How Trailers Should Work

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author: Ryan

​What I’m really referring to as the ideal trailer, is one that fools by omission and juxtaposition. We understand what the film is going to be, before shelling out our $$$ for admission, but have pretty much everything else kept intact to be revealed.

The majority of movie trailers released today are overwhelmingly absurd. Before I delve into what constitutes a good trailer, let me share two of my gripes:

1) Please, stop using the “Hanz Zimmer BRAAAAMM.” It wasn’t that great even when it was fresh in the Inception trailer. Now it’s laughable, and not in that “let’s use the Wilhelm Scream in everything”  sort of way. At least the Wilhelm cliche is a homage of sorts.  The “BRAAAAM” is stale and a pathetic attempt to pique audience interest. I’m looking at you Pacific Rim trailer!

2) Do not fast forward through the entire plot of your film in 2 minutes and 30 seconds.  I know you think you need to show enough so that people have a clear understanding, but less is ALWAYS more.

Ron Howard’s Rush is a good example. It is based on a true story, but why are we getting the whole story upfront? Perhaps there are many more reveals in the film itself, but I’ve already lost interest. Why not show me one or two interesting character moments instead? Without context, none of this plot is particularly exciting. With too much context, it’s all exposition. It’s really lose, lose when you go this route.

With those bad examples out of the way, I’m going to shift my attention to what GOOD trailers do. ​

​1) They TEASE. Mad Men previews do this to a sometimes ridiculous degree, but I love them for it. They reveal nothing, but still make you want more.

Wouldn’t you rather have your audience freeze frame and try to figure out what the significance of a split second action is, creating more buzz and gossip about your work, than revealing all your cards? The Phantom Menace is no masterpiece, but remember how excited we were to dissect the trailer?

2) They ​TRICK. Am I saying I want trailers to lie? Yes and no. I want to get an idea of the tone and style of a film, but I’m very happy to be set up and even fooled into thinking the story is going to take one route, and then find upon watching the feature that it goes in an entirely different direction.

Sometimes indie films ​do this as a way of getting more of an audience. This is a bit of a gray area for me. I want these films to succeed so I understand why they try to appeal to a broader base, but this tactic is a little disingenuous. Consider Dan in Real Life. It’s a great film, but the trailer sets it up as a Steve Carrell family comedy.

In fact, the film is more of a dramedy, a lot darker than the trailer reveals. ​

​What I’m really referring to as the ideal trailer, is one that fools by omission and juxtaposition. We understand what the film is going to be, before shelling out our $$$ for admission, but have pretty much everything else kept intact to be revealed. I recently saw The Place Beyond the Pines ​and absolutely loved it.

Without giving away anything, after watching the film I had a newfound appreciation for the trailer.  It accurately hints at the genre, style, and tone and better yet, in a subtle way, it cleverly sets you up so that not only are you not spoiled, but more apt to be suprised by a few plot elements.

I’ll leave you with one more trailer technique that I enjoy. Instead of trying to cover a ton of ground, just show us a single scene that captures something about your film. It leaves the rest of the plot open to imagination and feels satisfying to get something fairly complete. (If you’ve written a scene properly, it should have a beginning middle and end all to itself!). Despicable Me achieves this well:

​Finally, I feel like this post would not be complete without this parody of bad indie film trailers. Again, I’m a complete sucker for most of the “SXSW” and  “Sundance” fare, but trailers like this unfortunately exist:

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