I started learning about trailers as short specialized films made by a small, influential segment of the film/tv/video industry in 1990, when I met and entered the social orbit of Andy Kuehn, called the “godfather of movie trailers,” in his 2004 NYTimes Obit. I was in graduate school at the time, reading serious English Literature, and not a little dazzled by my accidental friendship with “the King of Coming Attractions” who so suavely occupied the marketing sweet spot of the movie industry, enjoying enduring professional and personal relationships with superstar directors and actors. I loved going to the movies together, where, as the previews played, Andy might blandly take responsibility (on behalf of his amazing team at Kaleidoscope, his trailer boutique) for many of them. I got my first feature film copywriting job after grad school because of his intercession. Moreover, I wouldn’t have known such a niche occupation existed, if it weren’t for him.
Years before I ever pursued a career in entertainment, I was privy to an insider’s view of how they are conceived, constructed and deployed. And yet, trailers are (and still can be) an overwhelming audio-visual experience, one that defies my attempts to maintain distance from or perspective about what I’m so busy enjoying and trying to process. Every time I go to the theater, or click “play” on an av file, I am routinely seduced out of my critical attitude into the simple, slack-jawed pleasures of spectatorship. Trailers are packed so densely with story elements, visual thrills, aural inducements (and assaults) and star-dazzle that repeat viewings are necessary to unpack, understand and explain what is happening moment by moment, and sometimes edit by edit.
Even before I began writing “taglines” for movie posters and eventually scripts for movie trailers (the copy), I’d admired, memorized and marveled at the poetry of movie marketing. As a one-time literary scholar, I had a vocabulary and training to understand what was going on rhetorically, grammatically, metrically and sensibly with these engaging, compelling, aphoristic, story-saturated sentences and stanzas. But, it was while making the documentary “COMING ATTRACTIONS: A HISTORY OF THE MOVIE TRAILER” that I finally learned to analyze, name and synthesize all those other, essential components of trailers.
Partly, this was a process of learning a vocabulary to describe what I was seeing; it’s also the result of attending closely to each of the several levels on which trailers communicate with audiences. As a film, a trailer functions operating in three dimensions (yes, yes, screens are typically only two D, but depth of focus creates an experience functionally equivalent to three). It is also a temporal experience, as well as an acoustic or auditory one: whether foley magic, the emotional turbo-charge of music and score, or the use of silence as punctuation and contrast.
Now, supposing you learn the terms and take the time to describe what you see and hear, shot by shot, edit by edit or cue by cue. Then, there are still other “facts” of the trailer to take into consideration: narrative structure, its movement and articulation by acts. There is the copy, specifically written for this short film to engage the viewer, guide his or her experience of the scenes presented, and elicit a response, whether emotional or intellectual. The copy may also redeploy the language of the script –as in narration from the film, or snippets of dialogue placed into a new relationship with each other. And recall, that language has both a manifest—or denotative– sense, as well as a latent–or connotative—sense, in which figure, association and analogy come into play.
Now, assuming you’ve been able to distinguish all the foregoing aspects of the trailers, you need still to consider the concept chosen (among hundreds of possible choices) by the trailer makers and realized by the creative team. These approaches are informed by a whole host of assumptions about the audience, whose demographic info or psychographic profile, is defined with ever greater specificity.
Still with me?
Of course, the work of each member of the creative team bears scrutiny and subdivision. The editor’s contribution can be assessed in terms of edit decisions, speed, effects, rhythm and so forth. The Writer’s language and rhetorical decisions, as noted above, can be analyzed using tools of literary analysis. The graphic designers work is susceptible to analysis according to the rules of that discipline. The marketing insight and direction of the marketing executives, based on research, testing, intuition, experience, etc., can be teased out, dissected and evaluated.
The trailer as an integrated, audio-visual artifact can be considered historically, generically, technologically, psychoanalytically, semiotically, stylistically, allegorically, politically, sociologically, economically and so on. They can be explained in different, overlapping, mutually informing and often contradictory, exclusive or paradoxical ways. Of course, all analytical approaches are not equally interesting or productive.
In this blog, I am attempting to translate my trailer course to the internet. In my review of online trailer websites, I noticed an absence of formal attention to the trailers themselves. Typically, the trailer is merely the means, or the occasion, for discussing the film advertised. This is perfectly understandable and necessary. But given how fascinating, complex, entertaining and economically/culturally important trailers are as short films themselves, I thought the world wide web had room for my wonky, scholarly and admittedly “formalist” approach to the commercial art of the trailer.
With the goal of teaching others to “watch” trailers in an informed, critical and entertaining way, I have created a catechism to apply to the experience, a series of questions designed to elicit information, allowing the viewer to categorize, understand and assess a given trailer, and also to think about how else a given movie could have been marketed and advertised. If you love trailers and always wanted the specialist vocabulary to describe them; if you’re an emergent creative talent, eager to explore a career in this, the most prolific division of film-making; or if you’re a filmmaker trying to figure out how best to sell your movie to a distributor, I think you’ll find some valuable information in this website, yours for the taking.
 Taught as a graduate Seminar within the Producers Program at UCLA Film School, and road-tested at UCLA Extension.
 Even Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell, with it’s panel of trailer experts and guest reviewers providing running commentary, puts the emphasis on the movie, although the wacky trailer is clearly a beloved peri-text of that movie phenomenon.