TO CUT A LONG STORY SHORT
The days when trailers were an afterthought, mixed in among the choc-ice and Kia-ora ads, are long gone. Nowadays, they can be a bigger draw than the main attraction. Hotdog meets the people who condense two hours into two minutes. Story: Leigh Singer
“If you have a weak heart, better leave now because…
FRANKENSTEIN RETURNS! In Search of a Bride!”
Trailer for Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
See! Slabs of footage stitched together as clumsily as Boris Karloff’s lumbering monster! Hear! An eardrum-battering trumpet fanfare! Read! The above captions scrawled large across the screen in scare-free ‘horrorvision’ font! (try this yourself at www.moviepap.co.uk/bride.html). Despair! That James Whale’s classic Bride of Frankenstein, alive with wit, poignancy and thrills, has a trailer that registers absolutely none of them.
It scores cheap laughs and schlocky nostalgic appeal now but this type of hype was once normal practice: promo pieces casually knocked up in an afternoon, sometimes by the film’s own editor. Today, things are very different. The movie trailer business is a multi-million dollar global industry in which highly specialized, state-of-the-art companies vie to hard sell you two hours of high-cost entertainment in two minutes. What’s more, we seem to love it. Forget the Puh-Puh-Puh-Puh Pearl and Dean ads, but miss the Coming Attractions at your peril.
‘You’re trying to encapsulate a lot of the same elements that a good film would have - suspense, excitement, climax and teasing elements,’ surmises Philip Daccord, partner at renowned US trailer house Giaronomo and editor of award-winning promos for, among others, The Matrix, Spider-Man and Gangs of New York. ‘I think a good trailer is one that leaves you saying, “OK, I’ve got to see the movie now, I need certain questions that were asked to be answered or see the resolutions to certain set-ups.”’
‘A trailer’s a short film,’ agrees Fraser Bensted, Senior Editor (credits including Billy Elliott, East is East and Monster) at Picture Production Company, the UK’s biggest trailer house. ‘I personally always try and work in a three-act structure. Set up the characters, the story, a moment of conflict in Act II, then the third act is an action montage or whatever takes you up to the climax. Beginning, middle and end.’
It’s a philosophy and storytelling style light years away from the promo’s humble origins. According to film historians, back in 1913 at Rye Beach, New York, serial The Adventures of Kathlyn was beamed onto a white sheet. When young Kathlyn was thrown into the lion’s den, a reel of film ‘trailed’ asking, “Does she escape the lion’s pit? See next week’s thrilling chapter!”
Given this cliffhanging potential, the industry was surprisingly slow hitching its trailers to the marketing bandwagon. For decades the NSS (National Screen Service) oversaw the majority of promotional material across the industry and in general - Ben-Hur’s bombastic promo lists each of its eleven Oscars, followed by a litany of suitably awed international publications - it was wordy, windy fare.
The long overdue 60’s renaissance brought in specialists like pioneering Andrew J. Kuehn, who thought up a Simon and Garfunkel-scored promo for The Graduate and developed TV spots that helped The Exorcist and Jaws break box-office records. By MTV’s early-80’s arrival, the power of rapid-fire montage set to music - Kuehn’s long trumpeted ‘sense of urgency’ needed to lure in audiences was accepted as standard.
Into the 21st century, trailers now lead from the front. True, there’s more scrutiny, testing - promos, like screenplays, go through numerous drafts and competition than ever before, but also many more showcases for the work. Feature DVDs include trailers almost as a given; specially shot teasers debut months before a film’s release; stateside, the Superbowl highlights not just American Football but a roster of brand new previews for the summer blockbusters. ‘I was at a party once,’ remembers Bensted, ‘and I met a kid who’d just sat a GCSE Media Studies exam with questions on the trailer I cut for Billy Elliott!’
Then there’s the Internet. Fan boy websites can digest, critique and often review a film on the basis of its trailer some made specifically for the web - before the feature is even finished. ‘Ten years ago no one would have believed that people would look at a trailer in anything other than real time,’ confirms Phil Daccord. ‘Now you know that somebody on the Internet is going to view it frame-by-frame. There’s a hyperawareness now to trailers that wasn’t around before.’
Hyper-stylization too. New technology has undoubtedly helped trailer makers sell the sizzle over the steak. ‘When I started everything was done on film and it could take days to do certain effects,’ says Daccord. ‘Now I can just hit one button. You can do almost anything with special effects.’ The question is, should you?
‘The Americans have got the balls to manipulate stuff maybe it’s just the Brit sensibility, we’ve got to be more honest and true to the material,’ offers Fraser Bensted, whose award-winning Billy Elliott trailer had a very different US promo. ‘It had an Enya track on it and was big and dramatic, scenes of the dad crying and I thought not in a million years would I put that up there. But you have to hand it to them, they’ve got a great ability to interpret material in a brave way.’
Given such ‘courage’, clashes between trailer makers and filmmakers are inevitable. A director who’s sweated blood for years bringing a project to the screen is perhaps justified being upset by a misrepresentative trailer - it’s why Paul Thomas Anderson personally cuts all his own promos - but are the filmmakers the best marketers of their own movies?
‘At the end of our Se7en trailer there used to be a narration that said “a film by David Fincher,”’ says Daccord. ‘He demanded we take it out because he hated the trailer so much.’ Ironically this very same spot won Best of the Decade at 1999’s inaugural Golden Trailer Awards.
Yes, with all this extra attention, prizes were inevitable. While looking for an editor to cut a trailer for her own movie, Golden Trailer founder Evelyn Brady claims ‘it hit me that nothing had been done like this for movie trailers.’ Buoyed by industry enthusiasm from Harvey Weinstein and debut judge Quentin Tarantino, in five years the Golden Trailers have become a lavish Hollywood ceremony - and next year a TV show - with over 500 entries in categories including Best Action, Comedy, Horror and the prestigious Best in Show winner (this year the imaginative Stepford Wives teaser). All in a quickfire 70-odd minute show.
‘We’re basically geared for an ADD crowd,’ laughs Brady. ‘It’s young, hip, not just an industry thing.’ Star judges like Ben Stiller, Benicio Del Toro and Glenn Close have helped some even happy to come back for more. ‘I ran into Quentin recently,’ she confides, ‘and he was like, “Yeah, you guys had me judge once and then never asked me back! I’d judge every year if you asked me.”’
One of the awards’ most anticipated categories and let’s face it, most coveted is the Golden Fleece: Best Trailer, Worst Movie. Previous winners include such stinkers as Hollow Man, Cruel Intentions and the PPC’s effort for Surfer-Barbie saga Blue Crush. So is that the ultimate challenge: to make a trailer better than the movie?
‘That’s true and unfortunately a lot of the films you work on, it’s not to hard to do,’ admits Phil Daccord, Golden Fleece winner for Joel Schumacher’s 8MM. ‘When I first saw 8MM, to be blunt, I hated it. But we managed to create this piece that did so well, the opening weekend box-office was much higher than expected. People come up to me and say “You did the trailer for 8MM? I’m so pissed at you! It was a piece of shit.”’
A backhanded compliment but better than the common complaints from producers of flops trying to pass the buck and blame the marketing for a film’s failure. Naturally the trailer makers have a short, snappy riposte, complete with catchy tagline. ‘The old pat answer from the business,’ chuckles Daccord, ‘is “If I can ruin a two and a half hour movie in two and a half minutes, there mustn’t have been that much in the movie to begin with.”’
TRAILER TRASH: Where Promos Go Wrong
GIVING THE ENTIRE STORY AWAY Spoiler alert: Tom Hanks does escape his island prison in Cast Away. At least we’ve given you a four year head start; the trailer revealed this minor detail before the film was even released.
CLICHED VOICE / CAPTIONS You already know gravel-gargling Voiceover Man’s solemn proclamations by heart: ‘In a world where…’; ‘One man…’; ‘…can be murder…’ he should be set on those responsible for regurgitating thIS hackneyed old garbage.
STEALING STOCK MUSIC SCORES The same old themes Waterworld, Gladiator and Last of the Mohicans are favourites are repeatedly wheeled out. ‘If I see another comedy trailer with James Brown’s I Feel Good’ groans Phil Daccord, ‘I think I’m going to shoot myself.’
HOW TO MAKE A TRAILER
An exclusive look at PPC’s work-in-progress trailer for new Bollywood-inspired crossover ‘Bride and Prejudice’ with editors Fraser Bensted and Charlotte Phillips.
SHOT 1: Revamping A Classic
Soothing string-laden intro, elegantly curlicued titles - switch to driving drumbeats and a rapid montage of Bollywood-esque shots with new bold, punning title.
FB: ‘It’s a classic faux set-up, introducing the idea of a well-loved novel and clearly showing how it’s been updated.’
SHOT 2: Love Quadrangle…
Cue comedy voiceover: “the story of one girl’s search for love… between her first choice… her last choice… and her mother’s choice…”
CP: ‘The challenge was to come up with a way to clarify all three relationships quickly and still make it funny.’
SHOTS 3 & 4: You Make Me Feel Like Dancing…
The Leo Sayer comeback starts here even though the song doesn’t feature in the film.
CP: ‘I always think music is about 70% of the trailer so it’s good to be a little bit cheeky with it. The track really helps get across the tone of the film - it’s fun, comedy and East meets West.’
FB: ‘Gurinder fell in love with it. I think they even considered using it as an end track to the film!’
IN A HIGH-PITCHED WORLD, ONE MAN WILL LOWER THE TONE…
Meet Howard Parker, Voiceover Artist.
How did you become a Voiceover Man?
Howard Parker: I started in radio after college. As a kid I was embarrassed by my voice but when I got older it turned out to be something kinda cool.
Do people recognise you?
HP: Every once in a while it’ll happen. I’ll be in a cab or getting a haircut and they’ll say, ‘you ought to be on the radio…’
How many trailers have you done?
HP: I’ve worked on around 300 films. The studios usually test films with all the voices to see which suit best, so I’ve finished maybe 120.
HP: Gods and Generals, the civil war movie. The trailers were well done and I liked the way my voice sounded. I squirm when I hear myself. I rarely go to movies.
Ever get bored with the voiceover clichés?
HP: Honestly I don’t, because I feel the people putting the trailer together know exactly what they want. I’m not going to get involved in their creative process.
Not a bad job, then…
HP: I have to pinch myself constantly. I have a full home studio and I work from home three days a week. It’s a great life.
Ever meet other Voiceover Men?
HP: That’s the best part. A lot of these guys are heroes of mine who I’ve listened to for years. Sometimes we bump into each other at studios or at a party.
If you’re all out at dinner, the waitress must get a shock…
HP: Yeah… (laughs, then in extra-deep Voiceover Voice) “I’ll have the chicken…”
To hear Howard Parker in action, visit:
'© Highbury Entertainment 2004. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
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