This summer's smash-face movie trailers.

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June 24 2004 3:02 PM

Summer Block Busters

Why does every movie trailer end with a conk on the head?

Bam!!! The trailer for Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story starts with a little kid getting his face smashed in by a rubber ball. After a two-minute string of sight gags, the title of the film whooshes onto the screen. But there's still time for one last scene: Crusty character actor Rip Torn shouts, "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball." An incredulous youngster says, "Whaa?" Then a wrench hits him in the face.

You can't have a dodgeball movie without some noggin-cracking comedy. But what about the spate of recent trailers that end with someone getting nailed in the face? The preview for Anchorman ends with Will Ferrell's title character knocking himself out on the open drawer of a filing cabinet. In the trailer for Breakin' All the Rules, Jamie Foxx runs headlong into a giant column while chasing a train. The Hillary Duff fable A Cinderella Story ends smash-facedly when the pop princess bashes into a locker while staring longingly at a cute guy. Even cartoon characters aren't safe. At the end of the preview for Disney's Home on the Range, a horse starts to gallop, not realizing that he's tethered to a pole. Smack!

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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The last miniscene in a preview—what industry types call the "button"—must be punchy, if not literally a punch. Jordan Levine, the president of the trailer house Celluloid Heroes, says focus-group studies have found that viewers rarely, if ever, remember anything from the middle of a preview. That's why the button has to be "short and sweet, like a one-liner, or like a slap in the face—a little wake me up." A last-second jolt is a mnemonic device: The audience might not remember anything about Breakin' All the Rules—except that it's that movie where Jamie Foxx knocks himself silly.

The concluding miniscene typically begins right after the title of the film pops on screen. That means it can last for about five seconds—enough time to communicate between zero and one ideas. When a trailer ends with dialogue, it's usually a one-liner that can fit around the circumference of a soft drink cup. The remake of The Manchurian Candidate shows off perfect command of end-of-preview sentence length: Denzel Washington whispers breathlessly, "Help me. Or * shoot me."

Powee!!! For a comedy, though, nothing fits within the parameters of the preview kicker better than pure slapstick. Physical comedy brings visceral laughs that transcend language, culture, and intelligence. It's also a really easy way to create a memorable moment when a movie doesn't have built-in cachet. Spider-Man 2 can build anticipation with an understated tease like "the story continues on June 30." The tween caper flick Sleepover, which opens July 9, better end with somebody getting clocked. Just to play it safe, Sleepover goes with a double whammy. First, a bumbling security guard gets his car rammed by a runaway vehicle. Then the airbag explodes in his face.

Maybe end-of-preview face mangling is popular because it descends from a classic comedic touchstone. Mike Greenfeld, co-CEO of Ant Farm, the marketing group that made the trailers for both Anchorman and A Cinderella Story, theorizes that the face-plant is just the modern cousin of the pie in the face. Just like a pie-bashing, a blow to the noggin is the kind of skull-shattering violence that the whole family can enjoy. It certainly won't scare off the small fry, and it doesn't carry the emasculating horror of a groin kick.

Ooof!!! The face-smash genre is so benevolent that there aren't even any bad guys. With the exception of Dodgeball's wrench flinging and the forthcoming comedy The Ringer, in which a priest repeatedly punches a guy who confesses to scamming the Special Olympics, the climactic face smash is a passive event, the result of well-meaning bumbling. After Will Ferrell's run-in with the file cabinet in Anchorman, he shouts, "Ohhhhh, Ron Burgundy is down, and it is bad!" It's not really bad, though: Ferrell's supine body is tucked away off the bottom edge of the screen. "You don't want to have someone hit in the face and realize they're a bloody mess afterwards," explains Greenfeld.

But while it's always funny to see someone take a dive, the flattened face could fall victim to its own popularity. Since the last-second bash is supposed to take the audience by surprise, will it lose its impact if every preview has a smashing valedictory? Greenfeld says there's no danger of overexposure. "We don't go looking for somebody getting hit in the face," he insists. And besides, even if trailer creators scour every movie for head bashing, there's no guarantee they'll find family-friendly examples. "If someone gets hit in the face and they're naked," says Greenfeld, "it won't work."

Correction, June 25, 2004: This article originally misquoted the final exchange in the trailer for The Manchurian Candidate. It's "Help me. Or shoot me," not "Help me. Don't shoot me." ( Return to the corrected sentence.)