It’s been a very big week for movie trailers. The first teaser for next year’s Batman vs Superman leaked online ahead of its expected release next week. It was officially released soon afterwards in glorious HD, and a predictably excited Internet temporarily forgot Man of Steel ever happened. We got extended looks at Ant-Man and Terminator Genysis, two of this year’s biggest blockbusters. And then there was the main event: the second teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was viewed tens of millions of times in its first 24 hours online.
Let’s make something clear here: a movie trailer is, above all, an advertisement. It’s something incredibly obvious, but worth repeating when trailers routinely send the Internet into mini-meltdowns. When you watch a trailer - online, on TV or in a cinema - you are being sold a product. They might be artfully put together and exciting, but make no mistake, it’s still an ad, with the primary purpose to encourage you to buy a ticket on release day or very soon after.
But like any advertisement, a movie trailer can still be mighty impressive in its own right, even if the intentions behind it are inherently cynical. And in extreme cases, it can be argued they are ‘better’ than the film they’re advertising. So, what’s the art - dark as it may be - behind a good movie trailer?
The concept of a movie trailer is not quite as old as cinema itself, but it wasn’t far off. Nils Granlund, the advertising manager with Marcus Loew theaters, is the man generally credited with introducing the idea of a trailer. In November 1913 in New York, he placed a promotional ‘ad’ for a stage musical called The Pleasure Seekers in front of screenings at his theatres, showing the cast rehearsing. It was a success, and hence advertisements and previews became commonplace at Loew cinemas, and other chains followed. Naturally, this soon evolved into previews of motion pictures themselves.
The popular idea of serialisation (weekly installments of a series screened ahead of the ‘feature presentation’) also helped win audiences over to the idea of previews, encouraging them to visit the following week to catch the next chapter of the story with a cheeky cliffhanger (a method that has carried over to television, and even the occasional film franchise).
An organisation called the National Screen Service became the dominant force in movie trailers for most of the first half of the 20th century, and indeed well beyond that, only being bought out by Technicolor in 2000. While they would ultimately be in charge of most movie promotion - including posters - they first made an impact with their trailers, most Hollywood studios eventually signing contracts with the NSS.
Over the years, some prominent directors - such as Orson Welles - started introducing more distinctive, unusual previews for their films. But the great Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock arguably redefined what the movie trailer was capable of. Take, for example, the remarkable preview for Kubrick’s classic Cold War comedy Dr Strangelove. With its visceral montage editing and playful tone, it not only gives an excellent indication of the mood of the film itself (something that many trailers absolutely fail to achieve), but is an entertaining three minutes in its own right:
Hitchcock, meanwhile, appeared in his own ads, properly teasing the audience and indulging in his trademark dark humour. This Psycho preview, for example, doesn’t actually feature any footage from the film itself, Hitchcock instead bringing the audience on a tour of the set:
A brief mention is due for the grindhouse, exploitation and horror films of the 70s and 80s, which resulted in some of the most endearingly cheesy trailers of all time (lovingly homaged in the fake trailers attached to the release of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’ Grindhouse double feature).
In the 1970s, the contemporary concept of the blockbuster was born, and they turned out to be the perfect fit for trailers. Many great examples of serious and art cinema are quite hard to ‘sell’ in trailer form, given their formal complexity and the difficulty of reducing a challenging film to a series of images. That’s not to say it’s impossible - David Fincher, for example, has been praised for his stylish, atmospheric trailers, often making unexpected use out of familiar music:
Another recent trailer of note was the beautiful one put together for Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are:
Blockbusters, though, are full of the sort of teases, special effects shots and exciting imagery that are easily compacted into short form, and a perfect vehicle to hype up the audience for a coming attraction. It can still go wrong though, and we're sure everybody can name a preview clip that turned you off a film entirely.
This week’s trailers are actually perfect examples of both the positive and negatives of contemporary trends in trailer making. The Terminator Genisys trailer, it could be suggested, is an example of what not to do. It’s an awkward attempt at condensing the plot into a few minutes, with many fans complaining it ‘spoiled’ at least one of the film’s key plot points that had been secret or at least barely known up until this week. It gives far too much away, and a couple of unfinished effects don’t help. This sort of ‘all in’ trailer is quite common, very often undermining much of the good work and anticipation built up with a more reserved ‘teaser’:
The Ant-Man trailer is sort of in-between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ - it just kind of 'is', and is pretty standard example of a contemporary blockbuster trailer. It certainly does a better job of selling the visual and dramatic potential of the character than earlier trailers did. But it also falls into the trap faced by many more comedic efforts, and gives away some of the film’s punchlines. That amusing train sequence will lose some of its impact and surprise factor on the big screen now - unless there’s some extra surprises waiting for viewers - but in their defence comedy remains arguably the most challenging genre to design a trailer for:
The Disney marketing team, however, continue to impress with their work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While lacking the impact of the original teaser - which had a distinct advantage given it was the very first look at the highly anticipated sequel - it is still an expertly produced hype-builder. It has some fantastic imagery - what about that stunning opening Star Destroyer shot, ey? - and some tantalising glimpses at characters new and old (including Han Solo and Chewie at the very end). But most importantly it remains mysterious - little to nothing is revealed about the plot or characters, while many returning players have yet to be seen (Luke Skywalker’s arm aside). It continues to tease and keep fans interested even though there are still months until its December release.
Undoubtedly more detailed trailers will emerge in the run up to release, and it remains to be seen whether the film will actually live up to the promise of these teasers (after all, Episode I had a killer trailer, and we all know how that turned out). But for now, The Force Awakens team are proving experts at maintaining the anticipation level.
One should never forget the commercial motivations behind trailers - as great as the Star Wars trailers have been, they’re still designed to sell as many tickets as possible in December. But at the same time they also indicate the potential of the movie trailer - offering audiences their first look at a much-anticipated upcoming film, and sometimes even being impressive shorts in their own right.
There can be good trailers for bad films, and bad trailers for good films, and there’s nothing worse than being subjected to a seemingly endless barrage of previews before a film. But with trailers for the likes of Star Wars and The Avengers routinely breaking viewing records online, and studios spending more and more money to ensure their films are blockbuster hits, it’s clear the humble movie trailer is here to stay.