100 Years of Movie Trailers: What More Could an Audience Want?

Boy do we have an exciting post today!

The following MP3 file is from my recent talk at New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies, at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City on October 19th, 2011.

Regrettably, the videographer who I’d invited to tape the event came down with the flu, but NYU made this recording.

MP3 from my OCT. 19th lecture at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts

[Note: About 5 minutes into the talk, I show two trailers–THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) a SILENT trailer, and INCEPTION (2010). I stepped away from the podium and the microphone to watch the trailers with my audience, so for a minute or two there is no audio. Please be patient, and I will return!]

Here’s what I said about Phantom of the Opera:

In this preview, the trailermakers adopt the circus approach to selling the film. What they’ve got to offer is, they assume, universally desirable: spectacle, stars–including the world famous Lon Chaney–an experience or phenomenon, evident in the near riot of excited fans outside the Astor Theater in NYC where the feature premiered. No Audience could resist such attractions as have been translated from a well-known book to the big screen with lavish attention and no-expense-spared production. The marketers of this film know nothing specific about you the audience except that you’re like everyone else.

The story of the Phantom is assumed to be familiar to audiences and is only glancingly revealed in the cast-introducing copy and the excerpted scenes, such as the Bal Masque on the Grand Staircase of the Paris Opera, or the hordes of angry Parisians chasing the “monster” through the flooded catacombs beneath the titular opera hall.

The graphic copy (words on screen) informs audiences that “no images” of Mr. Chaney as the Phantom are to be shown in the trailer, which by the 1920’s was standard operating procedure for filmmakers who feared to give away freely in the trailer what audiences were expected to purchase at the box-office. But then, in the very next line of graphic text and in the very next excerpted scene, the trailermakers offer the audience a “glimpse” of Chaney as the Phantom, but only if you “look quickly.” It’s so obvious a tease as to seem quaint, if not, therefore, ineffective.


Here’s what I said about Inception.

With INCEPTION, a trailer from 2010 that is fully within the “Tell-All” era, an outing to the cinema is a serious financial commitment and audiences are understood to want to know with great specificity what it is that they’re getting for their entertainment dollar. Stars and spectacle (DiCaprio, Cotillard, and breath-taking CGI, stunts and FX) are not enough.

    Inception

–the title and the concept–must be explained. The “Dream Space” is described, shown and soundscaped. The Provenance–Christopher Nolan, director of Batman, and Warner Bros Studios–is emphasized as a guarantee of artistic quality and production expense and as a reminder of the visual candy this trailer delivers. The audience–presumably a wide one–is imagined as needing a lot of evidence to help it make up its mind. The MORE that audiences will obtain from the feature is chiefly story complication, since the trailer has delivered almost all of the film’s jaw-dropping spectacle.

The last trailer I show is the Pink Panther (1963) about which I’ve blogged at length elsewhere. Here is the clip, should you want to refresh your memories.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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One Response to 100 Years of Movie Trailers: What More Could an Audience Want?

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