Selling Short: 15 Second TV Spots – a case study of PARANORMAN

The :10 or :15 or occasionally :20 TV spot is short trailer with a specific  role in the promotional campaign for its feature film, a function with implications for its form, content and reception.

These brief nuggets of movie marketing are typically released in conjunction with the film’s opening. When shown a couple of weeks before,  they serve as last minute reminders of an awareness that is assumed to exist among audiences. When cut and released after the film’s opening, they are often used to reposition an underperforming or problematic campaign or to capitalize on great box office success and critical acclaim.

I think of them as “tug-boats” swarming the ocean liner of the film, nudging and pulling it toward the docks;  or, to extend the metaphor, they surround the vessel, blasting their horns and pumping water into the air to herald its arrival at berth.

Given the length, :15 spots are usually not story-oriented,  although it certainly happens.  (See the Bourne Legacy spot for an example of how much narrative you can cram into 15 seconds.)

Typically, the short or micro spot offers, depending on genre and the  direction of the campaign, a representative scene, a glimpse of the film’s attitude or style, a sample of the visual spectacle on offer,  a joke,  a sight gag or a character introduction.  (See the :10 spot for Diary of a Wimpy Kid).

Often, spots are abstract and conceptual, featuring brief, clear copy that’s little more than the lenght of a tagline.  The scene(s) presented are frequently “cut down” from the official trailer or :30 spot, with voice over or copy abbreviated accordingly.

Given the constraints of time and the capacity of viewers to assimilate information, short spots are ideal for the presentation of a nugget of visual and cinematic pleasure that will stand in for the film as a whole, a film that the marketers presume will already be familiar to audiences, at least by title, genre and stars, and for which  a plot summary is not absolutely essential.

Quick cutting is common, since even a simple, abstract or conceptual focus may require various shots for its presentation.  Action films, especially, will stuff as much spectacular content as possible into the confines of the spot.

Additionally, the spot, like every trailer requires title, release date, rating and “authorship” (i.e. the name of the distributor/studio and production company).   In 2012, a website, twitter hashtag or face-book URL is a common feature of the final card, valuable for exploiting social and interactive opportunities.

With this sketch of the Short Spot subgenre, let’s examine one. Bear in mind that short spots are are various as the films they market, but in the one analysed below, you can see one representative of its type:

Paranorman is a 3d stop-motion animated film from the makers of Coraline, in which a small town under attack by zombies  is obliged to seek help from local juvenile misfit, Norman, who can speak to the dead.

In this :17 second spot, entitled “Champions Will Rise,” we open on an orange, abstractly rendered sky bisected by a white diving board. A green zombie (seen first from the legs down) strides out,  springs off, then while air born, faces the camera and hollers, shaking his bony face and baggy skin, his emaciated frame clothed in rags. As he drops, he assumes the cannonball position and disappears, in a “splash” of dirt and debris, into an empty grave set within a murky, brownish-green cemetery.

A voice over intones: “This Summer /As the World Watches in Wonder/ Champions will Rise /And Fall / Paranorman/ In theaters August 17th /Rated PG.”

A title card follows, specifying that this release is in 3D, and the twitter hashtag is provided.

In this spot, our hero Norman is absent, but one of his adversaries is shown at play. We learn next to nothing about story or characterization, but a great deal about style and attitude, as well as the look of the animation in the film.

While an ostensibly horrific subject (a zombie attack) the horror of the movie will, it appears, be playful.   The voice over, with its literalization of “rise and fall,” a cliche used to describe the arc of a character or a civilization, is self-contained and droll in reference to the visual against which its spoken.  However, it’s neither hilarious, nor descriptive of Norman’s character arc from “zero to hero.”

Paranorman is a Focus Features release (a unit of Universal), with a broad outdoor advertising campaign and thorough outreach to the youth and family market.  A spot like this is thus about “character” and style, rather than narrative conflict.  It might easily be one of a series of short spots depicting the ghouls that Norman defies on his trajectory from misunderstood nerd to local hero. Or it might be a one-off.

Interestingly, the comments on Youtube ( for example: “What does it mean” or, more commonly, “WTF?”) suggest confusion about how to “read” or make sense of this “nugget” in relation to the film it  heralds.  Apparently, audiences beyond the readership of this blog my not be as conversant with the how and the what of short spots as marketers expect them to be.   Or, they may not appreciate the “high-concept” creativity of the trailermakers who pitched this spot to their client.

Next Week, we’ll continue this look at short sells with The Expendables 2 and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

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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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