Many remakes of documentaries are announced but very few wind up being made. The Walk is the latest exception, as we at least got sight this week of some footage in a teaser trailer for the Robert Zemeckis film, which is basically a redo of James Marsh’s Oscar-winning 2008 doc Man on Wire. Both are based on Philippe Petit’s autobiographical book about his famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City. Man on Wire is told by Petit and others with archival and reenactment material thrillingly illustrating the unbelievable story. The Walk stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the French funambulist, and this new fully dramatized version is going to play in IMAX 3D. Maybe it will play like an acted-out rehash what we’ve already seen done quite well in the doc, but from the teaser it looks like Sony (via TriStar Pictures) is selling this more for the spectacle.
The two-minute spot features only one scene, of Gordon-Levitt (looking nothing like Petit, I have to say) arriving on the roof of one of the buildings of the World Trade Center (looking quite incredible in its reproduction, I have to say) and then balancing on a girder while triumphant music lets us know there’s something magical or magnificent going on. If you don’t know what it’s all about, you might think this was a superhero movie teaser about a guy who can fly, until he doesn’t jump off the tower and start soaring and the words “based on a true story” hit the screen instead. There’s no mention of the high-wire act, only an “impossible dream,” which makes the viewer curious in a way that trailers for documentaries rarely do. The first spot for Man on Wire, for instance, focuses on the big event while also making the film look like a crime caper then an inspiring biographical portrait.
What I’ve discovered while comparing trailers of docs to the trailers of their remakes is that for the most part they’re marketed completely differently. This makes perfect sense since they’re obviously targeted at dissimilar audiences. Docs try to sell to both doc fans and maybe, particularly with something that warrants it like Man on Wire, a broader crowd that maybe wouldn’t go see the film if you told them it was a doc. The remakes go for the people who definitely aren’t into docs and need this new version because they haven’t already seen this amazing story. Not that all of us who see the original avoid the dramatic takes, especially if they’re by the same directors (a la Party Monster and Rescue Dawn) or seem well made (a la Milk and now The Walk). The doc trailers are, like the docs, fairly information based, while the remake trailers play up the entertainment through fun and funny and dramatically powerful clips.
Check out the trailers for Dogtown and Z-Boys and Lords of Dogtown (also made by Sony/TriStar) for a good contrast. The former is heavy on the history, that this is a film about stuff that happened that changed the world. The latter comes off as just a period-set teen movie, not unlike a Dazed and Confused or a Roll Bounce. It notes the true story element, but it doesn’t press the idea that it’s an important true story.
Another thing that doc trailers are more likely to do is tell you how the movie ends, to a degree. Because the endpoint is often what docs are about. The Dogtown doc is like that in how the Zephyr skateboarding team going down in history is the plot of the film and how that story concludes. Now consider the differences between the two Party Monster films, both of which are directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Their 1998 doc is sold as a true crime film and draws us in by telling us that someone was murdered and the main subject did it. Their second take from 2003 starring Macauley Culkin and Seth Green doesn’t spoil the murder plot point, concentrating instead on the story of wild, fabulous club kids and their parties.
There’s a similar avoidance of murder in the trailers for Milk, despite the fact that it’s fairly well known that Harvey Milk was assassinated. Focus Features had some foreshadowing and tension, but they clearly were more interested in selling the character and the triumph of Milk’s political career before it came to a tragic end, and they were also clearly interested in selling the cast and how wonderful they are portraying these real people. The original trailer for The Times of Harvey Milk kicks off with Diane Feinstein’s announcement that Milk and Mayor George Moscone had been killed. That’s actually the opening of the film itself, so it’s not a huge give-away. The earlier trailer also is heavy with critics’ praises, and some Milk trailers do the same.
Sometimes it’s not about the way the movie is marketed by the trailers so much as it’s how the remake was executed to be a totally different movie involving the same subject matter. The difference between the two below, for Benson Lee’s 2007 breakdance doc Planet B-Boy and his 2013 remake, titled Battle of the Year, is that one is showing us the world of competitive breaking and the other uses that world as the backdrop for a generic equivalent of an underdog sports movie. One presents a culture. One presents stars and jokes.