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An Uncensored History of the Red Band Trailer

You have one man to thank for the current proliferation of red band trailers, and his name rhymes with ‘shmapatow’

Tweens about to get it on with a sex doll; a teddy bear hitting a bong; a hairy dude putting his mutant claws through the skull of a bad guy; and lots and lots of Seth Rogen — these are the kinds of things you’ll find in a typical red band trailer. For more than a decade now, red band trailers have been a way to market movies that contain sex, raunchy jokes, excessive violence and anything else that you wouldn’t normally find in your theater’s typical coming attractions. But while in recent years that bright red banner preceding a trailer has become a proven tool to get more asses in the seats, it wasn’t that long ago when they were considered the “kiss of death” for movie promotion.

Before the year 2000, red band trailers did exist — you just hardly ever saw them. Before Chucky became the needy little shit he was in the reboot, the old Child’s Play movies had red band trailers, and before Tarantino found his softer side with Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, there was a red band trailer for Reservoir Dogs. But while these particular movies may have used violent trailers to market their movies before some other R-rated flick, it was pretty unusual back in the pre-internet era. Back then, if your trailer got a red banner slapped on it by the MPAA, it generally meant you’d have to go back and tone things down, lest you risk your film not having a wide enough audience to market to.

And while the red band trailer was extremely rare pre-2000, it became all but extinct from 2000 to 2006. That’s because, in 2000, the Federal Trade Commission issued a landmark report eviscerating movie theaters for marketing adult content to children. Before that report, how movies were marketed was a bit like the wild west — i.e., theater owners could potentially put a preview for an R-rated film before a PG-rated movie. Following the FTC’s report, however, the National Association of Theater Owners vowed that R movies wouldn’t be promoted before G and PG films, and they vowed that red band trailers would not appear before PG-13 films and lower. While this still applies today, at the time, it sent shockwaves through the spines of theater owners, resulting in many theaters outright banning red band trailers — Regal for example, completely opted out of having them before any movie. 

This would all change thanks to pretty much just one guy: Judd Apatow. In the summer of 2007, Knocked Up and Superbad were both released in theaters, and both were huge hits thanks in no small part to the red band trailers that promoted them. They were likely viewed online more than in theaters (thanks to many theaters, like Regal, who were still skittish), but Apatow proved that risqué marketing was a hell of a good way to promote a risqué movie (go figure). By 2008, the red band promotional tool was already fully realized, and wanting a piece of the pie themselves, Regal and other theaters reintroduced red band trailers before R-rated films. As Slate explained back in September 2008, “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.”

While red band trailers may be shown before an R-rated movie, Tom Zigo, director of communications at the MPAA, explains that there are still restrictions on them. Citing the federal guidelines, Zigo says that red band trailers cannot depict “extreme violence, including, but not limited to: graphic decapitations, dismemberment or excessive gore and the most extreme scenes of torture.” As for sex, he says that red band trailers can’t have “explicit or graphic depictions of people engaged in sex acts, including, but not limited to: sexual intercourse, masturbation, full frontal display of genitalia or pubic hair, and excessive use of sexually connotative words.” 

For a short while, to try to split the difference between the R-rated raunch-fest that is a red band and the overly-sanitized green band, the MPAA did have a yellow band, which basically said that this particular trailer is kind of bad and can only be shown before a particular kind of movie, but it was quickly abandoned. 

Now, green band trailers are merely more specific — some are “approved for all audiences,” others are approved to “accompany this feature.” As for the red band trailer, that’s strictly for R-rated movies and online, but it’s proven so effective in recent years that sometimes even things not regulated by the MPAA — like TV shows and video games — have used the “red band” phrase to signify that this trailer is going to be down-and-dirty.

While some may regard the red band trailer as little more than a commercial that relies on shock tactics to get you to watch, others argue that it goes deeper than that, and that a red band trailer is a way to more accurately represent a film. Take, for example, Pineapple Express. As Slate pointed out, while the red band trailer makes clear that there will be drugs aplenty in this movie, the green band trailer tries hard to dance around any drug references at all — though it has no problem with a plethora of guns. 

For movies like the Deadpool films, the red band trailer was able to show Wade Wilson in his element of truly not giving a fuck. For the brilliantly depressing Logan, the red band trailer showed you that this isn’t your typical — bloodless — X-Men fare, that this was going to be a raw, violent story, the kind you’ve wanted to see with Wolverine for almost 20 years.

That said, this doesn’t exclude red band trailers from misrepresenting movies, either. Melissa McCarthy’s The Happytime Murders is a good example. Its red band trailer makes clear that this is an adult puppet movie, but doesn’t tell you what an unfunny slog it is. And while every red band trailer for a “bad” movie — Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Moms, etc. — may tell you that a movie is going to be “bad,” they don’t tell you just how truly BAD they are going to be.

So much for truth in advertising.