For almost as long as there have been movies, there have been movie trailers. In 1913 Nils Granlund, the advertising manager for the Marcus Loew theatre chain, came up with a unique and innovative way of promoting a play called The Pleasure Seekers. He produced a short promotional film for the play to be shown before the main feature at his movie theatres. Finding the idea to be successful he adopted the same practice to promote an upcoming Charlie Chaplain film in 1914, et voila, movie trailers were born. Nowadays trailers are part of the ritual of attending the cinema. Some try and time their entry to the theatre in order to miss them; others anticipate the previews more than the film they have paid to see. Some people will even endure the painstaking drudgery of the Superbowl simply to see what half time delights the Hollywood marketing machine has churned out for their greedy consumption.
We are living through an interesting age in the history of cinema. Hollywood is simultaneously battling to stop the internet from destroying cinema exhibition, and yet relying on it for the promotion of the very films it wants fans to watch in the cinema instead of on the internet. Complex stuff. So while Hollywood condemns piracy and tries to drag sprained-wristed teenagers from the darkness of their bedroom dungeons with a shiny pair of 3-D glasses, it panders to their ‘social patterns’ with viral campaigns and teaser trailers promoting their latest films. The internet is not the only game changer in the world of trailers. The proliferation of independent film companies has meant that the potential for ‘breakout’ hits is greater than ever, and so the idea of a movie trailer is to entice as wide an audience as possible into a film. How then, does a company go about promoting a film which is intended for a niche audience as if it is intended for mass consumption? This article will take a look at the variety of styles used in movie trailers in the current age, highlighting some of the best and worst examples from recent years, in order to establish what impact the trends of production and consumption have had on Hollywood’s most potent form of advertising.
As it has developed over the years, the internet has become one of the most important cultural phenomena in human history. The greatest gifts the web has afforded us are knowledge and access, we are now able to find out what is happening as it happens and so immediacy is no longer desired but assumed. In terms of filmmaking this means that keeping a secret is nigh on impossible, as soon as a film is released spoilers are plastered all over the net. One way that filmmakers can use this to their advantage is to promote a film…secretly. If immediacy is of the essence, then why not entice people to see a film on the opening day by giving as little about it away as possible. This was the tactic of internet-savvy filmmaker J.J Abrams when promoting his 2008 monster movie Cloverfield. Months before the film was released a teaser trailer started popping up all over the internet. The video features a group of yuppies in a swanky New York pad hosting a leaving party for one of their number. The cheerful goodbyes are rudely interrupted by a power cut, a ferocious shaking and an otherworldly growl. When the group make their way to the top of the building they are met with the sight of an explosion in the distance, and the head of the Statue of Liberty is sent flying like a jagged bowling ball down a Manhattan street. This short clip suddenly had the internet buzzing with theories and speculation, and a low budget indie sci-fi film was suddenly the most anticipated movie of the year, simply because of the mystery that surrounded it. The irony was that the film itself was far from mysterious; a monster destroys New York…the end. Yet by creating the impression that there was more to Cloverfield than met the eye, and specifically by exploiting the kind of people who spend most of their lives on internet forums, Abrams and company were able to make Cloverfield a far bigger hit than it might otherwise have been.
The opposite approach to the Cloverfield technique is to assume everyone is going to know what happens in your film anyway, and so simply to use the trailer to present a shortened version of the finished product, like CliffsNotes for movies. This was presumably the thinking behind the trailer for The Next Three Days (2010), Paul Haggis’ remake of French thriller Pour Elle. I have not seen the film, yet I know having seen the trailer that the film is about a man whose wife is imprisoned for murder and isn’t cut out for prison life. When his attempts to secure her release through legal routs fail and she attempts suicide he must resort to breaking her out. With the advice of an ex-con who successfully escaped the same prison ringing in his ears he sets about breaking her out, does so, and then must evade capture for the next three days. That’s an awful lot to know about a film without seeing it, and given that the main focus of the film is the prison break, surely not knowing whether it works or not would make that particular part of the film a touch more exciting. The only thing that would make anyone who has seen this trailer want to pay to see the film is discovering what happens at the end, and this information could easily be found where? On the internet. Either the people behind The Next Three Days are assuming that their audience do not make use of the internet (thus eliminating a fairly healthy chunk of the population) or they have assumed that no-one really wanted to see the film anyway and so the trailer was the best way to gain exposure for the people who worked on it. The film’s box office returns would suggest the latter.
To put the box-office failings of The Next Three Days down to its over-informative trailer alone would be unfair, yet there is no doubt that trailers do play a huge role in determining whether a film will be a hit or a miss. How then do film companies get as many people as possible to come and see a film that will have a limited appeal? Take Sweeney Todd for example, Tim Burton’s 2007 gothic horror/musical. An 18 certificate on a musical makes it a tough sell, no matter how star studded it may be, and so the marketing geniuses behind the trailer for the film came up with an idea to make the film more appealing to the blood-thirsty horror fans it needed to be successful: they pretended it wasn’t a musical. The trailer for Sweeney Todd is two and a half minutes long and contains exactly ten seconds of singing, and this is clearly framed within a dream or fantasy scene and so to the uninformed masses could easily be a self contained sequence. A quick glance over the internet could easily have informed viewers of the film’s true nature (the script is almost entirely sung) but this wasn’t some internet breakout hit, this was Tim Burton and Johnny Depp! They could trust this, right? Fans of the musical genre would be aware that Sweeney Todd has been a Broadway staple for years, but these fans would no doubt be interested in seeing the film anyway. The trailer is clearly designed to fool horror fans into paying for something they otherwise would not be interested in, and in this respect the trailer was highly successful, helping the film come in at number twelve in the most lucrative musicals of all time. A similar technique was used to promote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), a sci-fi romance about erasing memories. Knowing what audience to aim for was a tricky call, and so the trailer seems to suggest that the film is a light-hearted romantic comedy starring Jim Carrey as his usual goofy and lovable self. The film is actually a dramatic departure from Carrey’s usual image and focuses far more strongly on the real heartache of ending a relationship than on the chirpy niceness of starting one, but then informing the audience is not the purpose of a film trailer, they are designed to entice you into the cinema.
Advertising is a business of lies, and film trailers are no exception to this rule. Whether promoting a film as being more deep and mysterious than it really is or trying to package a genre film as something else entirely, the companies who make trailers are not selling films; they are selling tiny little narratives of their own which will hopefully lure as many people into seeing a film as possible. The internet may have made this business more difficult, but by either exploiting the computer geeks, bypassing them or fooling them, companies will continue to make trailers that get them, and the rest of us, out of our homes and into the cinema.