Like any other self-respecting film buff, I love trailers. However, like many of my fellow film buffs, I have a BIG reservation about how they’re put together.
In the early days of film marketing, trailers were marked by exclamatory phrases emblazoned across the screen. “SO TERRIFYING ONLY SCREAMS CAN DESCRIBE IT!” “THE BIGGEST BEST-SELLER OF OUR TIME REACHES THE SCREEN!” “THE MOST MOVING ROMANCE OF THE YEAR!” Those phrases were effective for their time, but they ultimately became a gag, an easy handle for filmmakers who wanted to emulate the era. It was time for something new.
Realizing that movies are called “motion pictures” for a reason, marketing departments became reliant on images and scenes to sell the movie. However, marketers ran into a problem, realizing that they had to show a great deal of the movie – practically revealing the whole story – to entice audiences. For that reason, studios turned to voice-over artists, people with distinctive voices who would verbalize the words that had once been written on-screen. At first, trailers still revealed most of the story – as this trailer for Deliverance shows – but marketers eventually came to discover the proper balance between image and verbals. All was well for a decade or two.
Sometime around 2005, however, film marketers decided that voice-over artists were old hat. Said marketers took voice-overs out of their trailers, leading them to the same old problem: showing almost all of the movie in order to sell it. We just don’t learn, do we?
However, there’s one brand of trailer that has largely avoided the trend of showing too much: the teaser. Why? Because they don’t have to show any of the movie at all!
Teasers arose from a problem: what to do when a film goes over schedule? Studio execs wanted to keep upcoming films on the public’s lips, and that meant creating a trailer. When a film was running overtime, however, that often meant that there was no footage ready to be cut into a trailer – nor the time to do so. When this occurred, the marketing department would get creative, crafting a trailer with footage entirely separate from the film. This sometimes meant that the stars would have to work an extra day or two, and the effects teams had to do a little overtime, but the resulting trailer would create huge rewards.
Many good trailers come from this batch of unique teasers. For example:
I know I just got done saying that many non-movie footage teasers came from troubled productions. Christine is an exception, though. By all accounts, this 1983 horror flick enjoyed a relatively smooth, trouble-free production. You guys are probably tired of hearing me talk about John Carpenter, but this smooth production is due to his confident, easygoing directorial hand.
However, Christine was to be released in tight conjunction with the novel’s release, and studio execs wanted to make sure these plans fell together correctly. For that reason, this short teaser was put together and placed in theaters – and I love it!
This teaser pulls a nice switcheroo, making it appear as if the trailer’s talking about a possessive human woman – until it’s obvious that they’re not. (I personally think the trailer reveals this surprise a little too early, but that’s a minor nitpick.) The voice-over does a great job evoking an ominous mood, and the jump scare provides a moment that sticks in the memory!
Man, you wanna talk about troubled productions? 1941 kind of takes the cake!
In 1977, Steven Spielberg could do anything he wanted. (Kind of like now.) After the twin blockbusters Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, every studio was eager to work with the wunderkind, especially Universal, the studio that gave him his start. What did Spielberg want to do? A project with three of the craziest men in Hollywood!
During the 1970s, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were considered wild young screenwriters, that reputation gained by the irreverent scripts they had placed in the Hollywood system. One of them – Bordello Of Blood – came to the attention of John Milius, the director affectionately called “The Viking Man” by his peers for his brash attitude, his adventures surfing, and for occasionally living like a mountain man in the hills. Milius liked Zemeckis & Gale’s style, and so the three decided to work on a script together. They crafted a sprawling comedy based on a true event: a false-alarm situation regarding a Japanese attack on Los Angeles during World War II. They called the script 1941.
Milius took the script to his friend Spielberg, who eagerly agreed to take the project. The project quickly spun out of control as the cast grew, new gags were added to the screenplay, and the special effects grew bigger and louder. The resulting film was a flop, but it’s a flop I kinda like. There are so many stars in the film and so many different kinds of jokes, there’s bound to be something for any audience member to enjoy!
As you’ve probably guessed, 1941 ran way over schedule, which threw Universal’s marketing department into a tizzy. Desperate to keep the upcoming film on audiences’ minds, the studio grabbed John Belushi, threw him into a plane, and gave him a monologue to memorize. The resulting trailer is definitely too non-PC to ever be heard in a theater now, but it is funny in a shocking sort of way. In that way, it’s a lot like 1941 itself!
Back To The Future (1985)
(There are cleaner versions of this trailer on YouTube, but I love these original 35 mm prints. The grain gives the video a great sense of personality!)
Speaking of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, let’s talk about what’s probably their best-loved movie: Back To The Future!
Looking at Back To The Future today, it’s easy to think that the film enjoyed a smooth, easy path to the screen. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! After the twin bombs of Zemeckis/Gale’s first two films – I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars – no studio wanted to work with the duo. Zemeckis realized that, if he and his partner needed to work again, they needed to break with Spielberg (he had produced both of their prior films) and they needed at least one success. Therefore, when the script for Romancing The Stone came into Zemeckis’s hands, he snapped it up. Romancing The Stone turned out to be the director’s first hit movie!
Suddenly hot, Zemeckis & Gale decided to dust off a script they had originally sent out in 1982: a comedy about a teen that goes back in time and interferes with his parents’ courtship. Originally, the script had been rejected by every studio in town; teen comedies were supposed to be raunchy at that time, but Back To The Future was too tame. However, after the success of Romancing The Stone, every studio wanted the screenplay. After some deliberation, though, Zemeckis and Gale decided to take the project to the one person who had liked the script from the beginning: Steven Spielberg! From then on, Spielberg was able to overcome the troubles that occasionally arose during production.
However, even with the combined heat of Zemeckis, Gale, and Spielberg, Back To The Future‘s success wasn’t a sure thing by any means. As we’ve mentioned, the successful teen comedies up to that point had been raunchier than Zemeckis/Gale/Spielberg’s time-travel adventure. Universal’s marketing team must have been aware of this, for they built a teaser entirely around the film’s three biggest selling points: the DeLorean, Michael J. Fox, and time travel.
Honestly, I think this whole teaser revolves around those last few seconds. The shoes walking up to the car and the lights inside are intriguing, but Michael J. Fox lifting those sunglasses and that exchange of dialogue is the clincher!
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
Hollywood studios are notorious for mis-marketing movies with mixed genres. (At least it seems that way to me!) Hollywood has issues with several combinations, but they’re particularly clumsy with comedy-dramas (Breaking Away, The Family Man, and Bicentennial Man all have horrible trailers that totally fail to evoke the films’ tones) and horror-comedies. Hollywood studios can handle comedies with horror elements – Young Frankenstein, for instance – but what about movies that are both genuinely scary and genuinely funny? To be more specific, what about An American Werewolf In London?
John Landis – the director of our film in question – hates it when people call An American Werewolf In London a horror-comedy, so I’m going to apologize now. However, a horror-comedy is exactly what the film is! What else would you call a movie featuring zombies that talk like a college-age slob, a naked man running home with balloons covering his privates, and a werewolf having a semi-friendly chat with the ghosts of his victims? However, any film that features the infamous “subway attack” sequence and the initial “attack on the moors” scene has to be termed a horror film. An American Werewolf In London contains two very different tones, and it balances them well (with a selection of moon-related oldies for good measure)!
However, since horror and comedy are trying for very different reactions, they’re hard to mesh together in a short trailer. I’m sure Universal’s marketing team realized this, so they decided to avoid the issue of the two tones altogether. Instead, they focused on the one element that was a given: the werewolf itself. And, in doing so, they inadvertently created the screamer video! After all, what better way to get your audience’s attention than to make them jump?
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Modern studios typically don’t make teasers like the ones we’ve been discussing, but Pixar is a glorious exception. Since animated films take three or four years to make, marketing teams at animation studios need to be creative in their marketing strategy. For much of their existence, Pixar’s plan has been to release teasers well before the films are released, ones that introduce the flick’s high-concept idea in an entertaining way. I knew that I needed to conclude this post with a Pixar teaser, but picking one proved to be a touch more difficult. I nearly went with The Incredibles‘s “getting the outfit on” teaser, but, ultimately, I went with Monsters, Inc.‘s original trailer!
What led me to cast the deciding vote? Well, let me take you back to the magical year 2000. The place is a stretch of Arizona interstate. I’m in my family’s Honda Odyssey, sitting in the back seats with my three younger sisters. Since the Odyssey was one of those awesome cars with the flip-down DVD screen in back, my sisters and I were watching Toy Story 2. For whatever reason, my sisters and I were totally okay with watching trailers on road trips, even though we didn’t always do so at home. At any rate, as we watched, the Monsters, Inc. trailer appeared on the screen. I was enraptured (and, as I recall, my sisters were, too). In fact, it may be the first time I realized how wonderful a teaser can be.
Watching this teaser after seeing the film, one may be tempted to point out the logic flaws it presents. Why is Mike in the room if he’s only Sully’s assistant? Why does Mike pick up the hula hoop if monsters believe that human children – and the things they touch – are toxic? Why do they use their slide card in the doorjamb, rather than in the electronic keypad at each door station? I don’t blame anyone for asking those questions; heck, I’ve asked them too as I’ve watched this.
However, Pixar realized that the most important thing a trailer must do is to get the audience interested in the characters. In order to that, Pixar was willing to shrug off the rules established in the film itself, and it paid off in spades. I can’t imagine anyone watching this teaser and coming away disliking Mike and Sully!
So what have we learned? Maybe not much, but hopefully we’ve all re-discovered how effective a teaser can be, if done well. Every good teaser is a reminder that, when it comes to advertising, less can be more!