Friday, October 11, 2013

How NOT to create a movie trailer

RE: An open letter to movie executives/staff

Subject: How NOT to create a movie trailer

I was watching Marvel's "Avengers" recently with my kids and was reminded again why I have a love/hate relationship with movie trailers. What reminded me? This...

Hulk Grabs Ironman, grabs hold of a building, and... no spoilers.

If you haven't seen the movie stop reading now and go watch it. Go ahead, I can wait. It was only one of the best reviewed and top money-making movies of 2012. That image comes at 1:54 in "Marvel's The Avengers Trailer 2 (Official)" on YouTube. Once you have seen the movie come back here and continue reading.

And now we continue...

Marvel has this weird habit of spoiling the penultimate scene from the movie in the trailer. Yes, it looks incredible. Yes, you spent 1/4 of your budget on the CGI for that scene alone. And, yes, you need to draw-in people with these fabulous shots, I get it!

How did this spoil the movie? Maybe my memory is just too good, I don't know... But, as I was watching the finale of the "Battle of New York" for the first time, I knew exactly how they would solve that little issue of Tony Stark falling toward the ground after "resolving" the invasion situation. Why? Because the trailer clearly shows Hulk catching Iron Man while stopping his momentum using a skyscraper.

Let me be clear: they used one of the most memorable, eye-popping scenes from the movie in the trailer, where it was just as memorable and eye popping.

Example #2: The Amazing Spider-Man Trailer 2

Spider-Man, hanging out with some electronics
At about 2:20, we see Spidey fall from the top of a building and catch himself while the top of the building falls all around him. Yes, it looks really cool and it is very memorable. THAT'S THE PROBLEM.

When the "disarm the weapon at the top of the skyscraper" scene came up in the movie we know exactly how Spidey is going to fall and whether or not he survives BECAUSE THEY ALREADY SHOWED US IN THE @#$%! TRAILER!

Have you ever read the book "Ender's Game"? If you haven't, don't watch the trailer for the movie. They give away one of the pivotal plot points in the movie right in the trailer.

OK, enough of the single-scene antics. This post is supposed to be about what a trailer is actually supposed to be. Should be simple, right? There's even a guide on

Where did the name movie trailer come from? According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, they were originally called "trailers" because they "trailed" the end of the movie. The promotional shorts advertised an upcoming feature film and were designed to get people excited to come and see. Since people rarely stay after a big feature film (who wouldn't want to stay seated a few minutes longer after watching epics like "The Greatest Story Ever Told" or "Dr. Zhivago"?) so movie promoters moved them to run before the big feature. In today's theaters you can expect 12-20 minutes of trailers, depending on the theater company and the time of year. I think the longest I have seen is 25 minutes of trailers. It gets really bad in the early spring as the studios gear up for summer movies.

In the 70's the movie trailer was a simple structure: show the stars of the show, play a song from the movie, and maybe actually show some footage from the movie (some early trailers were a montage of scenes from other movies starring the actors). They were short and simple.

The 80's introduced us to the voice-over trailer and Dan LaFontaine, the most prolific and well-used voice in movie history. If you have seen any movie trailer in the last 30 years you have heard his voice. Don't recognize him? Try this on for size: In your mind, think of a movie trailer and say the words, "In a world where..." Was the voice in your mind a deep, gravely man's voice? That's Dan LaFontaine who voiced an impossible number of trailers. Unfortunately he died in 2008 but his body of work is tremendous.

Now we move on to today's movies. (I'm skipping the '90s and '00s because I'm lazy)

The formula for modern movie trailers is pretty standard...

Fast-cut scenes of action, silence/black with maybe some words, voice-over montage of key points in the movie, the villain reveal, and maybe a plot twist or two. Comedies, romances, and horror movies all have their own version of this theme but inside each genre the structure is remarkably similar.

So what makes a bad movie trailer? Here are my thoughts-
  1. Revealing key plot points in the movie. I've beaten this one to death but there are many others who have also illustrated this point
  2. Revealing the ending - There are several trailers released right now that out-and-out give away the movie's ending. For a remake of a famous movie, like Stephen King's Carrie, why not leave out the ending scenes for those young kids who don't know? Wouldn't it make a better movie if they found out the ending by watching the @#$!! movie? The funny thing is that the trailer for the original "Carrie" from the '70s gave away the ENTIRE plot right in the trailer. Pulled no punches. So I doubt the modern "Carrie" promoters thought twice about doing the exact same painful thing. 
  3. Revealing the villain and their intentions - Sometimes this is just as bad as #1. Sometimes discovering the villain is the entire point of the movie. (*cough* Unbreakable *cough*)
  4. Marketing the movie to be something it isn't. "Drive" was shown to be a "Fast and the Furious" wannabee, not a brooding drama with a little bit of driving thrown in. "Million Dollar Baby" wasn't really about boxing. "The American" wasn't actually a James Bond type of movie starring George Clooney even though it was a really good non-action movie.
Some movie trailers are better than the actual movie itself. Typically this happens because they take all the good stuff about the movie and cram it into a 3 minute trailer. This is a frequent occurrence for me. I can't count the number of times I saw a trailer for a movie, got excited to see it, and the movie was, in my ever-so-humble opinion, a dud. Like "Wreck-It-Ralph", "Wild Wild West" (that horrendous Will Smith movie), and Star Wars Ep. 1. Oh, and "Snakes on a Plane," the quintessential trailer-better-than-the-movie trailer.

Some people have taken this a bit too far and created amazing trailers for movies that don't even exist. I will get a good laugh if they come out with Ghandi II.

So what makes a good movie trailer?

Rule #1: Don't commit any of the infractions listed above. (Sorry, had to say it)
Rule #2: Show me just enough of the movie to make me want to go see it.
Rule #3: Give me the main idea of the movie but you don't have to tell me the EXACT plot.
Rule #4: LEAVE ME WANTING MORE. (most important)
Rule #5: Don't let Michael Bay make the trailer. He totally screwed up the trailer for The Island by giving us the entire plot in the first 30 seconds of the trailer. The movie-watching experience would have soooo much better with hearing Ewan McGregor give away the main plot point 1:17 into a 2:20 trailer.

With all this in mind, here are my "Best movie trailers of all time" as ranked by me.

Honorable mention: Spider Man. Not a bit of this trailer ended up in the movie. It is a bit hokey and has nothing to do with the actual movie but it did get people excited to see the movie. Unfortunately they went on to make several other trailers that violated just about all my rules for trailers.

#10 - Men In Black: The trailer does contain major plot points but doesn't give away to much of what's going to happen. The key thing they do is that you can't really tell just how much of a farce this movie turned out to be. It was only a few years post-ID4 (Will Smith's other alien movie) so we didn't know what to expect. I haven't seen my wife laugh that hard in a movie, except for maybe when we saw "Noises Off" for the first time.

#9 - Sin City: AMAZING trailer for a concept film that was way ahead of its time. Maybe someday I'll actually watch it.

#8 - 300: Once again, amazing visuals from a concept movie that pulled no punches with violence for the sake of violence. And you get the only quote that has actually been attributed to a Spartan in the movie (the part about fighting in the shade. Look it up).

#7 - Cloverfield: Just enough of a tease to make you want to see it. Unfortunately the movie was like an extended version of the trailer, although it was good in its own right. But the trailer was better.

#6 - The Matrix: "No one can be shown what the Matrix is." That tag line was EVERYWHERE in the summer of 1999. The trailer showed quite a bit of the movie but didn't give away the primary premise, which was so shocking at the time. I remember seeing it in the theater on opening night with some friends from work. During the big-reveal scene you could hear half the theater audibly gasp. My friend next to me said, "NO F-ing WAY!" (he actually said "F-ing", not the other word). This trailer lured you in, just as a trailer should. It even proved that you can show off big portions of the movie and not ruin the movie experience.

#5 - Transformers: This teaser trailer makes you wonder "what the heck did I just see?" The trailer really got the buzz going about one of the biggest movies of 2007. I won't comment on the quality of the movie but the trailer was amazing.

#4 - District 9: It starts out making you think it's a racial movie then shifts to something about aliens? No plot points, we don't even know who the major characters are going to be.

#3 - The Lion King: No, really. The original trailer that I remember seeing for the Lion King was the opening few minutes with the "Circle of Life" song, right up until the monkey-priest-guy holds up Simba for the crowd. That was epic. No plot points, no zany special effects, just awesomeness. Unfortunately I can't find that trailer online so you get this one, which is not nearly as good-

#2 - Star Wars VII. No, I mean "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." You see, that's the point: they toyed with the audience and played off the fact that Star Wars Ep. 1 was coming out the same summer. This was an AMAZING trailer to behold in the theaters.

#1 - Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: the ultimate teaser that shows nothing from the movie except the two main characters and a hint that they aren't exactly what they seem. None of this footage is from the movie, not even the voice-over.

So there you have it, film makers. Make good trailers and we'll all be happier together. I'd hate to swear off trailers completely.

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