TRAILERS AS A SUBJECT OF ACADEMIC STUDY: Q & A with British University Students (part ii)

This film has a 7% Rotten Tomatoes score and yet the trailer is superb–both in terms of understanding its audience and compellingly articulating its various appeals. I use it every year in my class as an example of the “lousy film/strong trailer” dynamic. (See Question #15 below for context.)

[On Tuesday, I received more questions from the students in my colleague, Senior Lecturer Keith Johnston’s film promotion course, “Selling Spectacle” at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and presumed they might be of interest to others.]

So, here is part II of my Q & A.

12. MICHAELA / FIONA: What happens if there is a struggle for creative control between yourself / the studio / the director / other factors? How would such struggles be resolved?

A general rule, operative across most (if not all industries), is that whoever pays the bills calls the shots. If a client seems bent on an marketing approach that seems misguided and likely to be ruinous to the film’s positioning and prospects, then as a creative professional, you are obligated to argue for a better one, out of loyalty to the film and its ambitions and to ensure that your own connection to the marketing materials does you credit. Ultimately, however, as a service provider, you’ve got to satisfy the client. If, despite your best efforts, they approve an approach that underserves the film, either they’ll appreciate your efforts to stop them and be more inclined to listen on the next project. Or they’ll blame you and go elsewhere; in which case, good riddance.

More commonly, disputes over creative direction are subjective and not susceptible to quantitative evidence–during the creative process and even after the film has opened. (There are so many unrelated and uncontrollable reasons, beyond a sub-par trailer, for a weak box office result.) Creative disputes should be resolved, diplomatically, with an eye to achieving the “good,” if not the perfect and of preserving relationships and compromise in the best interest of the project.

There is also the complication of “decision” makers who are not officially part of the client-vendor relationship, such as a major star or an important director. Because of their clout, they can involve themselves in marketing decisions, asserting their insights, opinions and occasionally personal preferences into the process. While it is harder to satisfy multiple constituencies, ultimately, trailer making is a collaborative process and its entirely possible that you might produce a “better” (more effective, if perhaps not as beautiful or artistic) a trailer by navigating and reconciling competing demands.

AUDIENCES
13. JANE: In the modern commercially-oriented world, is a trailer another marketing tool aimed at selling a film or is it a narrative shortcut, aimed at helping the audience to build their opinion?

Why can’t it be both? It is certainly, and functionally a tool to position a film within a crowded, competitive marketplace, a bid for attention in a saturated environment. But, one of the ways that advertising achieves its ends is, (and I quote Ogilvy on Advertising here) by delivering information, by sharing “news.” Tell the audience what kind of movie it is; who’s in it; what the conflicts are and the likely resolutions. Let them see some of what they will get, but also give them a chance to use their imaginations to complete the “story”. Some trailers need to “explain” the film or provide a narrative “précis;” others, for a series like Harry Potter, for example, are so well known that they must address different “desires” among the audience rather than that of “what is going to happen and to whom.”

Trailermakers engage the audience in a variety of ways: sometimes with information; sometimes with mystery; sometimes with spectacle; sometimes by withholding spectacle. It depends, of course, on the film, its source materials, its stars, its budget, its FX/spectacle, its buzz, etc. etc.

13. MICHAELA: How much of a consideration is the audience depending on who you think the audience is? in other words, do you make different versions of the same trailer if you are trying to, for example, target a different age demographic?

In every communications act, whether it be writing, talking, acting or film or radio or the internet, you MUST start by thinking about your audience. Otherwise, you will miss the connection that was, presumably, your aim. (And by missing the connection, you miss the chance to persuade, explain, sell books, theater tickets, cinema seats, advertising, eyeballs etc. etc.) It is your job to imagine and understand what the audience wants, desires, needs, fears, loves, worries over and so forth. Sometimes you have market research to help you understand who might want to see the film. Often, and with lower budget projects, its instinct and experience that guides you.

Every film does not appeal to every audience and marketing materials (the trailer, for example) must endeavor to conceive who they are addressing and to whom they are appealing. Some films have many audiences—of all ages, sexes, classes, education levels, etc. We call them 4 quadrant films (based on rather old, traditional and woefully imprecise demography), and they theoretically can be enjoyed by everyone. For these, often big budget, wide-release films, you create as many versions of the trailer and tv spots as you think are needed to reach all the different audiences.

Other films have much less universal appeal and often smaller budgets. In these cases, you pitch your film to the largest/most likely audience and commit your limited resources where they will do the most good. Note: there’s much greater sophistication in market research these days: psycho-biography is the new demography, and comes much closer to identifying and explaining audience desire, consumption habits and expectations.

TRAILER CONTENT / AESTHETICS

15. JANE: Will a good film necessarily have a good trailer, and a bad film, a bad trailer?

Not at all. And possibly the converse.
Bad films routinely have great trailers because even the worst piece of cinematic dreck will have a few good moments—-a joke, a dramatic scene, a visual payoff– that you can tart-up into something misleadingly appealing. When you’ve got a bad film, you’ve got no choice but to pretend otherwise, to dress the turkey or gild the turd–(deceive, dissemble, distract, misdirect, exaggerate, enhance). It’s actually rather fun, and presents an irresistible creative opportunity. Editors can do wonders. Copywriters find it as easy (often easier) to write strong trailer scripts for a bad film as for a good one.

A good film is often harder to market precisely because what is good, worthy and appealing about it is that it’s not formulaic, predictable, obvious or familiar. Or it may actually be as good as the trailer represents it as being, but of course no one completely believes what a trailer says. Often, the complexities of a good film are hard to capture and convey in a 2 minute trailers. A good film also exudes a kind of integrity that you feel protective of and want to faithfully re-present, which can complicate the manipulation, re-organization and sleight of hand that often accompanies good trailer making.

16. SONNY: Within your career have there been any real significant changes to trailer productions? And if so, can you identify a few?

They’ve become faster and cheaper to make and it has become easier to enter into the business. Also, the cultural context has transformed in the last 15-20 years. Now much greater attention is paid to what we do. Box office figures and trailer websites are part of a sea-change in the movie marketing industry and the entertainment and “news” industry. Also, in an increasingly global and competitive landscape,a film has to open well, or it gets little chance to succeed. Therefore, the stress on the trailers, tv spots, teasers, posters, etc. is greater than ever and yet so is the competition from other films and the materials produced by other trailermakers.

17. GEORGE: Do you think for a trailer to be outstanding in this day and age it has to be unconventional?

No. Does a film, in order to be “good” have to be unconventional? Often, they are, but often they are not. Cinema is a medium in which experienced pleasures are desired to be enjoyed again. Trailers promise you something you’ve seen and enjoyed before–but with enough of a difference that you anticipate the experience of something new. That’s a formula and a convention, but one that can be realized well as well poorly. Conventionality is a set of rules, and as you might have read elsewhere, rules and constraints are often productive or creative accommodations to or end-runs around them.

18. SONNY: What is the most important part of a trailer for you? (i.e., story/plot, message, genre, character introduction, sound, voice over)

It depends. If there are major stars, sell them. If the fx and spectacle are jaw-dropping, you sell that. If the story is fascinating/compelling, you sell that. Typically, you sell a variety and a combination of the fundamental appeals (story, genre, spectacle, stars as well as the lesser qualities of provenance, popular reaction, critical reception).
Some filmgoers love genre—predictable pleasures; some love independent and surprising, generically indeterminate film. It depends on the project and its context.

But I do have an answer that is perhaps not among the choices offered above: Editing. That is the ultimate, fundamental, critical essential, determining skill/ art form in trailermaking. (And I’d say that editing occupies the same role in feature film…) Editors are magicians.

19. JOANNA: Are there specific rules/guidelines that you follow when writing / producing trailers for specific genres?
Yes. But I don’t consider myself bound by them. Rather, I use formula as a way to begin, a way to defeat the terror of the blank page or the empty screen. Start with what’s obvious and middle-of-the-road but likely to work, and then see where the creative impulse takes you. Of course, horror films should have suspense and action films should have action in their trailers, otherwise you confuse/confound the audience who doesn’t appreciate your “experimental” marketing. But these can be accomplished in so many ways. As I said above, there’s nothing wrong with starting with convention and formula, seeing how far it takes you and then stepping away or beyond as the materials allow or require.

21. GEORGE: Do you think what is being sold in movie trailers has changed over time?

In 1915, the year of the first recognizable trailer, the industry sold story, spectacle, stars and genre. In movie posters and glass slides from before the era of trailers, it sold sold story, spectacle, genre, and stars, as that cultural category of the film world came into existence. I think that while human nature is not static or essential or transhistorical, an abiding interest in characters, plots, and archetypes and visual wonders can be discerned in the historical sweep of movie marketing.

Trailer rhetoric used to be more bombastic and hyperbolic; then it became subtler and less aggressive. But there are cycles in advertising, just as in history, and some of these earlier practices can be utilized effectively in a different era, in which different communicational norms obtain. We’re in a post-modern era of movie marketing where all styles, approaches, conventions can be exploited and re-invigorated, at least in theory. Today, V.O. is less common than graphic cards (words on text). But V.O will probably stage a comeback soon, as audiences grow tired of the contemporary hegemony of a particular approach.

Actually, every year we experience a cycle in what is sold and how its sold. Spring and Summer brings us blockbuster spectacles, sold as sound and light events. The Fall arrives and with it sophisticated adult fare, which is sold for on its artistic and critical merits. We also get family entertainments and epic Oscar-bait projects, which each conform to (and occasionally re-imagine) their own set of conventions and formulae.

22. JANE: What really makes a trailer successful?

An interesting, compelling approach to telling about and selling the film and good editing.

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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