Losing the Bake-off? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Sensory Overload in Trailers

I went to two movies last week and at both (Moneyball and J. Edgar) I saw the preview for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s remake of the acclaimed and hugely successful Swedish feature of the same title.

From this coincidence, I deduce that Columbia’s (Sony Pictures Entertainment) marketing department believes that audiences for Moneyball and J. Edgar are likely audiences for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which seems entirely reasonable. What was surprising, however, was that the trailer I saw was not found on IMDB,  at Youtube or at the official film website, although IMDB was presenting the identical edit with French subtitles. I ultimately found it on Youtube by searching for the “international trailer.” It’s that trailer I’ve posted above, and about which I’ll be blogging.

FYI, the official trailer, on IMDB, YouTube and the film’s website, is a 3:40 behemoth that presents story information differently, while emphasizing the perspective of the female protagonist. [See note #1 below].  Here’s the trailer.

There is also a “David Fincher Version” teaser – also widely available– which is a resolutely impressionistic trailer that boldly, almost defiantly, forgoes story presentation and copy of any kind (voice over or graphic card), offering a succession of increasingly quick cut images to a driving, riot-girl punk/synth music cue. To an uninitiated or uniformed viewer, this “preview” would seem almost deliberately opaque about plot, character, motivation and resolution. What is legible is tone and style—what you might call the Fincher visual/editorial signature, as displayed and developed in such distinguished films as Se7en or Zodiac.

Nonetheless, this “teaser” provides evidence for why directors are generally considered least well qualified to market their products. As an “ancillary” video to accompany the official marketing materials, it does, however, provide some value. Fincher (and his editors) are “star” talents with well-deserved reputations for film artistry and excellence. (Watch it below)

Back to the subject of today’s blog, seeing the trailer twice in the course of 3 days reminded me of an aspect of A/V movie marketing that is examined in the scholarly literature, but rarely finds its way into general conversation about previews of coming attractions: the temporal dynamic of trailer consumption. Quite simply, trailers were and continue to be designed for a first and one time only viewing, prior to the consumption of the feature advertised. Given that circumstance, it is incumbent on  trailermakers that the finished preview be legible, accessible and informative on that first showing and without benefit of knowing the film, its literary source or its production history. I fear that this lesson is occasionally forgotten or set aside in the rush to provide ever more detail in a two minute, densely edited and rapidly cut trailer. It is this phenomenon of trailer reception that I want to discuss here.

Although we often see the same trailer multiple times—whether at the theaters or on our iPads, iPods, laptops or desktops—such repeat viewing is the exception rather than the rule and in fact only a recent development (of the last 30 years) in the 100 year history of movie trailers. Likewise, watching trailers of movies you’ve already seen, while certainly not a negligible practice, is nonetheless ancillary and inconsequential to the publicity, promotion and marketing objective under which they are produced and disseminated.

So what does this mean to the average ticket buyer? What does it mean to the trailer maker? And what might it mean to the student of trailers? In my unusual position as a member of all three categories, let me hazard a few observations and assertions.

First, most ticket buyers will only know the story of the film that is being advertised to them because of the trailer they are watching. Even for a bestselling book-to blockbuster-film franchise like Harry Potter, the ticket buying audience dwarfs the book reading one. And, despite Hollywood’s continuous interest in scripts that have a built in audience (comic books, best-sellers, popular history, biopics, and remakes) those audiences are always just a fraction of the potential and likely audience, an audience that demands to be and needs to be informed about characters, conflict and likely resolution. The trailer ideally performs that function.

And that has lead, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, to a competition among trailer boutiques to “pack” the trailer with as much content as possible, in order to satisfy the claim that test audiences make to market researchers that the more they know about a film, the more they are likely to see it. As a audience member and movie fan, I acknowledge that desire and grant its full legitimacy. There was a time when film marketers feared to spoil their customer’s appetites by revealing story details and visual spectacle, but empirical evidence shows that their fears were misplaced. Today, we seem to have gone too far in the other direction. What I mean by this is that there is a point in any given trailer at which the provision of any further information—story, scenes, stars, spectacle—becomes the provision of too much information.

As a student of trailers, I often find myself in the awkward position of watching a trailer and feeling overwhelmed by the “data dump” and unable to process what I’ve just been shown. With respect to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I had to watch the trailer several times at home, pausing it repeatedly to jot down the “acts” or “movements” of the promotional message, before I felt the dawning relief of “comprehension.” The first two times, in the theater, it was too much, too quickly, and this, even though I’ve seen the original movie and know the story, the characters and the context. The first two times through, I was literally overtaxed with information which “froze” my comprehension and interpretative faculties. [See Note #2, below]

Now it’s possible that given my age and education, my brain is not formatted to receive and process such a quantity of visual, auditory and verbal information in such a brief time and kinetic manner. Perhaps the average 16-24 year old, raised to do homework while playing video games and listening to iTunes, has no problem managing the information saturation of contemporary trailer editing. But perhaps not. Perhaps they have a lower threshold of satisfaction from trailers and a higher-tolerance of confusion

For my own purposes and pleasure, I’m delighted to be able to repeat my consumption at home before my computer, pen in hand. I can interrupt it at will, in order to resist the hypnotic seduction that trailers achieve. I find that if I can analyze what I’ve seen (time after time), and think of it as it has been articulated and designed, my alienation from it and irritation by it dissolve, allowing me to more objectively evaluate the merits of the film by its proxy, the trailer.

As a maker of trailers, I understand that in genre films, at least, the specifics of character, conflict and motivation are often subsumed by a emphasis on stylistic qualities of the film. With horror films– a strong, familiar genre– potential ticket buyers rely on their acquaintance with the subgenre (vampire, psychological, occult, zombie, creature, alien, etc.) for general contours of story, while seeking in the trailer to learn how such tropes and formulae are going to be re-presented. Production values, tone, attitude, visual spectacle can then emerge as equivalently salient aspects of trailers for archetypal or generic films. Such qualities are also much easier to digest than the plot points or twists or revisions of formulae that a given trailer may propose, especially during a dense and singular 2 minute screening.

As a copy writer, I am discouraged by my clients and experience from overly precise language regarding characters or action and event. The skeleton of the trailer, manifest in the copy script I write is then fleshed out/bulked up by the editors who find themselves under pressure by the creative directors and producers who are reading the market research reports calling for ever more content.  They comply. The stuffed trailer ultimately meets its market research numbers and appears on the screen as a near-impenetrable surface of sounds, shapes, graphics and dialogue, obscuring what was once a premise and a promotion.    Sometimes more is less.

Note #1  If I had to hazard a guess as to why the 3:40 trailer is on the website and the 1:57 trailer is in theaters (and French), I would say that the marketers assume greater familiarity with the details of the Stieg Larsson Trilogy on the part of cinema-goers—and the French–and thus they need provide less story detail. For online consumers, the story-packed 3:40 trailer is what is called a “long trailer” whose theatrical presentation is limited by the MPAA to one release per studio per year.  SPE may have wanted to use their Long Trailer privilege for another film.

Note #2  At that same screening, I saw the trailer for the spy thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and while I understood the premise and the appeal, I was confused by which character were which, as well as by whose voice I was hearing from the diegetic dialogue that underlay many of the scenes.  It too was dense to the point of incoherence, despite my familiarity with the genre and the plot.

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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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