By Joseph Kennedy
Trailers are as much a part of the moviegoing experience as the popcorn stand in the lobby. But for some people, watching them is more and more like eating popcorn—one piece tastes just like the next. As a 2006 Variety headline complained: “Many pic previews starting to look the same.”
In truth, movie trailers have always shared a degree of sameness. A key element in studios’ marketing campaigns, their sole purpose is to persuade audiences to see the film as soon as possible. This is especially important in today’s movie industry, where opening weekend numbers are the primary barometer of success.
Exhibitors once had only television to worry about as competition. Now, DVDs, the internet, interactive games, and downloadable content all compete for the same viewers, and movie trailers must appeal to post-MTV audiences accustomed to getting information in short, rapid bursts.
That awareness clearly shaped the teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola’s recent film Marie Antoinette; it compresses 31 scenes into less than 90 seconds—no titles, no narration, no dialogue, no players identified. Rapid cutting, tightly keyed to an incongruous song by ’80s band New Order, carries the story forward with rhythmic power.
The Marie Antoinette teaser, following industry practice, was shown some months ahead of the film to generate buzz, and a subsequent, more traditional trailer was distributed shortly before the film’s release. Both versions were screened nationally in theaters but, as with all major film releases today, they were also posted for viewing on various film websites.
Interestingly, the trailer for MGM’s 1938 Marie Antoinette is also available on the Internet (turnerclassicmovies.com), and still holds its own against the newcomer.
Although the 1938 trailer lays the hokum on with a trowel (“Intimately revealing the private lives and loves of Madame Devil-May-Care”), both the old and new feature strikingly similar visual material: court balls, country romps, intrigue, romance, and revolution—and, of course, ample glimpses of their respective stars, Norma Shearer and Kirsten Dunst, in compromising situations.
The trailers from both eras, in the spirit of their respective times, pull out all the stops to attract moviegoers. Together they demonstrate how this resilient marketing tool has adapted to changes in the movie industry itself. Today, most of the industry’s trailer output is produced by several dozen independent trailer houses. “A few studios are still doing their own trailers, but most use outside vendors like us because we have the equipment and staff to handle everything,” explains one producer, preferring to speak off the record because of intense competition among the trailer houses. “We get the working script and dailies and then develop a theme for our pitch.”
An average trailer costs about $100,000, although elaborate graphics and CGI effects can push budgets much higher. But compared to television spots, theatrical trailers are a cost-effective way to advertise: They play to captive audiences who are already moviegoers, and thus more likely to want to know about upcoming films.
Trailers are aggressively tested with focus groups, using the scenes and story lines that garner the highest numbers. “You want to get very high numbers—a ‘definitely interested’ response—from the target group. The trailer for a horror film, for example, will be tested to see how it plays with men under 25,” the producer noted. “If it also scores great numbers from another demographic, say, men over 25, or women under 25, you might re-edit it to increase its appeal to those groups.”
The Motion Picture Association of America plays a significant role in shaping the look and feel of movie trailers. MPAA regulations impose a two and a half minute maximum running time on trailers, although every studio gets one exemption annually. The MPAA also issues ratings for trailers as it does for movies, and only trailers approved for general audiences can be shown without restrictions. Those with more mature content may only run with R-rated features. As a result, trailer producers and studios shy away from overly provocative scenes or language.
Every trailer tells a story, but it isn’t necessarily the story of the film being advertised. Studios skew trailers to highlight a movie’s strongest aspects—comedy, action, romance—and downplay others. Sometimes they will create entirely different versions to attract different audiences.
The original trailer for Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005) was geared to a female audience. It featured touching scenes from the film—a sentimental story about a woman whose husband abandons her—as a voiceover solemnly explained: “She loved him . . . she lost him . . . he left her with nothing . . . Now . . . in spite of her fury . . . she will learn to forgive . . . and in spite of her pain . . . she will rediscover . . . herself.”
But the distributor also made a second trailer targeting younger, male viewers that presented the film as a raucous comedy, centering on the heroine’s outspoken grandmother, Madea, portrayed by author/director Tyler Perry in drag. It discarded sentiment for slapstick scenes of a plus-size black “woman” chopping furniture with a chain saw, brandishing a pistol, crashing her car through gates, and sassing a judge in court. A new voiceover, upbeat music, and graphics drove the message home: “DON’T MESS with her family . . . DON’T MESS with her friends . . . or else MADEA . . . is gonna MESS WITH YOU.”
This crossover strategy worked. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which cost $5.5 million to make, was a surprise hit, taking in nearly $22 million in its opening week and ultimately grossing more than $50 million, despite lukewarm reviews.
Trailers have been around almost as long as movies themselves. They were initially shown following the feature, and although exhibitors soon moved them to the beginning of the program, they were still called “trailers.” By the 1930s, they had acquired the bold graphics, visual wipes, split-screen images, and heavy doses of hyperbole that became standard stylistic elements for the next two decades.
When television began to seriously impact movie attendance in the 1950s, studios countered with more controversial fare, and trailers, too, became more daring and inventive. The trailer for Psycho (1960), for example, features a droll Hitchcock coyly alluding to grisly events at the Bates Motel but showing nothing from the actual film until the last moment, when he violently pushes open a shower curtain to reveal a close-up of Janet Leigh screaming in terror.
Though ineligible for Academy Awards, trailers boast their own Golden Trailer Awards, which are handed out each year to outstanding trailers in various categories (action, comedy, drama, horror, etc.) at an Oscar-like ceremony.
After nine decades of filling ever larger screens with THRILLS! SPILLS! ACTION!, movie trailers may soon have a new challenge to confront: how to be as compelling on a two-inch iPod and cell phone as they are at the local multiplex.