Approved for Appropriate Audiences: The art of the movie trailer meets the digital age

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Cinemas Features

Movie trailers began in 1914, when Marcus Loew’s theatre circuit became the first to promote an upcoming Charlie Chaplin film in Harlem. It was added to a continuously playing loop—which included a cartoon and short films—where it “trailed” the feature presentation.

By 1920—and for the next 40 years—most trailers were created by National Screen Service; they combined clips and dialogue from the movie, along with narration, music and, perhaps, a breathless promise: “An Adventure for the Ages!” “A Romance to Stir the Heart!”

When Don LaFontaine stepped behind a microphone for the 1964 film Gunfighters of Casa Grande, the trailer found its voice. He narrated more than 5,000 others before he died in 2008.

But today, and “in a world” (as LaFontaine would say) where so much has changed, trailers continue to thrive. Dozens of companies make them professionally; fans sometimes make their own. Below, industry experts talk about creating, delivering and playing this mini-excitement “approved for appropriate audiences.”

Mark Mulcahy (VP, In-Theatre Marketing, STX Entertainment): We look at trailers as part of the entertainment, part of the escape. They’re the next e-ticket ride.

Ron Van Timmeren (VP of Programming, Loeks Theatres Inc.): I’ve been in theatre marketing and programming for forty years and the formula for a good trailer is still the same. It’s a “highlight reel,” a “sizzle reel,” it’s showing you the best stuff. It’s meant to entertain you, as well as to get you to buy.

Ryan De Pesa (Producer, AV Marketing): The purpose of a trailer is to protect the film and promote it in the best possible light, but hopefully along the way it sells tickets.

Jason O’Donovan (Editor, Trailers): In creating trailers, our job is to get people into the theatre to see the movie on opening weekend. We’re trying to make opening weekend as strong as possible.

Andrew Saidi (Mastering Operator, Deluxe Technicolor Digital Cinema): Before trailers were shown on the Internet, some people would buy a ticket to a movie just to see the new trailer playing before it.

Chris Johnson (CEO, Classic Cinemas): Some trailers are excellent. The one for The Accountant, for example, was intriguing; it summarized the story and fully captured the mood—and it didn’t give anything away.

O’DonovanFrom an editor’s perspective, the biggest question is how to keep from revealing too much; we can’t give away crucial parts of the movie—but at the same time, we don’t want to leave out something that’s very compelling.

De PesaWhat makes a movie great might also be what makes it tough to market. There could be a story element that’s tough to explain or maybe there’s a twist you need to protect in order to make the film enjoyable and surprising to watch.

O’DonovanOur goal is to find shots that will quickly grab the audience; we can take those from the middle or the beginning and backtrack and jump around. And a lot of time, we’re even taking dialogue lines from different parts of the movie and cutting them together as one line.

De PesaI’ve seen trailers that I thought gave away too much, but knowing the process, I think: “Something led them down that route.” Maybe simply teasing the material wasn’t resonating with people, so they revealed more to try to get people into the theatre.

O’DonovanThere are probably sixty or seventy companies in Los Angeles making trailers, so when a studio gets on a movie, they might hire three or four different companies. They want to see different perspectives.

De Pesa: The marketing budget determines how many vendors are cutting trailers. A big summer blockbuster will sometimes have five or six different houses cutting potential trailers for it, especially if it’s a challenging film.

O’Donovan: And everything we do gets tested. We go through a lot of revisions—sometimes thirty, forty, fifty different revisions of the same trailer. Everybody weighs in and we refine the piece until everybody’s happy—or until they’re out of time.

De Pesa: Part of the early brainstorming is figuring out who’s the prime demographic for the film and then cutting the trailer to attract that audience.

Mulcahy: All studios request the targets that they believe are the correct demo for their upcoming films. But, at STX, we also rely heavily on what the exhibitor thinks. There are 600-plus exhibitors in the country. They know their customers better than we do. If you don’t listen to your exhibitor partners, shame on you.

Van Timmeren: Each week, we get e-mails from studio representatives requesting placement of their trailers on one or more features. My assistant and I go over that list and decide what plays where and with what—and hope we’ve made the best choices.

Johnson: We try to do what works best for the audiences we serve. But our policy is to only play three trailers.

Van Timmeren: Our research shows that audiences really like trailers, but there’s a point of diminishing returns if you play too many.

Johnson: Our audiences know that the movie starts only a few minutes after the published showtime. I think that running too many trailers is “overload.”

Van Timmeren: For us, we’ve allocated twelve-and-a-half minutes to trailer time. That essentially gives us the space to play five trailers—which is the most we’re able to play before we have a little “guest fatigue.”

Johnson: I like trailers, but I like the fact that I can program them as I see fit and that I can set the length of time I run them. I’m in control of my marketing plan and I like that.

Van Timmeren: We’d love to have shorter trailers so we could play more, but distribution seems to be stuck on that 2:30. That limits the number we can show.

MulcahyWe have the same goal as the exhibitor—to encourage audiences to see the film in their theatre. 2:30 is the max, but every studio gets one exception a year when they can go over that max. Some exhibitors want shorter trailers; others believe the fuller trailer helps them to more effectively sell the film.

O’DonovanAs a creative, we might cut something that’s brilliant, but it’s five seconds longer. It’s always a struggle—and sometimes it’s a sacrifice—to make that time.

Van Timmeren: I wish trailers just heightened audience’s curiosity—instead of telling them so much of the story. Ninety seconds—max—would be my ideal.

De PesaPeople today—especially young people—want things short and sweet. That’s why we do versions for Snapchat that are ten seconds—and Instagram versions that are about fifteen seconds. It’s hard to tell the nitty-gritty of a movie in ten or fifteen seconds, but you can show something interesting and get the title out there.

MulcahySocial media is a good way to introduce a trailer—or have people see different versions. They can “like” the trailer; they can comment on it. And that’s important.

De PesaStudios are putting out trailers on Facebook that are cropped square and subtitled because they play larger on mobile devices, which are often on silent.

Van Timmeren: You can watch them on your phone or other devices, but listening to and seeing the trailer on the big screen is unequaled in terms of presentation—and goes a long way towards selling the movie.

MulcahyIf we have something that’s getting a visceral reaction online, we can then put that in front of people in a movie theatre.

De Pesa:We primarily cut the trailer for the movie theatre. That’s where you’re going to experience it the way it’s supposed to be seen.

Johnson: People love seeing trailers in the theatre, but trailers on social media are also really impactful. When studios break trailers online, the number of views is insane.

Van Timmeren: And they get that social-media bump and buzz that’s really important for studios and movies now.

Saidi: You may see the trailer first on the Internet, but when it’s released online, it’s also released for the theatre, so you’ll probably see it playing the next time you go to a movie.

De PesaIf we’re working with a big movie, the trailer usually starts a year in advance.

MulcahyWe like to get the message out early—but again, it depends on the film, it depends on the creative that’s available.

Johnson: I think you can’t have a hard and fast rule for how far in advance a trailer can play before the movie opens. It’s a little bit of an art form to strike a balance between “Wow, that’s cool and coming soon” and “Wow, that’s cool; I’ll try to remember that for next year.”

Van Timmeren: Unless it’s a very big title, audiences will forget the movie if it’s not out in two or three months. Of course, that’s why studios keep making new trailers—maybe two or three for the movie—and that’s great.

MulcahyDigital has provided great flexibility in making different versions of a trailer. You wouldn’t cut so many versions of a trailer back when it was 35mm; it wasn’t cost-effective. Now you can be more creative, you can be better at reaching the consumer.

O’Donovan: It’s easy to try a lot more things; in the film days, you’d just look at the scene and cut it. In some of the early trailers, they just lifted a scene out of the movie.

MulcahyWe’re seeing more versions of trailers; we’re seeing different creative; and, in some cases, we’re getting talent involved in introducing the trailer and helping the exhibitor with a call to action.

Johnson: And digital has added more flexibility to trailer placement. Not only is it easier to attach trailers to the movies because there’s no cutting or splicing, you can even run different trailers on the same movie in the afternoon than you do at night—when it makes sense.

SaidiIn the digital world, a trailer can be loaded on a digital cinema server and added to a “digital playlist” while the movie is running. You couldn’t do that with film trailers.

Johnson: Most exhibitors receive their trailers from the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition. DCDC sends out a boatload of different trailers—and different versions.

SaidiA single version of a trailer can be made in several different formats. Film trailers were only 2D flat and ’scope, but digital trailers may be also available in 3D flat and ’scope, 4K resolution, have closed or open captions, or have a hearing-impaired audio track. Sometimes trailers are also available in different digital audio formats or made for specific projection systems. 

Mulcahy: The mechanism is called “Trail Mix,” which is literally a hard drive—or a satellite broadcast—that goes out weekly to theatres. It’s made by Deluxe Technicolor. It has the trailers for that week’s placement from all distributors for all films in all theatres.

Van Timmeren: With trailers, you’ve got new product each week. And when we’re finished with them, we just delete them and they disappear. There’s no 35mm film to recycle. It’s all very different from the old days.

MulcahySometimes for laughs, I go and look at old trailers—from the 1950s or 1960s—and you can really see a difference.

Van Timmeren: After forty years in the business, I think that as long as we’ve got that big-screen presentation—and that captive audience in the dark—there is just no better way to introduce an upcoming feature than in an entertaining and intriguing trailer.

MulcahySocial media has helped the trailer experience, but the theatre is the best place to promote your film because you’re promoting it to moviegoers.

Van Timmeren: And I don’t think that will change. Ever.