The rise of R-rated, red-band movie trailers.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 16 2008 3:07 PM

In a World Where You Can Smoke Weed in a Movie Trailer ...

The rise of the R-rated preview.

Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks in Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks in Zack and Miri Make a Porno

As you'd expect, the trailer for Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno explains the movie's premise: Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) become adult-movie stars when they can't pay the rent. What you might not anticipate is the trailer's extreme lewdness: Justin Long name-checking a gay porn film called Glen and Garry Suck Ross' Meaty Cock or Rogen's declaring that he'd be happy to watch "a tape of Rosie O'Donnell getting fucked stupid."* Vivid descriptions of male genitalia and Rosie O'Donnell in flagrante delicto—these are the glories of the red-band trailer.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor. You can email him at sportsnut@slate.com, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.

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Just a few years ago, the coming attractions were a safe haven for cinematic prudes. But this year, R-rated trailers—known as "red bands" on account of the red, "Restricted Audiences Only" warning that precedes them—have become omnipresent. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, nearly 30 restricted-audience trailers have been approved so far in 2008, already matching the number accepted between 2000 and 2006. (All-audiences movie trailers, always prefaced by a green band, still run before the vast majority of cinematic fare.) In surveying the recent crop of restricted trailers, it's apparent that the studios are still adjusting to the red-band universe: The aesthetics of the R-rated trailer remain up for debate. Which naughty bits should be thrown on the screen as an enticement, and which should be held in reserve for paying customers?

As an advertising medium, the restricted-audience trailer serves a handful of valuable functions. Similar to slapping an "unrated version" tag line on a DVD, putting a red band in a front of a trailer promotes the idea that the content within is highly titillating. (And as with unrated DVDs, that advertising can be misleading; Paramount produced an R-rated trailer for the PG-13 Beowulf.) A red-band trailer, with its greater allowance for blood, can also do a better job than an all-audiences version of showing that a movie like Mirrors is slice-your-neck-open gory rather than just boogeyman-around-the-corner creepy. It's also handy when the MPAA has deemed a movie's entire reason for being inappropriate for impressionable youths. The red-band Pineapple Express preview kicks off with the line, "Goddamn, that's good weed." The bowdlerized green-band trailer starts with … coughing.

The MPAA places more restrictions on what you can and can't see in trailers than it does on the content of feature films. Restricted trailers may not show "excessive sex or violence," "dismemberment or excessive gore," or "genitalia/pubic hair," among other things. All-audiences trailers are governed by an even more draconian code, leading to such salami-hiding absurdities as a weed-movie advertisement that doesn't mention weed. Along with the ban on drug references, green bands can't include "ménage à trois, group sex or nudity of any kind … scenes containing blood or open wounds … [or] offensive language, gestures or lyrics."

Nevertheless, before the recent red-band renaissance, open-wound-and-group-sex-free green-band trailers were pretty much the only show in town. That's because the big theater chains voluntarily stopped showing red bands in 2000, after a Federal Trade Commission report, "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children," highlighted such child endangerments as an I Know What You Did Last Summer trailer that made "verbal references to mutilations."

Red-band trailers weren't particularly common before 2000. Just as an NC-17 rating branded a feature as outré, restricted trailers in those days were mostly reserved for scandalous material like Showgirls and Madonna's Truth or Dare. Universal's R-rated preview for 1999's American Pie, for example, highlighted the film's man-on-crust sex scene, making it clear to audiences that this was a different kind of teen comedy.

The decision to ban R-rated trailers in the wake of the 2000 FTC report had more to do with public relations than with protecting kiddies. According to MPAA rules, red bands can be screened only before R or NC-17 movies; the feds were kvetching about tawdriness in all-audiences trailers that screened before PG movies. (The FTC tut-tutted, for example, the placement of green-band adverts for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut before the PG-rated Star Wars: Episode I.)

Whatever the rationale for the theaters' red-band kibosh, studios mostly stopped making them once it went into effect; the R-rated trailers that did get made were seen by so few eyeballs that they might as well not have existed. Maria Pekurovskaya, senior vice president of creative advertising for Universal Pictures, says that marketing films in green has its frustrations. The green-band trailer for Road Trip, for example, left Pekurovskaya worried that they "weren't able to truly represent the film."