An Interview with German Film Professor and Trailer Expert Vinzenz Hediger
Freely translated from the German language newspaper, “Tages Anzeiger,” Kultur Section, 7/25/11
“Trailers keep people out of the cinema”
Interviewer: Denise Jeitziner.
Critics complain that movie trailers reveal everything, but film expert Vinzenz Hediger, explains that trailers are actually fully geared to the demands of their audiences, especially male audiences.
With the end of the classic Hollywood era in the 1950s, marketers started to target the watching of specific movies, instead of just theater going in general. The films had to be re-imagined as individual offerings, and to this end, Hollywood invented the teaser.
So, audiences dislike trailers that reveal everything?
Yes, so they tell marketers. But the research says otherwise.
The trailer for the new Batman movie is already visible now, a year before the theatrical release. The story is not at all clear, but that’s the point. At this early stage of the campaign, it’s not a question of telling the story but of conveying to viewers with a few strong images a first impression of the look of the film. The aim is to tell the prospective moviegoers that there will soon be a new Batman movie.
It says little, which is exactly the point. The teaser trailer for “The Dark Knight Rises.”
But so soon? Isn’t that counterproductive?
No. The Batman Trailer is a so-called teaser trailer, which consists mostly of strong images. The real trailer, which is based on a summary of the story will be shown only six to eight weeks before the movie starts. A new studio feature often enjoys a lead time of approximately one year, from the time that audiences become aware of it to the time it opens theatrically. “Spartacus,” a Stanley Kubrick film from 1960, was a pioneer in the awareness game. Its teaser was shown six months before the theatrical release.
You understand these things as an expert. But what about the ordinary cinema-goer, who is responding to the teaser as yet another vacuous movie trailer?
Do not underestimate the expertise of the cinema audience. The people who actually go to the movies know how this works. For example, “Terminator 2” (1992) had the longest awareness/teaser campaign up until that time. Nine months before the movie, the studio released a teaser featuring special-effects artist Stan Winston, who showed how the Schwarzenegger robot is built. The message was clear: The Terminator returns!
Five months later, a second trailer was released: In this, it was revealed that there were now two terminators. In the third trailer, we learned that Schwarzenegger’s character is a good guy. These three trailers deliver, in essence, a synopsis of the whole movie. While such a sophisticated campaign was unusual for the time—the film was unusual in being the first to cost more than $100 million to produce– audiences had been feeling that they’d already “seen the film” after having “watched the trailer” since the late 1970’s.
But it is still annoying.
It is backed by intention. Andrew Kuehn, arguably the most successful maker of trailers in the 20th century, including those for “Dr. Zhivago,” “Jaws,” and” Titanic,” explained it this way. “Previously, trailers had only one function: to get people to the cinema. Today they also are intended to keep away from the theater those for whom the film is not made, those who may not be able to enjoy the film.”
Why is that?
The success of a film depends on word of mouth. The biggest problem is that negative information is deemed more reliable than positive information and it spreads more rapidly. Therefore, trailers need to make clear what the film has to offer, in order to prevent the “wrong audience” from buying a ticket and bad-mouthing it afterward. And those who enjoy this kind of film, will watch it movie anyway. For those audiences, it doesn’t matter, if they’ve already seen a short version of the film in the trailer.
Is it a coincidence that the Batman trailer runs just before “Harry Potter”?
No, because it is the same audience. The core audience for Hollywood blockbusters are 14 to 28-year-olds, those who are currently buying tickets for the “Harry Potter” film. The trailer producers aim primarily, by the way, at young men. If the studio can mobilize this audience, the film will be successful at the box office.
But aren’t there other movie trailers that would like to be placed before the summer blockbuster “Harry Potter?”
Yes. For decades, the studios have fought over trailer “parking slots” before an anticipated Summer blockbuster. “Batman” and the “Harry Potter” films are both from Warner Bros., and the Batman teaser is delivered together with the Potter movie. The cinema operator, could, of course, cut away the trailer, but that’s less likely because it takes effort and because the Batman Films are also widely anticipated. Without having seen the documents, I would wager that in the engagement contract of “Harry Potter” there is a clause requiring at least one Warner Bros. teaser to be shown. Previously, (pre 1970’s,) the cinema owners had to rent the trailers from the distributors. Today, the distributors might even pay for exhibition time, in order to ensure that the trailer will be shown in the right place at the right time.
How much money does it cost?
In the trades, there is speculation about it, with placement costs estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars. But, given that the trailer is by far the most efficient component of movie advertising, it’s worth it.
Nowadays, filmmakers invite audiences to download their films from the Internet, without requiring or expecting them to sit through trailers. Do you think that trailers will disappear with time?
The trailer is an indestructible format. There is no more efficient way to gather information about a movie and present it to an audience that has proven its interest in such “goods.” Simply put, nothing beats a free-sample to a repeat audience! The Hollywood studios figured this out as long ago as 1916, and their sophistication in reaching audiences and communicating with them has only increased. In classic era Hollywood, there was only one company, National Screen Service, which produced all of the trailers and made sure all the cinemas were given trailers for all films they played.
And today? Do directors produce their own trailer?
Absolutely not. Directors almost always fail when they try to make the trailer for their film. A major task of the trailer Editor is to convey information quickly and compellingly. It requires a certain hardness—and critical distance–in dealing with the material. Directors, on the other hand, because it’s their creation, often cling to certain scenes for sentimental reasons, and frequently choose material that is totally unsuitable for promotional purposes.
Trailer require a very special talent, and many specialists spend 40 or 50 years producing trailers. Andrew Kuehn tried twice to start a career as a director, without great success. But he was an acclaimed trailer producing genius. Joe Dante is one of the few directors with a trailer-editing career.
How much it would cost to produce a trailer for a major Hollywood “studio” film?
The base price for the very first version is about $80,000 to $100,000. All the revisions can cost you a half million dollars or more, and that may not include the TV spots. This expenditure may involve dozens of creative and executive decision makers, whose careers and prosperity depend on the success of this film, so it’s an incredibly intense and stressful process. Given the effectiveness of the trailer and the total cost of a film’s marketing campaign, which may amount to several tens of millions of dollars, the price of the trailer is not really that much money.
Vinzenz Hediger is Professor of Film Studies at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. His publications include “Seduced by film: American cinema trailers since 1912 “(PDF) and “Coming soon to your cinema: Basics of film advertising and film marketing,” (Marburg: Stoke 2009).