Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Lost Art of a Good Film Trailer


The Hungers Game opens this week and I would be lying if I said I was not eagerly anticipating the film. Part of the reason is that I am a fan of the book, the other is the fact that the official trailer is extremely effective. Unlike the Twilight series, the marketing for The Hunger Games has managed to capture the interest of both men and women who never even knew the books existed. The trailer does a great job of explaining the basic premise of the film while still managing to keep the actual events of The Hunger Games a mystery. While some would say, “isn’t that what all trailers do?” the truth of the matter is studios have lost the art of making a good trailer.

There was a time when trailers were somewhat of a big event. I would go to the theatre early to ensure that I did not miss any of trailers before the feature. There were many occasions when the trailers ended up being better than the film I was there to see. So what happened? What has changed to make the truly great, or at least memorable, trailers now seem so few and far between? Well the medium in which we consume trailers has changed. Trailers are now launching online before they hit theatres or television sets. On top of that, with such a large quantity of media being consumed on a daily basis, the appetite for more and more information has grown. Studios are now competing with leaked videos and stills of footage taken from when films were still in the shooting stages.

As a result, it is no longer sufficient to have just one trailer, but you need to have a couple of teaser trailers leading up to the official trailer, not to mention the numerous television spots. The problem with all of this is that studios need to include new footage with each new advertisement. All this extra footage is actually hurting films as they are giving away too many of the key moments in the film. I am starting to loose count of the number of times in the last year I have said to myself, while watching a trailer, “well I now know how this one will end.” In many ways trailers are no different than going on a first date with someone. If there is some mystery left about the person you are more likely to see them again. If you feel like you know everything about the person after your initial meeting then what is the point of pursuing things further?



Giving away too much in a trailer has been a problem for as long as trailers have been around. I understood the need to spell things out for audiences thirty to forty years ago. Yet audiences today are far savvier and do not need to be handled like children. However, that has not stopped studios from going into too much detail. A perfect example of this is the trailer for the Amanda Seyfried starring thriller, Gone. The film is about a woman who is trying to save her sister from a kidnapper that had abducted her years earlier. No one believes the killer exists, but Jill (Seyfried) knows he is still out there. This film should be an easy sell, but the trailer pretty much walks us through every beat the film as to offer.

The only thing worse than being walked through an entire film in two minutes, is having key scenes spoiled. Which is why I never understood people’s fascination with seeing exclusive extended footage taken directly from a film? I already know I will be seeing The Dark Knight Rises, so what is the point of seeing the opening six minutes months in advance? If you cannot sell me on the film within 2 minutes, how is six minutes with no real context going to help matters? Even in mere two minutes trailers some studios still find ways to ruin key scenes. Two examples that come to mind where the trailers for the films Drive and Haywire, two films I really enjoyed. Drive was the only film of the two that I went into having not seen a single trailer beforehand. In both cases, trailers extended footage of key action scenes where shown in the trailer. Haywire in particular showed way too much of the Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender fight, which is pretty much the centerpiece of the entire film. Though the sequence was still entertaining, their fight would have been far more jaw dropping had the trailer not given away so much.



Another strange thing is that many trailers are giving so much away and yet still leaving a large portion of us confused as to what the film is about. John Carter is the most recent victim of this type of bad trailer editing. From all accounts, I hear that John Carter is actually a rather entertaining film. However, I never got that from the trailers. In fact, until the reviews starting coming out I had no idea of what the film was actually about. Sure there were some cool images in the trailer, but without proper context the “wow” factor is just not there. Compare this to the full trailer for another high concept blockbuster, Prometheus, and the differences are glaring. Prometheus is rumoured to be an Alien prequel but you need no prior knowledge of the franchise to get a firm understanding of what the film is about. In fact, you would not even know the film takes place in the same world as Alien judging by the trailer. However, the trailer for the film is no less stunning. It clearly establishes who the main players are and what they will be doing in the realm of the film. Similar to The Hunger Games, Prometheus offers up everything you could want from a trailer.

I know we live in a time where studios must compete harder than ever to get the paying customer’s attention. However, instead of trying to over extend themselves, it is time for studios to really get back to the art of crafting effective trailers again. Regardless of the medium in which the advertisement is consumed, the one thing that still manages to get me excited to see a film is a well made trailer. I do not need to be walked through a film, or shown over-the-top action sequences, or even extended footage from a film. All I want is in that two minute is to get a decent understanding of what the film is about while still leaving some mystery which will entice me to want to see the film when it is finally released. Is that really too much to ask?

What are your thoughts on the state of modern day film trailers? Let us know which ones you enjoy or despise in the comments section.

14 comments:

  1. Yea way too many trailers and teasers and preview of trailers and TV clips and extended clips and "watch the first 10 minutes of the movie".... Ahaha ridiculous. Just make one good 150-second trailer, that's all it should take.

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    1. It is amazing how many people forget that less is actually more. One solid trailer makes a huge difference at the box office.

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  2. Phips2:45 pm

    What a great write up! I've been thinking the same thing for awhile.

    I've seen so many trailers that leave me saying "well I now know the entire movie. no need to see it" or "looks like they just gave away all the good jokes in the film".Then you have the perfect example of John Carter--the trailer is awful. It does nothing to inform the viewer what the movie is really about. That is probably why it was tracking to be a huge flop even before it was released--the trailer didnt excite enough people about the release.

    I liked your examples of DKR. I have not and will not watch the opening 6 minutes of the film. Personally, I think that's stupid that they released that. I will be seeing DKR regardless of the 6 minutes and some people Ive talked to just dont understand why I wont and keep trying to convince me. I wont give in...I want to go into that film untainted with a clean slate from which to form my own opinions.

    As for Drive...I did see many trailers for it but I think the film did a GREAT job with the trailers. Part of Drive's appeal, for me, was being so taken aback by the instantaneous flip of a switch in Driver and the new direction that the film takes from that point on. I had no idea it was coming and didnt know to expect it (i obviously didnt read the book). if the trailer had put any of that (those of you who have seen it will know what im talking about) in the trailer i think the viewing experience of Drive would not have been soo good.

    The Hunger Games' trailer is really good and is enticing me to want to see it...despite it being based on another teen novel.

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    1. Phips2:48 pm

      Oh yeah, and Inception last year. The trailer was awesome. When the first teasers came out they showed almost nothing but just enough to "hook" the audience and get people talking about it. Then, as the film's release got nearer, they put more stuff in but still they didnt really give away much. the trailers leading up to its release were so well done.

      Prometheus is going in the same way. A few teaser and then the recently released full trailer that is just awesome. Yet, I dont feel like I know the entire film--or even remotely close. I still kinda dont know whats going on but I know enough and have seen enough to be incredibly excited for it and will be seeing it opening weekend.

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    2. Inception is a good example of how to build buzz while still keeping people guessing. Considering how layered the plot was, it is rather brave of the studios not to cave into the temptation of over explain things in the trailer. They trusted that the audience would be smart enough to go along for the ride. It reminded me of how The Matrix trailer was handled back in 1999.

      As for Drive, I am at the opposite end than you. I think I would have enjoyed the film less if I saw some of the footage, such as the elevator fight, in advance.

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    3. Phips2:19 pm

      I meant what you said...If I had seen the elevator scene in advance I would have not enjoyed Drive as much as I did. I was saying that the way Drive did it was good...not giving away the whole other side to the movie. they advertised it as a stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. thats it. i think they did it great.

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  3. Phips2:51 pm

    Castor's post on AM is very telling about JC's failure with their marketing strategy..links perfectly with this post. nice timing guys.

    http://www.anomalousmaterial.com/movies/2012/03/disney-expects-to-lose-a-whopping-200-million-on-john-carter/

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    1. Sometimes the film blogging stars just end up aligning nicely

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  4. The post starts out by saying that trailers are mostly a problem now because they show too much, but then later in the post it mentions that this has been a problem for a long time. I agree with the latter statement, not the former.

    For at least the last couple of decades almost all trailers have been showing too much, whether it is important reveals (What Lies Beneath), all the jokes (too many to mention), or the resolution to the entire film (Castaway). Some even show enough that I figured out the twist just from having watched the trailer (Fight Club, Shutter Island, and Derailed).

    They also need to stop showing scenes from the ends of films, even if they don't seem to reveal anything big. By showing them, they stick in people's heads and sometimes we are waiting to see them. They also need to stop showing scenes with a character after something important has happened to them (we knew Olivia Wilde's character wasn't dead in Cowboys and Aliens because the trailer had already shown her walking naked by a fire - something that would definitely stick in your mind - and we hadn't seen that scene in the movie yet.

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    1. I should have clarified the former better. What I mean is that ten years ago teaser trailers, viral campaigns and such were not as rampant as they are now. By time you factor in all the various marketing campaigns there are hardly any surprises left when viewing the actual film. Yes, bad trailers have been around for a long time, but they really have become even more prominent with all the various mediums being used. The marketing teams are spreading themselves too thin. One good trailer is all you really need to get people talking.

      Cowboys and Aliens is a perfect example of a poorly made trailer. That one gave away all the key twist. I completely agree that nothing that occurs in the ending, or the last act for that matter, should be included in the trailers.

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  5. Great piece. I generally don't care for most modern trailers but a few lately--The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Prometheus--have really blown me away.

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    1. The thing I like about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trailer is that it established that the film would be darker than the original version. It did a good job of setting the overall tone of the film.

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  6. The more footage they give us, the more I bloody end up watching! I can't control myself and it can be a real shame. I hate it most when all the jokes are in a comedy film trailer. But then I might not go see it if they weren't. Tricky. I think one solid trailer should be enough and I do love a good trailer that doesn't tell you the whole plot and spoil key scenes. Prometheus is pretty perfect, I'm intrigued as hell!

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    1. It is that lack of self-control that the studios are banking on. It is a vicious circle indeed. The studios know that there is a huge section of the population that will eat up whatever is released simply for fear of being left “out of the loop.”

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