Hollywood spends big bucks on 150 seconds of eye candy just to lure you into the theater. At the intersection of art and commerce, watch for movie trailers that leave you wanting (lots) more.
RODD PERRY STILL REMEMBERS the reaction he got when he first showed the trailer for The Sixth Sense, the now iconic psychological drama, to executives at Disney, the studio distributing the film. Perry, who is copresident and creative director of the Ant Farm, a Los Angeles– based advertising company that makes film trailers, or previews, says none of the studio executives really had any idea that the film, which eventually made $672 million worldwide, was going to become the phenomenon it did (even people who didn’t see the movie are aware of its most famous line, “I see dead people”). After Perry presented the trailer his company had put together, the Disney execs felt so strongly that they had something special on their hands, they moved the film from a fall release to the summer, a time when studios unveil the films they think can make the most money.
“It was a little movie with a neat ending, and the studio didn’t know what to make of it yet,” says Perry, sitting on a couch in his spacious office, which is decorated with, naturally, film memorabilia, as well as a map of the United States with tiny red flags that indicate the location of newspapers that syndicate Brevity, the comic strip he draws in his spare time. “When they saw our trailer, everyone sort of got excited.”
It isn’t the only time that has happened. Perry recalls how relieved executives at New Line Cinema felt when the very first focus group -- yes, trailers get focus-grouped, just like movies -- for the trailer the Ant Farm made for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring responded enthusiastically to it. There also have been times, he says, when directors who are shown an early trailer for the movie they’re shooting get so excited by it that they actually jump up and down on the set.
While it’s certainly a good -- and usually necessary -- thing for directors and marketing executives at Hollywood studios to be happy about the two-and-a-half-minute trailers that precede the showing of a movie, the ultimate goal is to entice people into the theater. And today, with film budgets often topping $100 million and intense competition for viewers every single weekend, movie trailers are perhaps more important than they’ve ever been, serving as the centerpiece of multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns.
“Thirty years ago, it was kind of an addendum to the movie being made -- ‘Oh, we made a trailer; we’ll put it out,’ ” says Benedict Coulter, who has been making trailers since 1977 and is the president of Trailer Park, a Los Angeles–based company that designs and produces entire advertising campaigns for movies. “Today, they are an intricate part of movie releases.”
With so much at stake, then, it’s hardly a surprise that an enormous amount of thought, creativity, hard work, and money -- some go through dozens of iterations, take as many as three or four months to produce, and have budgets of $300,000 to more than $1 million -- goes into crafting a trailer before it ever reaches a theater.
To get a better idea about how these vitally important minimovies are made -- the process, the artistry, the psychology, the involvement of the film’s director -- we sat down with Coulter and Perry, whose companies have created previews and ad campaigns for films such as Iron Man, Walk the Line, Borat, Transformers, and I, Robot and are among the most in-demand trailer makers in Hollywood.
ALL IT TAKES TO BETTER GRASP the task, and the innumerable possibilities, facing anyone trying to make an effective trailer is a quick visit to YouTube. There, in the place on the Internet where it’s possible to find video of just about anything, you can watch faux trailers for films, which -- by the clever selection of scenes, music, and narration -- make some of the most famous movies utterly unrecognizable. And they’re hilarious. For instance, a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a chilling horror film about a man (played by Jack Nicholson) who goes insane one winter while serving as a caretaker at an isolated hotel, is edited and put to music -- including Peter Gabriel’s uplifting Solsbury Hill -- in such a way that the movie appears to be a feel-good father-son flick. By contrast, you can also watch a made-up trailer for Big -- the Tom Hanks film in which a child’s wish to instantly become an adult is granted -- that makes this sweet, nostalgic film seem creepy, perverted, and sinister.
The role of trailer companies like the Ant Farm and Trailer Park is to create quite the opposite of the spoofs on YouTube: It’s to cut together scenes, dialogue, and music in such a way as to both tell the movie’s story and highlight elements that will draw an audience. “If it’s drama, does it feel dramatic? Does it feel emotional to the person watching it?” says Perry. “Is it funny, if it’s a comedy? Was it scary, if it’s a horror movie?”
The process of constructing a trailer begins early, sometimes before a film has even begun shooting, when a studio will send over a copy of the script for the company to start picking out scenes and dialogue to utilize in a trailer. Trailers can also begin to take shape as footage from a film set -- called dailies -- dribbles in as it is shot. Most of the time, though, Coulter says, his company receives an early cut of the film, often twice as long as the finished product, which is why there are often scenes in the trailer that aren’t in the movie.
The amount of direction trailer companies receive from a studio about how to assemble a preview varies. To ensure they get multiple points of view, studios will even hedge their bets by hiring a number of production companies to work simultaneously on a single trailer. Sometimes, that results in a finished product whose beginning comes from one company, middle from another, and end from yet another (in a process known as Frankensteining).
Obviously, companies prefer a trailer to be entirely of their own making. At the very start, an editor, usually someone who specializes in a particular genre, is assigned to a movie and sets about breaking it down, or selecting the dialogue and visuals that will eventually be cut together to form the trailer. “You are trying to find those moments that have what they call ‘stickiness,’ because the audience is going to remember them after seeing the trailer,” says Perry. At the same time, the company’s writers begin composing short one- or two-page scripts, which will serve as a road map for editors as they mold the trailer. While there’s room for creativity in copywriting -- who can forget the Alien tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream”? -- there’s also an opportunity to tell people what to think. “ ‘The motion-picture event of the season,’ ” says Perry. “You don’t have to wait and hope for people to figure that out on their own.”
The search for the proper music, the kind that emphasizes the tone of a movie, also begins early. The options are myriad and include scores from already released movies, originally composed songs, and, in some cases, even high-profile, expensive new tunes. “On [the Nicole Kidman film] Australia, I had two songs from Coldplay before the album was released, and we didn’t go with them,” says Coulter. “But the studio will pay up to a million dollars for a piece of music, if it’s a cool piece of music, because it separates the trailer from anything else.”
IN SELECTING WHAT MUSIC, scenes, dialogue, and special effects to include, as well as what kind of story to weave, trailer makers are certainly making creative, artistic decisions. And many of those decisions are clearly guided by the genre of the movie.
In comedies, says Perry, the final joke of a comedy trailer is particularly important. “In a comedy trailer, we always talk about laughing into the end credits, so your very last joke wants to be the best,” he says. “As the trailer is finishing and the next one is starting, you are still getting a big laugh.”
Comedies have been a challenge of late due to the popularity of R-rated comedies, particularly those done by Judd Apatow, such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. “They are funniest for what they do best, which is the R-rated material. You take all that stuff out and try to make a trailer with the G-rated material, and it just ain’t that funny,” says Perry. That conundrum has been addressed with the advent of what’s called the red-band trailer, which allows more R-rated scenes but can be shown only before an R-rated, NC-17–rated, or unrated movie. Red-band trailers have become particularly popular on the Internet, where theater restrictions regarding racy material don’t exist.
There’s also a certain amount of psychology involved in selecting what goes into a trailer, much of it based on what studio marketers have learned from past campaigns about what works and what doesn’t. For example, Perry says there are certain truisms that have emerged, such as how to make an action movie like Transformers or Iron Man appealing to women. One long- popular train of thought was that women would respond only to a love story or a strong female character in an action film. “But what we have found time and time again is that women don’t necessarily care about that stuff,” he says. “What they’re interested in is that there is action that doesn’t lean toward violence and that there are characters that are real characters that are relatable and that interact with each other in a real way.”
Perry, who used to work at Disney Home Video, says family movies have trailers that are geared toward mothers, since they are usually the decision makers about whether or not their kids see a film. “Moms are making the purchasing decision,” he says. “So there’s a lot of messaging that this movie is fun for my entire family.”
One of the perpetual challenges that trailer makers face is just how much of a film’s plot, effects, and jokes to show. A common complaint from audience members is that trailers show so much, there’s no need to see the film. But what studios and trailer makers have discovered from focus groups is that, often, viewers will watch a trailer and say they don’t know enough to decide whether they’ll see the movie or even recommend it to others. “The problem we run into is a catch-22. If you have the goods, why not show them because you’re going to get people in the theater?” says Coulter. “It’s a conversation we have on every movie. I’m a strong believer in less is more, in finding a way to get people engaged in pieces so they say, ‘Wow, this is great, I’d like to see more.’ ”