed when detected. "Many scoff, but the industry is actively, aggressively, and carefully doing what it can to responsibly place the material," he says. "We recognize the responsibility of placing the racier material and in order for us to continue, it will be imperative that we monitor and police how we are doing it to prove we are not participating in attempts to get to those under 17."
Easily available online
Glenn Brown, a product counsel for YouTube, says the website has an automated takedown tool that can provide a quick search for both questionable and copyrighted content, which YouTube offers to anyone who asks, he says.
YouTube also has a 10-minute limit on videos, which limits abuse; a three-strikes provision that cancels the account of any three-time rule breaker; and a digital "hashing" feature that records when a file has been taken down to help prevent re-uploading of the same material, he says.
Others say the incentive for studios to self-police on the Internet is nil because the greatest tool of film marketing is word of mouth.
"The idea in marketing movies is to create as much word of mouth as you can and the new word of mouth is the viral nature of the Internet," says Tom Donohue, professor of mass communications and psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Thirty percent of a movie's budget is marketing and ads, so this is a way to maximize their bang for the buck."
The thing about viral popularity, he and others say, is that it naturally begets competition. "This technique virtually ensures that content will be increasingly more edgy to get people to watch," he says.
When trailers can be misleading
Among moviegoers, some seem to feel that restricted trailers reveal too much of the juicy parts of movies, while others think that previews that don't reflect the movies' graphic content are misleading.
A recent example concerns the recent film, "Pineapple Express." Some parents criticized its conventional "green band" trailers, which they say led audiences to believe the movie was a relatively harmless teen comedy when it turned out to deal largely with smoking pot.
Consumers seem divided about whether such trailers work at all. "If I see too much of the sex scenes in a trailer for an R-rated movie, I feel like saying, 'now why should I shell out another $10 to watch the whole thing?' " says Wilma Woodley, a 50-something mom at the Arclight Theater in Sherman Oaks.
But her husband, Wilbur, thumbing through a coffee-table-size compendium of James Bond movie posters, says just the opposite. "I want to see a good dose of the so-called 'questionable' aspects of an upcoming film or I won't go out of my way to go see it," he says.