Nobody loves a spoiler. The recent trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which opened this weekend to less than stellar reviews, was torpedoed with hate after fans thought it revealed too much of the plot. But if spoilers are the ultimate trailer buzzkill, then what is it that makes them work?
There are plenty of people on the internet who think they know the answer. Now almost all movie trailers are subjected to a complete autopsy online. There are Reddit threads, movie sites, and YouTube channels dedicated to picking the trailer apart, as dialogue is over-analyzed, easter eggs are unearthed, and individual frames are militantly dissected. It's little wonder that this fascination with trailers has blown up: The promotional campaigns for most blockbusters begin as early as 18 months before the release date, so there are now innumerable trailers that movie fans are able to deconstruct.
Matt Brubaker, president of one of Hollywood's top marketing agencies, Theatrical at Trailer Park Inc, explained why there 's so much fuss around trailers now. "The new generation has an attention span that is geared more toward two minutes rather than two and half hours, so we can't afford to make any mistakes," he told me over the phone from his LA office.
Trailer Park Inc collaborates with film studios to make trailers for practically every blockbuster movie. Matt oversaw trailers for The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, and Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory, among many others. With his team of editors, music supervisors, and motion graphic designers, Brubaker said there's a simple format for a successful trailer. Essentially, the format is to give moviegoers a clear idea of what the film is about before they enter the cinema—which explains the tendency towards revealing the plot. "People like to do their homework before they go to the theater," said Brubaker. "They want to make sure that they're going to something that they're really going to enjoy." This is true. If we can't go out for dinner without first googling every morsel of information on the restaurant, why should watching a film be any different?
Brubaker also explained that it's now customary for film studios and marketing agencies to make trailers for specific audiences. "There might be one trailer for a specific retail partner or one for Japan and one for the UK, " he said. "All these trailers have different content but also have to be part of a cohesive campaign."
Take Straight Outta Compton, which released separate trailers on Facebook for specific ethnic demographics: one for a white audience (who, it was assumed, didn't know what the rap group NWA was) and one for an African American audience (who, it was assumed, did). With such tailor-made marketing in place, it may one day be impossible to dislike a trailer, because it will have been made specifically for you.
"The only trailer I remember seeing as a kid was for The Shining," said Mark Woollen, director of Mark Woollen and Associates, another of Hollywood's top trailer-making agencies. "It was one single shot of a corridor with scrolling titles and music to set the tone. That's all I needed."
That trailer really is as basic as it sounds and looks alien in today's world of rapid cuts. Woollen, unlike a lot of his contemporaries, is still an advocate of the "less is more" approach: " I like going [into the cinema] and feeling like I know as little about the film as possible." A big statement from a man whose job it is to capture the essence of an entire film in roughly two minutes.
Clichés and tropes are banished (where possible) from Woollen's portfolio, which includes trailers for many major films from the past 25 years, from 12 Years a Slave to Fargo. "The movies that we work on have original voice and vision behind them, so we have to create trailers that follow that," Woollen said. "We are not going to package the films we work on in a cookie-cutter mold—it doesn't work like that."
One such mould-breaking trailer was Woollen's cut for The Revenant, Alejandro González Iñárritu's epic tale of survival that featured an Oscar-winning performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. As the film is full of remarkable cinematography but limited in terms of dialogue, Woollen had to find something else to pace the trailer with—Leo's breath.
"I noticed you could visibly see the breath coming from Leo in a number of images. I thought that would be the perfect element of sound design to connect us to him. It made sense as a way of representing this constant pushing on to survive."
For Woollen, much of the process behind an enticing trailer stems from sound design, whether that be DiCaprio's breath or the Scale & Kolacny Brothers "hypnotizing cover of Radiohead's 'Creep,'" as used in the trailer for The Social Network.
"When you find that right piece of music, it can be the spirit and guiding force of a trailer, that gives it its pulse and rhythm," said Woollen, who used "Creep"to emphasize the human relationships within a film that tells the story of a technological phenomenon. "I started to find connections with the lyrics and the film's story… the lines 'I don't belong here' and 'I wanna have control' made me think of adding friends on Facebook and [Zuckerberg] feeling isolated."
I asked Woollen about the trailer for Room. I realized, after seeing the film, that this trailer seemed to reveal the entire plot. "That film has a difficult first half—there is a darkness to it," he replied. "Honestly, in cases like that, there are going to be concerns with how can you let people in and show that it's going to be OK." Perhaps sometimes, you have to promise a happy ending in order to get audiences into the cinema in the first place.
Woollen has never found it challenging to assert his vision of how a trailer should be, but he is aware that many trailers are still edited to the cookie-cutter mold that film fans have an issue with.
"I don't think that film marketing traditionally is known for being extra bold or risky," Woollen said. "The movie business overall thinks, If it's worked once before, then why not do it again?"
Despite the reviews, and despite the spoiler-filled trailer, Batman v Superman still racked up the fourth-biggest global opening in history. But for those films that aren't massive sequels or superhero blockbusters, the ones that can't rely on a pre-existing fanbase, the trailer must stand alone. "Trailers are now their own form of entertainment, in a way," Woollen said. "And come to think of it, there are films that should exist just as trailers."
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