The Art of the Trailer

Commentary by James Berardinelli
February 21, 1998

The movie trailer, once a choppy ad tacked onto the back end of a movie, has become a significant attraction in its own right. The purpose of trailers has always been to encourage movie-goers to come back to the theater to see a particular film, but, with motion pictures costs skyrocketing, the studios have become aware that a successful marketing campaign can mean the difference between making money and wallowing in the red. And, more often than not, the cornerstone of any such promotional crusade is the trailer.

For as long as I've been attending movies, there have been trailers, and they've always been shown before the film. The term "trailer" comes about as a result of those days when coming attractions were shown after the main feature. Over the years, however, the closing credits have gotten progressively longer; now, if they showed trailers at the end, practically no one would be around to see them. So the trailers have been shifted to a position just before the picture, where they have the opportunity to capture the biggest audience.

In essence, trailers are nothing more than glorified commercials, yet there are people who go to the movies as much to see them as to see the main feature. Whenever an "event" trailer is shown (such as one for the next Star Trek, Star Wars, or Batman movie), Internet newsgroups light up with the news. There are people who will attend a movie they have only marginal interest in to see a particular trailer. An acquaintance of mine occasionally spends a couple of hours wandering from theater-to-theater in a multiplex ,watching trailers before he finally settles down to view a film. While this behavior is extreme, it's not as isolated as one might think. To some people, trailers have become more than just add- ons to the movie experience. Videophiles love to collect trailers (which is why they're such a popular DVD and laserdisc bonus feature). And the studios are very aware of all this.

As a result, over the years, trailer-making has evolved from merely editing together a bunch of clips to something approaching an art form. Now, every scene has to be carefully selected and pruned. A titillating music score must be chosen. If there's going to be a voice-over, the proper narrator for the material has to be identified. Finally, the trailer has to be attached to a feature where it will have maximum impact. (Like attracts like -- the best exposure for a new horror film trailer would not be to pair it with a romantic tearjerker.)

There are two kinds of trailers: the "teaser trailer" and the full-length trailer. Teaser trailers are typically released several months to a year before the advent of a film. Typically, they contain few (if any) scenes from the movie, and rarely are there any special effects. The purpose of a teaser is to prime the audience for what's coming -- to make them aware that a particular title is on its way. Because the whole point of the teaser is to build name recognition and create a sense of expectancy, only the biggest or most anticipated movies are given this treatment. An example of a recent teaser trailer is the one for Godzilla, where the giant foot crashes through the roof of New York's Museum of Natural History. Undoubtedly, a teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film will be arriving sometime this summer or, at the latest, during the fall.

Then there's the "regular" trailer, which can be anything from an anticipation-builder to a virtual synopsis of the entire film. These trailers, which typically arrive in theaters anywhere from a couple of months to a week before the movie opens, are filled with scenes and special effects from the finished (or nearly- finished) product. In many cases, they are less representative of the actual film, however, than of what the producers wanted from the picture. Take the recent Sphere, for example. The trailer gives the impression that the movie is a well-paced, intelligent, suspenseful look at a first contact scenario. The reality, a confused, disappointing science-fiction adventure, is far different. In this case, it's better to see the trailer and skip the film.

It has only been in the last two decades that trailer-making has become an art. Looking back at trailers for Hollywood classics like Casablanca, It's a Wonderful Life, Frankenstein, and Dracula, it's all typical hype: "SEE things that you've never seen before! HEAR the sounds of wonder! EXPERIENCE the most amazing story to ever reach the silver screen!" Big white letters scrawled across scenes from the movie announce the stars. It's all pretty basic, and, by today's standards, uninspiring. Things started changing in the '70s, when a few trailers broke out what had become a standard formula (show a bunch of scenes, announce who's in the film, then move on). Certain blaxploitation film trailers are campy gems with genuine comic value.

As the film industry moved into the '80s and '90s, trailers became increasingly more important with multiplexes supplanting single theaters. Every major studio release had to have at least two different trailers. Some films had as many as four or five. The procedure of dividing trailers into "Coming Attractions" and "Now Showing" dwindled as the "Now Showing" selection was phased out. The purpose of trailers became exclusively to hype what had not yet been released. The assumption was that if it was out, the public knew about it. Nowadays, it's extremely rare to see a trailer for a movie that's currently playing.

Repetition can often be the key to success for a trailer. Unless it's incredibly well-done, one showing usually isn't enough to leave an impression upon the average viewer. Two, three, or four is just about right. Of course, there's always the danger of overexposure. If a movie-goer sees a trailer too many times, he or she may feel so familiar with a film that they won't be inclined to see it. Also, in the case of all but the best trailers, it's easy to get sick of something that is seen so many times -- even if it is only two minutes long.

One aspect of trailers that causes much interest is the music. Most often, it is not the score from the movie being previewed. There are two reasons for this: one practical, one marketing-related. The first is that most trailers are composed before the film's score has been recorded, so it's impossible to use the actual music in the trailer (there are exceptions, but they're rare). The second is that the studio wants to create a mental link to an earlier, successful motion picture. That's why James Horner's score for Aliens is so popular in trailers -- what action/adventure/science fiction feature wouldn't want to be subconsciously connected to that movie?

Then there's the common practice of having scenes in trailers that don't show up in the final cut of the movie. (There are viewers who are incensed by this practice.) For the most part, this is the result of a trailer being put together based on a rough cut of the movie that has yet to go through all of the editing stages. There are times, however, when scenes are filmed specifically for trailers. In fact, I can think of one case when a specially-filmed trailer was so good that the movie producers found a way to insert it into the actual film (albeit to horrible effect).

As a rule of thumb, trailers are better than the actual film. The reason is pretty obvious: all of the subpar stuff is ignored. When a trailer is bad, this often means that a movie will be unwatchable. There are exceptions, of course. Some films, particularly dramas, don't lend themselves to the kind of quick cuts and sound bytes necessary to make a top-notch trailer. Consider, for example, The Ice Storm. It's a great movie (and made my 1997 Top 10), but the trailer was decidedly unpromising. It's not that the trailer-makers were inept, but that the material couldn't be effective when reduced to a series of 10-second clips. One has to think that the lackluster nature of the trailer contributed to the movie's poor box-office performance.

The easiest films to create trailers for are action/adventure/science fiction movies. Just slap together a few chase sequences, shoot-outs, and breathtaking stunts, and you have a winning trailer. What does it matter if all of the best scenes get out beforehand -- the public will be "wowed" enough to want to see the movie. Thrillers are notoriously difficult to make trailers for, since showing the best scenes often involves revealing plot twists and ruining the film. Not that this stops trailer makers. I can recall with dismay the trailer for Consenting Adults, which revealed the film's biggest surprise.

Trailers for comedies can often be the most misleading, since all of the funniest gags are present. Just because a trailer is hilarious doesn't mean that the movie will follow suit. Six very funny jokes in a two- minute big screen commercial leaves a good impression. Six very funny jokes that everyone has seen ten times in a ninety-minute movie is far less enticing. There are also comic bits that don't work in trailers because they require a gradual buildup, but are shown anyway, effectively ruining the punch line for anyone who subsequently sees the movie. (There's nothing worse than knowing the end of an elaborate joke at the beginning.)

Certainly, everyone has their favorite trailers. Listed below are my top 6 (at least as far as I can remember). It's worth noting that the relative quality of a trailer has little in common with the quality of the motion picture it represents. Two of these are for bad movies, one is for a mediocre effort, two are for good features, and only one is for a genuine **** classic. They are presented in reverse order.

6. Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan: It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that the trailer for Star Trek 2 played a significant role in the development of the series into Paramount's primary movie franchise. The trailer, which was suitably edgy and suspenseful, and showed a number of impressive-looking space battles, piqued the interest of not only Star Trek fans, but of many who weren't avowed followers of the TV-turned- motion picture adventures. In the wake of the moribund Star Trek the Motion Picture, something high-energy was needed, and this fit the bill. With a voice-over narration that started out something like "Beyond the darkness, beyond the human evolution, there is Khan, a genetically superior tyrant. Banished to a barren planet by a starship captain he was destined to destroy, he survives," this was the first-ever trailer that made me want to see a film.

5. Independence Day: I wasn't a big fan of the movie, but the trailer (and its accompanying marketing campaign) was brilliant. The sight of several popular buildings (the Empire State, the Capitol, the White House) being blasted into smithereens by aliens was enough to get millions of people into theaters. ID4, as it was called, was a big hit in no small part because of the way that trailer was splashed all over movie screens six months before the film arrived. Arguably, this has been the most influential trailer of all time.

4. Toys: The movie stunk, but the trailer, which featured a brilliant monologue by Robin Williams standing in a field, was a stroke of brilliance. In fact, this is a rare trailer that had little to do with the actual film, since the footage never appeared in the movie, nor was it intended to. My theory is that the film makers recognized what a turkey they had on their hands and decided on this approach rather than showing scenes from the finished product. Whatever the cause, the Toys trailer is a witty, delightful two minutes. See the trailer, not the movie.

3. When the Cat's Away: This offbeat trailer featured scenes from the movie alongside specially-filmed snippets for the trailer. It's a sly, knowing two minutes that features visual puns, a narrator with a sense of humor, and actor/characters who speak directly to the camera. The trailer doesn't really tell a viewer much about the film (except that a young girl's cat is lost, the movie is in French, and there aren't any big name actors in the cast), but it's a lot of fun nevertheless.

2. The Naked Gun 33 1/3: This movie earns the "best trailer for a bad movie" award. The trailer is essentially an over-the-top parody of a Merchant-Ivory production that ends with Leslie Neilsen emerging from a small cabin on a mountaintop and accidentally knocking the heroine over the side of the cliff. It's a sidesplittingly funny sequence that was so good that the film makers found a way to squeeze it into the movie. It works much better on its own, primarily because there's no need to endure 90 additional minutes of unfunny humor along with it.

1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail: This is quite possibly the first truly creative trailer ever made. Certain aspects of it have been copied, but never equaled, over the years. The trailer begins with auditions for a pompous voice-over. The eventual winner is a Chinese voice who extols the virtues of Bergman and Kurosawa while berating The Holy Grail as silly fare for intellectual midgets. All of his narration is in Chinese, with subtitles. We are shown a few clips from the film, then are treated to a bizarre parody of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The trailer closes with a plug for a restaurant. Even today, twenty years after its production, this preview remains fresh, original, and hugely entertaining. Like everything done by Monty Python, there's no doubt about its creativity.

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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