When we think of the advertising industry, movie trailers probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind. After all, ads are what we tend to skip over on YouTube in an effort to watch a newly released trailer.
But trailers, like any other type of advertising, are essentially an art of seduction. They’re emotionally investing, powerful, unpredictable, and truly important forms of advertisement– now capable of grossing hundreds of millions, sometimes even billions, of dollars for a movie from a single 1.5 to 3-minute video.
While the majority of advertising has faced a decline in recent years, movie trailers have become a stand-alone industry and genre, nearly as thriving and popular as the actual movies that they are teasing.
But how did this popularity come to be? How have the modern trailers of today evolved from the early days of Alfred Hitchcock? And what makes them such effective and enticing tools for advertising?
Let’s take a quick look at the art of the trailer.
Evolution of the movie trailer
All you have to do is watch a few trailers from any previous decade to know that movie trailers, along with movies themselves, have changed dramatically over the years. Although each trailer is unique, differing largely in accordance with the film’s genre and directing style, the art of the trailer has undergone a few distinct eras that mark visual, structural, tonal, audial, and narrative shifts.
“Spectacular, spectacular! The most exciting adventure ever screened! Never so tremendous! You’ve never seen anything like it!” The early days of movie trailers in the 1930s-50s stuck with the strategy of the preceding silent era, using and overusing over-the-top superlatives through on-screen typography. Films like Casablanca, The African Queen, and Gone with the Wind are classic examples of this type of “talking trailer.” The talking trailer incorporated text, sound, and action to showcase the special effects, stars, and sensation of the film they were promoting. During this time, the National Screen Service, or NSS, had a solid grip on the trailer industry. Most NSS trailers followed a similar formula: on-text superlatives, some narration, music, and a montage of one-liners and clips that help define the story’s characters. Universal, timeless concepts of romance, intrigue, danger, and adventure were clearly construed.
1960s – Mid-1970s: A Work of Art.
The Hollywood Revolution, counter-culture, and the emergence of New Hollywood in the ‘60s and ‘70s also gave way to a downfall of the NSS. Non-exclusive agreements allowed artists and filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock to break from the NSS model and experiment with new ways of constructing movie trailers. Hitchcock was one of the first to go against the grain and exhibit full creative control in his independent 1960 film Psycho. His trailer is over 6-minutes long and is essentially a video of himself giving the audience a guided tour of the Bates Motel, promoting the violent scenes that will unfold in his film. Kubrick follows this trend in his film Dr. Strangelove, a disjointed, artistic trailer that he cut himself by sporadically interspersing shots and text. In these ways, emerging filmmakers were able to transform the movie trailer into a work of art, subverting the previous NSS model in an avant-garde way and paving the way for future auteurs.
Mid-1970s – 1980s: The Voice of God.
The mid-1970s gave rise to big names like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. These directors changed the course of business in Hollywood, making movies more popular and more lucrative than ever before. Trailers in the ‘70s and ‘80s combined both the formal and experimental aspects of previous eras, and as the age of blockbusters drew nearer, they began to edge from relying more on mood and music to focusing on narrative structure. The trailer for the 1975 hit Jaws gives an early look into what classic blockbuster trailers in proceeding decades would look like. It was also during this time that the iconic “voice of God,” otherwise known as the voiceover artist Don La Fontaine, took the center stage. La Fontaine commonly began trailer narration with phrases like “In a world..” La Fontaine and voiceover artists like him dominated the course of trailers for the next several decades. The voiceover functioned to lay the foundation of the world each trailer took place in and clearly explained the narrative structure and story arcs of every movie.
1990s – 2000s: Blockbusters.
The age of blockbusters and big box offices meant that movies were grossing more money than ever before. Studios began to focus much more on marketing, producing multiple trailer versions rather than one to appeal to multiple markets. It was also during this time that trailers began to resemble more of an abridged version of the film or a “mini-movie.” The trailers included the film’s setup, confrontation, and climax, or nearly everything besides the film’s resolution– sometimes revealing a bit too much. This type of mini-movie gave way to a kind of formula of its own, a solid recipe that has persisted in the following decade and is still used in present-day trailers.
NPR summarizes this formula, condensing the major points of a blockbuster trailer into a few easily-recognizable terms and definitions:
The Turn Line. That moment in which the music drops out for a single line of dialogue. At this point, the trailer usually makes a hard turn into action, comedy, or swelling music.
The Rise. The big, crescendo finale most trailers ultimately build toward. The Rise often follows a Turn Line.
Hits. The pounding, dramatic drum booms that punctuate so many trailers.
The Button. The scare or joke that comes immediately after the Main Title Reveal and ends the trailer with a bang or laugh.
The film Independence Day was the highest-grossing film of 1996 and is a classic example of a trailer where all of these terms are put to use.
2010s – Present: Aesthetics.
Many present-day movie trailers continue to resemble “mini-movies” in structure. They check off the trailer vocabulary that became so commonplace in the era of the blockbuster, and some continue to reveal a decent chunk of the film’s plot. But there has been a recent shift to aestheticism: the favoring of mood and tone over content, dialogue, or narrative structure. Trailers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Joker, Roma, and Tenet are beautiful examples of this. They all revolve around and are edited around a dominant soundtrack– one that doesn’t necessarily relate directly to the film’s content or message but that heightens feelings that the trailer intends to invoke. The choice of clips and the way in which they are spliced together serve a comparable purpose, working together with the soundtrack to convey feelings of fear, anticipation, humor, angst, or loneliness. The 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has arguably gleaned the most admiration out of any trailer from audiences and is a perfect example of this modern aesthetic. Each clip in the trailer is cut to align with each beat from an updated version of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” effectively conveying fear, anxiety, and foreboding anticipation.
A look at the larger trends
Shorter and shorter shots. One distinguishing trend that has occurred in the trailer-making industry -and the advertisement industry in general- is a paradigm shift to shorter, more fragmented shots. Studies have shown that the average length of shots in films (and, consequently, the average length of shots in trailers) is getting shorter and shorter with each passing year. This shift is a response to the fact that modern audiences absorb information faster and have much shorter attention spans than in the past– a result of today’s steady stream of mass media and technology.
Soundtrack over voiceover. Another major trend is defined by a shift in audio: the large-scale phasing out of the voiceover in favor of a central score or soundtrack. While the voiceover is far from an obsolete tool in the larger advertising world, as it’s still used widely in other forms of video ads, the days of the “voice of God” in the trailer industry have come to a close. Nearly no trailers today include any type of voiceover. Modern trailers instead favor a soundtrack -and the sporadic use of on-screen dialogue- in the voiceover’s wake. The majority of current trailers let the films speak for themselves.
How much to reveal? Trailers have gone from flashy sneak-peaks to more stylistic and elusive works of art to mini-movies that disclose nearly all a film’s narrative structure and back again to the recent aesthetic trailer of today. They’ve fluctuated back and forth as to how much of the film to reveal to peak the audience’s interest– walking the fine line between introducing the film for those who know nothing about it to teasing the film for those who are already anticipating it. But the trend of today is edging more and more towards ambiguity. Most modern audiences simply don’t want to know the details of a film before they watch it; they only want to glean enough information to make them excited enough to begin watching. After all, if we want to know exactly what’s going to happen in a movie, we always have Google at our side. Spelling everything out in a trailer is not the necessity that it was in the past.
It’s easy to look back and laugh at the seeming simplicity and tackiness of early trailers– especially in comparison to the quick-paced, skillful editing that we are accustomed to today. How were audiences once intrigued by these pieces of advertisement?
But there is no right or wrong way to cut a trailer. Just like any other form of advertisement, the way a trailer is cut is based entirely on what the audience of the time wants. Trailers make adjustments in relation to market trends, and the market makes adjustments in relation to what people respond best to.
But if one thing is certain, it’s that the trailer industry isn’t going anywhere. The art of the trailer is here to stay.