There is an Art to the Trailer

There is nothing that gets me jazzed like a good trailer. The anticipation can almost be as good as the film itself. In some cases, it’s better. In others, a lacklustre trailer promotes a far superior movie.

My criteria are fairly simple: maintain a consistent tone; draw me in; don’t reveal too much plot, but don’t leave me wondering what the fuck your movie is about; make me want more. I am Goldilocks, surfing YouTube for the trailer that is “just right.”

Like I said, there is an art to the trailer.

Case Study #1:

127 Hours (2010) – Trailer length: 1:45

Exciting. Kinetic. Intriguing. I didn’t love the movie, but Zeus almighty did I love this trailer. Great use of music (“Never Hear Surf Music Again” by Free Blood), and just the right amount of plot. We know what Aron Ralston is like, and we know what kind of shit he gets himself into. But importantly, it is not revealed how he handles it or what ultimately happens. Yes, I realize we all already knew. But you know what I mean; I immediately wanted to know more.

Case Study #2:

Into The Wild (2007) – Trailer length: 2:33

Unlike 127 Hours, I did love this movie. But the trailer? Not perfect. I think 2:33 is a little long, and in this case divulges too much. As with the first example, we don’t know what ultimately happens, but we sure as hell know a lot about the lead-up. While it could have used a little more mystery, I think the trailer’s tone is great. It manages to move past the melodramatic “Once upon a time“-like voice-over narration fairly quickly, and maintains a consistent direction through several music changes. It builds a sense of anticipation and is thoroughly imbued with the wanderlust of the film.

Case Study #3

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) – Trailer length: 2:05

I haven’t seen this movie. And I likely won’t. By all accounts, it is pretty awful; Roger Ebert’s scathing review included gems like: “Generations of filmmakers devoted their lives to perfecting techniques that a director like Jonathan Liebesman is either ignorant of, or indifferent to.” (Ya burnt, Liebesman). But it is a perfect example of how it is possible to create a fantastic trailer for a sub-par final product. Just try and tell me that after watching it you don’t want to see it. The music! The lack of dialogue! The mystery!

Case Study #4

Friends With Benefits (2011) – Trailer length: 1:44

I’ll admit that a few guffaws escaped from me at first viewing. But honestly? This trailer is a piece of shit. No, I don’t know what happens in the end (I mean, I could guess. It is undoubtedly pretty predictable), but nor do I care. If you’re going to make a 1:44 trailer than you had better pack it full of character exposition so that I actually want to know more about the narrative. Instead, this trailer wastes 25 seconds on watching Mila Kunis blink and another 30 on jokes about Third Eye Blind. No thanks.

Case Study #5

A Prophet (2009) – Trailer length: 1:20

I love this movie. It is by far my favourite film from the last 5 years, and is currently battling hard (with some embarrassingly pretentious ~*~film student*~* choices which I won’t mention because no1curr) for the top spot of all time. I have raved about it here before, and will not stop until you have all seen it (and it is currently streaming on Netflix so you have no excuse). My love for the film makes it all the more difficult to talk about how disappointing its trailer is. At a brief 1:20, it packs an impressive amount of dialogue-free plot exposition. However, it switches awkwardly at the midpoint from a high-energy tone (set to Turner Cody’s song “Corner of My Room”) to a more subdued, emotional tone. Neither are flawed, per se, but the transition feels inorganic. It is interesting to note, however, that the film’s original French trailer succeeds where the English one fails.

By reversing the order – shifting from the subdued to the high-energy (with Cody’s music coming later) – the trailer builds an organic momentum and a realistic desire to see more.

Ultimately, a trailer’s purpose is to make you want more. They are a unique form of advertising: selling art using fragments of the work itself. I am fascinated by their construction, but also by their relationship to their final text. (I’m sure that somewhere there is a thesis being written on the semiotics of the trailer as signifier to the film text’s signified.) That there can be such a divide between the quality of one versus the other speaks to the business of film, in my mind, and the fundamental importance of selling a product. So much scholarship seems to forget or ignore that films have a material existence outside the (limited) academic perception. Films are artistic works, yes, but they are also objects of mass culture and money-making ventures. Trailers are ultimately a reminder to keep my eyes open to this.

And, of course, they make me want to see kick-ass movies about shit blowing up.

Editor’s note: Filmschooled generously shares her content from her tumblr with us to share with you.  You can find this post in it’s original context on filmschooled’s tumblr.

6 thoughts on “There is an Art to the Trailer”

  1. OK, I laughed at the oral sex clip in the FWB trailer, partly at the man’s confusion upon hearing the woman’s noises and partly at the sheet design. She’s covered by a sheet up to her armpits, and yet Justin is able to pop his sheet-covered head out of an oral sex trapdoor.

  2. My pet peeve is when trailers give away the entire movie. I don’t even bother seeing movies whose plots I can entirely ascertain just from their trailers.

    A newly-released trailer that I REALLY enjoy (as in, have already watched it dozens of times) is the trailer for Super 8. It does a great job establishing the setting and time period of the film, and showed just enough footage so you know it’s going to be a film along the lines of E.T./The Goonies/Jurassic Park… but it doesn’t really show much more than that. It intrigued me and captured my imagination in exactly the right way.

    1. Oh, yeah, I totally agree! I thought the full-length trailer did a great job of providing more plot/character exposition while maintaining the intrigue and mystery of the original teaser trailer. Of course, that could be a result of the whole project having been shrouded in so much mystery for so long…
      But I’ll definitely be seeing it!

  3. One of the worst trailers I remember is the trailer for Juno. It pretty much gives away the whole plot. The quirky dialogue that we all found so “refreshing” when the movie first came out becomes more and more grating with time – and the trailer features LOTS of it. Plus, it gives away some of the best lines – or at least some of my personal favourites. It did leave me wanting more, but when I saw the movie I realized there really wasn’t much more to it. I hate it when that happens!

  4. I love trailers so much that as a habitually late person I make it a point to get to the movie theater extra early so there is no chance I’ll miss ’em. A recent trailer that was quite horrible due to length and amount of plot given away was Letters to Juliet. The trailer basically gave away the whole movie in under 3min which probably saved me from wasting the 90min of my life on film I might have watched if it weren’t for that trailer. Oh and thanks to that video of A Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever I can’t take most Oscar contender movies seriously.

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