The Art of the Trailer, or, On the Selling of Films (short)

MarkIt often occurs to me that we, the cinema-going audience who pay through our teeth to watch what more often than not disappoints us, are continually being short-changed by the process of marketing the films we see. A recurring theme in many of the reviews here at is the damage wrought on the experience of seeing the blockbuster we've shelled out our hard-earned for by the very thing that may have got us to the box office in the first place... the film's trailer.

The movie trailer we now know and loathe has had several forms throughout the history of film, and in many respects the most modern incarnation is a reflection of the time we live in. Information generally, and more specifically information relating to upcoming film, is so readily available on tv and radio, in print and on the internet that potential viewers have the opportunity to be far better educated about the films they choose to see than ever before. By the time a film is released here in Australia, international opinion is usually already available via review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, the Movie Review Query Database or Metacritic. Additionally, the Internet Movie Database is one of the most visited websites in the world. Gossip magazines and celebrity obsession mean our stars are in many ways closer to us than may have previously been thought possible. The trailer must therefore capture the attention of an audience already aware of the lifestyles of its stars, their recent films including successes and failures, and the critical opinion of the film's worth.

In times when information was much less available to the public, trailers could simply show a brief collection of scenes with banner headlines announcing the cast and a corny voiceover adding to the hyperbole. A great example is the original trailer to one of my all-time favourite films, The Big Sleep. "THEY'RE TOGETHER AGAIN! THAT MAN BOGART! AND THAT WOMAN BACALL!"

Note the lack of any real information about plot - the audience is simply asked to expect more of the same, given the success of the first Bogart-Bacall film To Have and Have Not. Bacall and Bogart had met and fallen in love during the shooting of that film, and the marketers had the public's enjoyment of the film itself and their desire to see more of this famous screen and real-life couple to drawn upon. Both angles are covered in the trailer for The Big Sleep.

In the 60s and 70s trailers began to contain more plot information and the modern format gradually developed, leading to the situation we now find ourselves in - where the simple act of watching the trailer to a film can change entirely the experience of watching the film itself.

The successful build-up of suspense in Vantage Point, the new action thriller about an attempt to assassinate the President of the United States, relies heavily on the audience not expecting its only substantive twist. Structured as the repeated retelling of the same sequence of events through the eyes of different participants, the gradual release of information is crucial to the development of the narrative. Director Pete Travis does a reasonable job of knitting the individual threads into a cohesive whole, but turns the film on its head midway through by demonstrating that what had been seen by many witnesses was in fact not the truth of the matter. This twist should have carried the full force of its surprise, but for anyone who has seen the trailer there is no surprise at all.

Vantage Point isn't alone for spawning a trailer that makes a mockery of the intentions of the film's creators - many recent films suffer similarly at the hands of their marketers. The trailer for 27 Dresses tells the entire story in its 150-second running time. Michael Bay's The Island spends time setting up an alternate world for its characters to inhabit that is impossible to accept if one has seen the trailer and already knows the shocking truth that will soon be revealed. The only aspect of Prime - the 2005 Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep and Bryan Greenberg film - that offers distinction from any of literally hundreds of other films about odd couple pairings is its twist, and yet that plot point is the prime focus of the trailer used to market it!

Occasionally trailers can effectively add to the anticipation of a film without detracting by spoiling the plot - the best recent example is Cloverfield. Months before the film's premiere, the release on the internet of a teaser trailer only hinting at what the film may really be about encouraged fans to wonder, and the hype built to such an extent that when it was finally released it earned the highest grossing ever (unadjusted) January opening weekend in the US. Part of the success was the 'viral marketing' campaign, but this relied heavily on the trailer, which was subsequently broken down as shot-by-shot analysis by frenzied fans.

The list of films in which the plot twist is revealed and the film is sold out rather than sold by its trailer is far more extensive, however, and many more examples could easily replace the few above. The question is not whether trailers actually can have a negative impact on the experience of seeing the film itself, but rather whether those responsible for them have any obligation to the audience and the filmmakers.

Perhaps the role of trailer editors can be defined only in terms of bottoms on seats, and any means necessary to achieve a strong box office is justifiable. Others will think trailer editors have a responsibility to the film and its cast and crew to maintain the element of surprise that will allow the film to have its intended impact. Individual philosophies aside, one suspects most audience members would agree they would prefer to see a film without prior knowledge of any crucial plot points or character developments, such that they enjoy the film to its fullest.

Some go so far as to avoid trailers altogether, but for cinephiles that is often easier said than done. Every trip to the cinema requires sitting through several trailers for forthcoming features, and even cursory visits to many film websites endanger the unsuspecting reader with trailers that launch automatically or sneak-preview photos and reviews. The ubiquitous nature of film advertising and trailers means the audience will rarely see a film they know little about.

For those of us not involved in making trailers for new films, it is hard to imagine the difficulty faced by those who are in striking the balance between enticement and spoiler. Fans with a strong interest in film may find small pieces of information are enough to ruin the story, while others would shake their heads in confusion as to what possibly could be interpreted from such a snippet. Appealing to the mass market and thus maximising the chance at a profit must therefore mean designing trailers for the lowest common denominator.

Trailers must also accurately reflect the tenor of the film, such that the audience doesn't attend expecting one experience and then be forced to sit through another, and in the case of The Island - which starts as a quiet meditation on what is meant by humanity and finishes as a more typical Michael Bay action extravanganza - this would be a tough assignment. Should the trailer only reflect the science fiction dilemma posed, or must it reflect the subsequent chase film? To whom is the film supposed to appeal? It seems more likely the more important question was to how many can it?

The act of paying your money and sitting down in a darkened movie theatre is essentially one of submission. The audience member agrees to allow the filmmakers to show them a world outside their own, and promises to relax and let the film do its best to transport them to that world. For their part, filmmakers are required to make the best film they can, to justify the time and money invested by the audience. Too often this contract is anulled (even before it is signed) by the men and women standing in between.

Mark Lavercombe, 24th March 2008

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