AWARD WINNING COPY: Finalists for the Key Art Awards Oct. 17th

The trailer for Tim Burton‘s Frankenweenie, which opened recently to disappointing box office numbers, was neither the official trailer #1 nor the official trailer #2, as designated on YouTube. Instead, it was identified by the title “Be Thrilled/Homage,” which is how it appears on the Finalists page of the 41st Annual Key Art Awards website, in the category of copywriting.

In my never ending quest to understand my industry and develop my own skill-set, I was eager to see what my peers were writing and to see what writing was being recognized.

In this 2:17 black and white trailer (as is, the film itself), the approach is, as its name indicates, an homage to horror film trailers of the 1950’s. The expressively arched and oversized title treatment and copy fonts, the V.O. artistry as well as the content, imitates a promotional approach and advertising style evocative of another era.

Homage is, in so many many words, imitation of a knowing and affectionate sort. We don’t market films this way anymore, without a wink and a nod to let our audiences know how clever we are being. And yet, this trailer also includes the plot points and character development that we’ve come to expect from contemporary movie trailers: it is, indeed, a tell-all with distinct acts and the formulaic structure that audiences recognize and understand: situation, conflict, likely resolution, with the generic cues and appeals to provenance (Burton & Disney) that are designed to attract ticket buyers.

But let’s examine the trailer, before continuing its interpretation and appreciation.

A giant title zooms in over an opening shot of boys in a cemetery. In jagged, curved and angled fonts, over the sinister, brass and percussive strains of a studio orchestra, we read: THIS OCTOBER/MILLIONS WILL BE THRILLED/
BY THE GREATEST STORY THE SCREEN WILL EVER KNOW/
“FRANKENWEENIE”
Bombastic and hyperbolic, such claims evoke a time when marketers were bold and audiences were responsive.

We learn the situation and the conflict it entails: a boy’s dog has died, his parents tries to console him, but the bereaved and scientifically inclined young man is inspired by an exciting and terrible thought. Using lightning, he restores life to his beloved dog, Sparky, setting in motion the events that will threaten his town, his home, his existence–forever.

Over this development of story, a V.O. artist, skilled at channeling a “News on the March” dramatic style, declaims:
“For this broken hearted boy/ weighed down by memories of a best friend/ no step into the mysterious unknown is too daring to bring back what was lost/
but nothing this shocking, can be kept secret, forever.”

As we watch events spin out of control–a rash of other creatures, small and large, reanimated and loosed on the town, the graphic titles return, telling us now only who is responsible for this entertainment, but coaching us how to feel about it:
FROM WALT DISNEY FEATURE PRODUCTIONS
AND THE MASTER OF THE FANTASTIC
TIM BURTON
PREPARE YOURSELF
FOR BIG SCREEN… CHILLS

In the last section of copy, V.O. combines with copy to make the final sale, by an appeal to technology and its visual delights:
FRANKENWEENIE
IN A SPECTACULAR….SPELLBINDING….3RD DIMENSION

Lastly, we have the final card, reminding us that OCTOBER 5TH, is the day on which this long awaited event will be available to enjoy!

This trailer is copy intensive and insistent in its promotion of the emotional response a viewer is likely to have. Of course, since this is stop-action animation from Walt Disney and Tim Burton, the promise of spell-binding thrills, a promise made in the music as well as the spooky visuals, is not to be taken strictly for truth. The charm of this parody is that audiences above the age of 9 or 10, should be in on the joke–that this is a comedy and a family movie–albeit with serious themes and noble, uplifting lessons.

It’s false advertising that is knowingly and self-consciously false. And yet, in its independent and accomplished film and commercial artistry, its the tension between a style of marketing and a substance of film being marketed, we experience a complex, generically hybrid cinematic truth: the terror within comedy; the comedy within terror. We discern, perhaps too, the ultimate ambivalence of the Tim Burton oeuvre, especially in his visionary and macabre animation.

Official trailers #1 & #2 which were both more traditional and less interesting were also more accessible, so you can’t blame this trailer for the weak box office performance. Indeed, Burton may always have been an accidental mass-market phenomenon. Regardless, this trailer is no accident; it is intentional, it is knowledgeable, it is inspired and it it art.

Hats off to Sherri Jacobson, its writer/producer at MOcean Burbank.

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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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