DONNIE DARKO Theatrical Trailer: A critique

[EDITORS NOTE: Celebrating the end of the quarter, I’m turning over the blog for a few days to some of the best student “readings” of trailers. This one concerns the official theatrical trailer for Donnie Darko, a critically acclaimed and fan-adored film (“cult,” perhaps) that didn’t succeed at the box-office as its excellence and after life suggested it deserved. Take it away Patrick.]

Donnie Darko’s box office performance (or lack thereof) is an example of how a poorly conceived trailer can sink even a great film’s prospects. Aside from a few redeeming qualities, such as an extended cast run and a good choice of music cues, the trailer falls flat. It presents a confusing plot that does not neatly fit into an easily identifiable genre, incoherent copy and a missed opportunity to capitalize on the film’s critical acclaim. As such, the trailer for Donnie Darko does not do the film justice.

Structurally, the trailer follows convention faithfully. It is divided into three acts, the first of which doesn’t present any obvious problems. It begins with Drew Barrymore as Donnie’s teacher reading a quote from a Graham Greene short story about the pain of puberty (an inside joke, given Barrymore’s own public struggles as an adolescent), and images of Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie Darko wielding an axe and defacing school property.

The second act is the most damaging to the film’s prospects because of its disjointedness. It runs for a full 1:40. Appropriately, it utilizes a haunting music cue and begins by presenting Donnie Darko as a troubled teen who speaks candidly of his own “emotional problems.” Up to this point, the film effectively presents the protagonist as a mentally unstable young man who could turn violent.

Then, at the 1:02 mark, the presentation of story and conflict becomes confusing. A partly obscured figure asks “have you ever seen a portal.” Characters then discuss giant bunny rabbits, time travel, and seeing into the future. This shift to philosophical/hypothetical concerns conflicts with the first half of the trailer, which frames the movie as a teen horror/thriller film.

Regrettably, the copy in the second act does little to straighten out the plot or position the movie. It reads: “Visions / Time Travel / Sacrifice / The only way to unwind the future / Is to follow the path / Dark / Darkest / Darko / Donnie Darko.” Like the choice of scenes and dialogue in the second movement, this copy moves the film out of the teen thriller genre and into an unfamiliar territory.

The second act also introduces Frank, the “giant bunny rabbit,” a risky choice, since viewers of the trailer (who would not have seen the movie) might mistake this character’s amateur Halloween costume for sloppy special effects and cheap costuming. It’s also one of the weirder plot choices–perhaps too weird for mainstream advertising.

The third act of the trailer is the strongest. It’s simply an extended cast run, with names on card followed by representative shot of each actor. The strong cast, which includes stars like Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Noah Wyle (among other distinguished and recognizable character actors), lends credibility to the film and its unconventional plot.

Donnie Darko is a case in which the trailer errs by attempting to be too faithful to the film as it actually is. The plot and content of the story is so unconventional and mind-blowing that trying to explain it in less than three minutes is a lost cause. The “failure” of this marketing approach was reflected in the box office results, which were disappointing despite widespread critical acclaim for the film.

If this trailer were to be re-cut, it would make more sense to market the movie as a teen thriller about a mentally disturbed boy who just might be capable of murder. All images of the film’s “monster,” the giant bunny rabbit, should be omitted. Similarly, talk of time-travel, portals, and seeing into the future should be cut. The cast run should appear earlier in the trailer and more screen time should be given to Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore. Finally, it should foreground the film’s widespread critical acclaim. Such changes, I believe, would have significantly improved the film’s box office prospects.

[Guest Blogger:
Patrick Smith is currently pursuing his MBA in Marketing and Entertainment Management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. His interest in media production began in high school, where he raised capital and produced an independent film parody of the horror genre. He later went on to produce television advertisements for political causes in Canada.]

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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