IT DEPENDS: A Defense of Trailers as Virtuoso Film Art



A two-minute trailer serves many masters and navigates varied, sometimes competing claims. Moreover, its film craft, marketing effectiveness and entertainment value are independent of one another and may, in fact, be wildly divergent. And yet, film after film, season after season, genre by genre, trailers consistently delight, compel, engage and excite, feats their feature films much less reliably accomplish.

In this post, which I have sworn to keep to less than 500 words (do you doubt me?), I intend to offer a full-throated argument for and appreciation of the artistic complexity and imagination of trailers and an acknowledgement of the competing, often contradictory or at the very least paradoxical demands managed by their makers. Films—whether art-house or wide-release, experimental or sequel—have won a lasting, deserved place in the pantheon of the arts. This is my brief for the admittance of those marvelous, short-form, hybrid vehicles of promotion and representation– to which this blog is dedicated—-into that same hall of glory where they can bask in popular acclaim and wince at critical inspection.

Most cineastes understand how lengthy, involved, complex and ultimately accidental is the process by which an idea or a story becomes a theatrically distributed motion picture. Trailers, which exist only because that struggle has occurred, are conceived, produced and distributed on a much shorter time frame, and with less angst over whether they will be made. When you make a film, marketing is an obligatory component, and a trailer is the “lead arrow” in the quiver of marketing, promotion and publicity: the difficulties, delays and deliberations aren’t over whether to make the trailer, merely about the how.

But apart from the brevity of a trailer, compared to its feature, and the perfunctory character of its production (if not the debates over its budget and the scope of its subsidiary parts, i.e. teasers, tv spots, featurettes, etc.), I assert that a trailer is subject to even more demands from even less aligned masters than the film it heralds.

A trailer must advertise and it must entertain; it must call to action and it must seduce; It must combine cinematography with graphic and sound design, all edited in a formulaic and assimilable manner that is nevertheless inventive, surprising and interpretively open. A trailer is written and rhetorical, visual and auditory—just like the feature it promotes– but its narration is exploited promotionally, while its promotion must be conducted narratively. Trailers are immensely self-conscious and explicit about their mediated distance from the film which they frequently present with the breathless immediacy of a typhoon or train wreck. Whereas a film draws you in, immersing you in its world, a trailer simultaneously pushes you back, with its cards, voice over, graphic design and title elements and non-linear editing.

With respect to the many determinants of its reception and result, a trailer depends on the accident of its audience, the whims of its projectionist and the dissemination strategies of its distributors (who are at the mercy of fiber optic cable, Fed-Ex delivery, the weather, labor, etc., etc.,). Likewise, a trailers depends on its budget, its competition in the marketplace, its scheduling (calendar), its exhibitors as well as the local weather whose advent can so importunately and effectively impact its consumption. A trailer depends on the materials (the film) and the stars, whose waning or waxing are themselves dependent on such intangibles as celebrity and such unpredictable factors as personal character and public scandal.

A trailer depends on the quality of the research that contributed to the creative brief. It it’s flawed or compromised, so too will be the resulting coming attraction advertisement. And let’s not forget the economy or the zeitgeist, the news, historical events or natural and man-made catastrophes, as we also recall the idiosyncratic and unpredictable interventions of powerful producers (and their spouses, paramours, masseuses, trainers or astrologers.)

I’m told that the major studios possess massive and wondrous databases in which most of the variables noted above (and some unimagined by me) are charted, analyzed and processed in order to arrive at predictions of box office results and explanations of actual results after the fact. Perhaps the marketing materials enjoy their own special tabs on such spreadsheets, with formulae quantifying their interaction. Such tools, I suspect, are about as accurate as the complex mathematical models at research universities, banks and government agencies that purport to anticipate aggregate or macro economic performance. In other words, the level of complexity and overdetermination involved is, well, staggering.

My constant qualification of the observations I offer my students by the words “it depends,” (which they probably consider one of my pause words, like, um, “like” or “um,” at this point of the quarter), is meant to underscore the tangled knot (Gordian?) of causes involved in the production, the achievement and the artistry of trailers, some merely proximate, some merely sufficient, many only accidental. Hindsight only makes them discernible. Assigning significance, praise and/or blame, remains a highly speculative endeavor.

Constraint it has been observed, albeit paradoxically, is a great catalyst of imaginative freedom. In the case of trailers, we see persuasive evidence of the power of human creativity and collaboration to overcome contradiction in a glorious artistic synthesis.

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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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