Most people are unaware there are companies and even award ceremonies dedicated just to film trailers. This year, Open Road Entertainment and AV Squad won the Best in Show award for their Wonder Woman trailer.
Trailers aren’t just the reason most of us make it to our movie on time. Advertising can make or break a film. The point of things like the Golden Trailer Awards is to fight for recognizing the art of advertising. Advertising is an art form, not in the classical sense but rather in the common definition: a craft requiring skill that is worthy of admiration.
For a historical overview, check out this list of the greatest trailers of all time. On that magnificent list is a crown jewel: “Alien.” The original trailer for this 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece is the most perfect trailer ever cut.
There are no words or music. There’s a siren sound, some noises, clever editing, and the greatest tag line for a film ever: “In space no one can hear you scream.” It’s a trailer made according to the rules of “pure cinema,” a principle that cinema shows rather than tells its stories.
Show, Don’t Tell
Most great filmmakers inculcated this in their craft, not least of whom was Alfred Hitchcock. But he took a rather different approach with his trailers, as evidenced by the inclusion of “Psycho” on the aforementioned list. It’s six minutes long, and a lot of it is just Hitch being his deliciously devilish self.
But the trailer for “Alien” is essentially just a montage, the essence of film. Film is an atomistic universe of illusion. The motion pictures are just magic tricks, thousands of individual pictures strung together appearing as a seamless stream of narrative. A century ago, film theorist Sergei Eisenstein pointed out that this is the essence of all filmmaking. Even though the “Alien” trailer doesn’t tell an actual story, it tells us a brief story about the film “Alien.” It is a minor illusion that implies to us the nature of a larger and more complicated illusion.
The trailer is elegantly structured along the platonic plot graph, the basic western standard for storytelling structure. It begins with the setting: flying through space. Then the inciting incident: a strange egg on a barren planet is slowly revealed. Then the rising action: claustrophobic scenes from the film appear, along with the egg cracking open with piercing light. Then the climax: the final 20 or so seconds goes into a high-gear montage of every horrible thing that happens in the film. Finally, it resolves with the epic tag line.
Yet nothing has been revealed. We have been treated to an intense but brief visual story without a single word spoken. Many of the scenes shown in the explosive final montage are all clearly pivotal twists in the story. But they are excruciatingly brief and out of context, so the viewer is left confused without feeling confused.
Even so, we have all the information we need: this film will be scary. This film will be unique. Thus, one of two things are now true: either I must see this film as soon as possible, or I must never see this film.
Don’t Give Away the Story for Free
I don’t remember being aware of how good or bad a trailer was before “Spider-Man 2.” The full preview for SM2 is still probably the worst trailer I have ever seen. It tells the entire story pretty much from start to finish in chronological order. Now, SM2 is one of the great genre films ever made, and it earned buckets of money, so this crumby trailer clearly didn’t hurt that film. But its trailer clearly deserves ire.
There is no creativity. No real desire is created within the viewer to watch the film, because the entire story has been presented beforehand. This might be enticing to some, but it’s simply bad craft. Compare that trailer to the teaser for SM1. It’s perfect, except for the bittersweet irony of seeing criminals webbed up between the then-standing twin towers.
But it teased you. That’s the point of teaser trailers, and it should be the point of all trailers: To entice the money out of your wallet without giving you the story you haven’t paid for yet. This is why I thought the first trailer for “The Last Jedi” was brilliant. It was minimalist and tantalizing. Many people complained that it didn’t reveal anything, but that is the power of a great trailer.
Let’s Examine Some More Garbage Trailers
Now, let’s look at two lousy trailers from a much more recent franchise: Jurassic World. The first Jurassic World trailer from almost three years ago seemed like a lot of fun at the time. The piano rendition of “Welcome to Jurassic Park” was especially endearing.
But it ultimately suffers from the same problems as SM2. It goes chronologically through the entire story revealing most of the plot beats. That wasn’t exactly obvious at the time, but it’s very clear in hindsight. More importantly, the trailer revealed information that should have been saved for the film, such as the Indominous Rex’s crafty escape. These problems worsened with every new slightly extended trailer. But at least the JW trailers were enticing. They hit notes of nostalgia and made us excited to see a new Jurassic film.
But the latest “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” trailer turns the laziness up to 11. Not only does it show what appears to be the entire plot in chronological order, but the behind-the-scenes extended trailer and latest full trailer release multiple scene resolutions. The first JW trailer did not do that. Many revealing things were shown during tense moments of the film but actual scenes were not completed.
There are at least five moments of exciting tension in the new trailers where we actually see a tension resolved. The most egregious example is in the behind-the-scenes trailer. It sets up a clear homage to the original “Alien’s” brilliant air duct sequence.
A motion detector that even looks a bit like the makeshift monitor on the Nostromo indicates something large heading towards Bryce Dallas Howard and one of the new characters played by Justice Smith. Smith keeps yelling it’s a T-Rex, then surprise surprise, a Baryonyx comes out of the tunnel. Of course, what happens next remains unresolved. But now the previous moments will lose all tension for viewers. This happens multiple times throughout the new ad campaign.
Since I haven’t seen the film I could be misinterpreting what has been shown so far. They could be pulling a “Gone Girl”-style trick. “Gone Girl” director David Fincher forbade the trailer company from using any footage after the first hour. If you’ve seen the movie, then you know exactly why.
Fincher’s films tend to have excellent trailers, “The Social Network” probably being the best example. Maybe it’s because he gives strict restrained guidelines. The JW trailers would benefit from some of this restraint.
This is all very similar to the contemporary trend of putting all the funniest moments in the trailer for a comedy. This has become so cliché that it is unforgivable, and probably has contributed to the down trend in comedy sales at the cineplex. What’s the point of spending the price of a DVD to watch a film you’ve already laughed at? Action adventure films don’t have this problem to the same degree, because we still want to see what will happen next and how it all fits together. But in the end it’s all just lazy advertising.
One Shot to Get People Into the Theaters
In conclusion, let’s look at another classic horror trailer. The trailer for “The Shining” is one shot. That’s it. It’s the second most iconic moment in the film, after Nicholson’s grinning visage, but no one knew that at the time. No one ever really knows what moments of a film will become iconic until they do.
But that kind of creative austerity takes real guts. It’s just a steady cam shot of the elevator with blood pouring out. There’s some creepy music and sparse titles. That’s it. No frills, and the audience is left with only chills. It was brilliant and probably saved money on their ad campaign. In a world where films that gross half a billion dollars are considered bombs due to ad costs, studios need to learn how to pinch pennies again and become more creative. A great trailer can be a great work of art.