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Numbers Versus Art in the Trailer Business

Numbers Versus Art in the Trailer Business

Articles - Directing

Tony Silver has been producing trailers since the 1960s,
with credits including the memorable Alien (1979)

In an industry blessed with some of society’s
most creative minds, one might wonder why the great majority of
movie trailers feel as if they could have rolled off an assembly
line. While other types of advertising are constantly reinventing
themselves and trying new approaches to promotion, the theatrical
trailer seems to have settled into a cozy, standard, predictable
form: two-and-a-half minutes in length, offering a preview of virtually
every plot point in the movie and almost always stumped by some
disembodied, avuncular narrator telling us exactly what the movie
is supposed to be about. Maybe this shouldn’t seem surprising
when so many new movies feel as if they, too, are rolling off assembly

“To a very large degree, it would not be wrong
to say now that trailers are made by the numbers,” verifies
Tony Silver, who has been producing them since the 1960s and whose
numerous campaign credits include Platoon, Dances With Wolves, The
Remains of the Day, The Truman Show and Miller’s Crossing.
“And rightly or wrongly, no audio visual material for movies
goes out without being extensively researched. The marketing goal
is to get the maximum advance probable approval for the content
of the trailer for a particular demographic.”

But does it really have to be that cut and dry? Couldn’t
movies benefit from new and innovative ways of making trailers and
thinking about campaigns? An experienced moviemaker himself, Silver
says he likes to approach a trailer by thinking in terms of “not
what is the story of this movie, but what is the experience of the
movie.” He cites an example of this kind of execution in the
teaser he created for Alien (on larger productions, the teaser is
a shorter trailer that precedes by months—sometimes even a
year—the conventional trailer and usually has more of a conceptual

LA’s Trailer Park creates approximately 90 percent
of all trailers made with credits including Moulin Rouge

In the Alien teaser Silver wanted to capture the “sense
of fright and dread” that was in the movie without showing
much of what was in the movie itself. When he finished, he had used
only one shot from the original production; the rest of his teaser
was created on a tabletop and animation stand. Silver’s memorable campaign
showed a leathery, egg-shaped object that almost looked like a planet.
Bright light streamed from a crack in the object as it moved slowly
through space and a screaming, crying sound accompanied the now-famous
warning on the screen: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

“For me,” Silver professes, “the
trailers that are most interesting and work best don’t scatter
the energy by trying to push a bunch of buttons, but create one
button or two buttons which are created out of an original ability
of the trailermaker to somehow convey the sense of a large, complex,
rich, exciting, involving, compelling experience that you can immerse
yourself in completely.”

“The fact that there is desktop editing can give the
director time to come up with his own campaign. Maybe then
we’ll see an example of some audacious
trailer that blows away the industry, but it hasn’t
happened yet.”
– Jason Kliot

Ironically, he found that one of the hardest things
he has ever done was making a trailer for his own film, Arisman:
Facing the Audience, a documentary about the life and work of the
charismatic, mystical, engaging artist, Marshall Arisman. “Talk
about boiling your project down into two minutes!” he laments.
What he found most difficult was thinking in terms “of a completely
different kind of sense of elapsed time in the length of the scene
and the length of the moment.”

“It’s getting more and more rare to have
the occasion where you are not obligated to telling the story in
a trailer,” notes Tim Nett, a trailer producer at Trailer
Park in Los Angeles, one of about 10 companies that produce approximately
90 percent of all trailers made. “When trailers are tested,
we find that audiences want to know what the movie is about and
they want to understand it the best they can.” After testing,
Nett says that he gets a very detailed breakdown of what people
are—and are not—responding to and goes from there.

Within this highly market-driven process, however,
editors, in collaboration with graphic designers, sound editors
and music supervisors, are being asked to make much more of a contribution
and to make creative decisions in the process of creating a trailer.
Nett often begins a project by handing the movie and the copy material
to an editor, shutting the door, letting him or her combine the
elements and seeing what happens. Silver also notes that editors
are taking on a more significant role in the production of trailers
and that the craft has become “ever more sophisticated, with
all kinds of advancements—which make it a more visceral, more
exciting and much more technical process.”

New developments in desktop editing are
changing everything—not only in trailers, but in feature film
production, as well. It’s surprising, for instance, that Trailer
Park, with credits for films like Pearl Harbor, Moulin Rouge, Black
Hawk Down and X-Men cuts exclusively on Final Cut Pro, a product,
Nett reminds us, that “anyone can buy at the software store
down the street.” The recent advancements Apple has made in
Final Cut Pro—specifically in terms of edit decision lists,
graphics integration and open media transfer—have opened new
doors, unlocked new talent and allowed more complex things to be
done on lower and lower budgets.

So what about the exciting and increasing pool of
smaller films? Why is it rare to not even see the mold broken here?
Jason Kliot, producer and co-founder of Open City Films and Blow
Up Films, whose films include Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck
and Dan Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders, and who is currently
producing a number of digital features for blow-up to 35mm, admits
that even his company, which is “committed to working with
visionary filmmakers,” has never really let loose what he
would consider a “groundbreaking trailer.”

Steven Soderbergh conceptualized and cut the trailer for
Full Frontal (2002).

Kliot feels the process tends to often get bogged
down on the distribution end. He has observed that distributors
hire companies to make their trailers and that they try to make
these companies work quickly to save money. So in the end there
is very little room, time, resources or motivation to experiment
with the accepted form. “For creativity, you need there to
be more of a willingness to take risks—and that’s never
the case.”

But he’s also excited about the advancements
in desktop editing: Kliot thinks that having access to Final Cut
Pro will allow directors and editors to make their own trailers.
“The fact that there is desktop editing can give the director
time to come up with his own campaign. Maybe then we’ll see
an example of some audacious trailer that blows away the industry,
but it hasn’t really been happening yet.”

Matthew Cohen, Senior Vice President of Marketing
and Creative Advertising at Miramax, admits that executives would
rather play it safe. He points, however, to a trailer such as the
one for Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal as an attempt to
try something new. Soderbergh conceptualized and cut the trailer
himself (in fact he cut the whole film himself on Final Cut Pro).
Soderbergh’s idea simply involves cast names running
on black against dialogue from the movie. There are no scenes in
the trailer from the movie whatsoever.

Asked about this unusual departure from the typical
Miramax trailer and if he thinks Soderbergh’s idea
works, Cohen says: “The Full Frontal piece tells me about
the movie. It tells me the genre of the movie. It tells me that
it’s about people, that it’s modern, about relationships
and that it’s about confusion in the modern world. That might
sound very broad and cliché but it was a really fantastic
way of unfolding those complicated ideas.”

It remains to be seen whether or not Soderbergh’s
trailer is just an anomaly or the beginning of a trend and whether
we will see other departures in film marketing. “As we go
forward,” Cohen hypothesizes, “there might be less and
less testing done by braver executives with a good track record.
Because the testing ultimately is going to reveal the same thing—and
it’s going to homogenize everything. And that becomes a death

Whatever new concepts and techniques might be considered
in the making of trailers, the bottom line is that the priority
will ultimately always be selling the movie. “In the end,”
Tony Silver concludes, “no matter how creative you think you
are, it really comes down to what the movie can be to an audience
and how you can faithfully convey to the audience the idea that
a really entertaining or valuable experience awaits them.”

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