Caught Red Banded

To mark the release of the Hamlet 2 R-rated trailer, FilmInFocus offers a history of red-band previews.

For those of you a little bit stymied by the age verification system set up for viewing the Hamlet 2 trailer, it really isn't our fault. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) requires that red-band trailers must include a structure for verifying the age of those viewing them. This is in effect the cyber version of a theater usher checking ID at the door. But why have a red-band trailer to begin with and where did they come from?

Red-band previews are the trailer equivalent of R-rated movies and are so called because the intro card is, you guessed it, red. Most trailers which you will see either in theaters or on the web are deemed suitable for all audiences by the MPAA, and have a title card with the more familiar green color. (Additionally, films such as Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween and the forthcoming thriller The Strangers have intermediate level "yellow-band" trailers which have yellow title cards announcing that MPAA has approved it "only for age-appropriate internet users.")

In 1912, when an exhibitor at Rye Beach, NY, screened the first part of the serial The Adventures of Kathlyn, with a hanging question (or "trailer") at the end — "Does she survive? See next week's film" — he changed movie history. Trailers have since become an essential marketing tool, especially when played to a captive crowd in a movie theater. Up until the 60s, most trailers were made by a single company, the National Screen Service, which produced slow moving, barely edited snippets from the film. In the 60s, several things changed. Snappier, music-driven trailers started appearing and trailers started showing up on television, as well as in theaters, increasing the pressure on marketers to make previews suitable for the most general audience.

When the MPAA reinvented the rating system in 1968, introducing the categories of G, PG, R, and X, it became necessary to create a rating system for trailers as well. As such, film distributors ended up creating a range of trailers, depending on the venue. "R"-rated, or red-band, trailers could play before another R-rated movie. But to advertise it elsewhere, the trailer had to be sanitized.

In 2000, in response to critiques by the Federal Trade Commission about movie violence experienced by children, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) issued a report in Phoenix, AZ with the rather obvious title "Response Of The National Association Of Theatre Owners." In the report, NATO both tightened up and clarified the use of trailers. For one, they promised not to promote R-rated films before G or PG-rated whose tone was inconsistent with adult material. Second, they ruled that "Each company will not show "red band" trailers, or trailers for films rated NC-17, in connection with the exhibition of any G, PG, or PG-13 rated feature films, and some companies may decide not to play these trailers at all."

Indeed these newly defined rules pushed many theaters into forgoing showing red-band trailers altogether. The trailer for American Pie, with its humorous take on hormonal high jinks, was one of the last red-band trailers shown in a theater. But as theaters closed their doors to red-band trailers, the web welcomed them with open arms. With the increased role that the internet played in studios' promotion of movies, the MPAA turned studios onto the idea of streaming red-band trailers on the internet, with age verification applications — or "age-gating" — ensuring that only those 17 and over were able to watch them. (The names and dates of viewers are checked against databases of drivers licenses and state IDs, etc.) Comedies like Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) and Clerks 2 (2006) were among the first to utilize the additional freedom to show the more adult side of their movies but now what was shown in red-band trailers was more bawdy moments and lewd humor rather than violence.

2007 was the pivotal year in the history of the red-band trailer and will be remembered as when red-band trailers really arrived as an online phenomenon. The biggest impact was made by two Judd Apatow movies in the summer of '07, Knocked Up and Superbad: the red-band trailers for these two comedies created huge buzz in advance of their release and contributed to the films becoming part of moviegoers' consciousness that summer. (Ultimately, the films both grossed well over $100 million.) Already in 2008, there have been almost 20 high-profile movies with red-band trailers, including an audacious one for Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay made up entirely of the two leads spouting curse words and very much anticipated Apatow-produced project, The Pineapple Express. So popular was the red-band craze that even a PG-13-rated film like Beowulf created a red-band trailer for the internet, making the contradictory situation that you had to be older to see the preview than to see the movie.

Speaking last year during the flush of success of internet red-band trailers, Universal marketing president Adam Fogelman made a case that they should not simply be restricted to be shown on the web, and that careful screening of an R-rated trailer with a similarly themed R-rated movie would be a logical step forward. As Fogelson pointed out, ""It is the only way to give the target audience a true sampling of what the film is all about." And in March of this year Regal Entertainment, the country's largest chain of movie theaters, seemed to agree, announcing that they will be showing red-band trailers before certain carefully selected R-rated movies. "I'm euphoric," Fogelson told Entertainment Weekly. "It is important to the business. Everybody wins, as long as we're responsible." Responsibility in practice means matching the right trailer to the right movie because, as Fogelson says in The Hollywood Reporter, "it would not be appropriate for a red band trailer for a movie like American Pie to run in front of Schindler's List." Other studios also expressed their delight at Regal's decision and put forward the hope that, if audiences respond well, other theater chains would follow suit.