Wednesday, February 20, 2008

They don't make trailers like they used to

A few days ago I posted a short blog about my reaction to the new Indiana Jones teaser trailer. Since then a newer "version" of the trailer has been brought to my attention by Ted Pigeon of Cinematic Art in his piece Indiana Jones and the Trailer of Digital Nostalgia. This version has taken most of the footage from the real trailer and re-edited it in the style of a 1980's trailer. Here is the "old school-style" trailer:

Ted's observations about the difference between these two trailers, and which one is more "effective" in capturing the spirit and aesthetic of the original movies, has gotten me thinking about a few things. First of all, Ted's piece reminded me of another fan-made trailer I once stumbled upon which was produced well before any footage of Indy IV was released. In fact, given that the trailer promotes it as Indiana Jones and the City of Gods, it's clear that it was created before the movie's official title was even revealed. When I first saw this on youtube, I actually thought (for about half of it) that it was the REAL teaser because it's almost exactly how I imagined the teaser would look (shots of a bullwhip, a gun, etc). When I finally saw the official one, I was mainly just pleased that we got to see any new footage at all. Bizarrely, though, this teaser still manages to (for the most part) work for me.

While it eventually becomes obvious that this is a fan-made trailer employing only amatuer footage (those are clearly not Harrison Ford's hands), the mere fact that this so closely resembles a professional-looking trailer could be seen either as a testament to the creativity of these young filmmakers or an indictment of the movie marketing industry as a whole. It's almost as if they're saying: "Hey, we know how you guys get us to WANT to see a movie. We understand the tecchnique for selling a product: the tricks, the 'formula,' etc. So, here's what we realize your teaser trailer is going to look like. We're just gonna do it first." They even predict (with eerie accuracy) the shot of Indy picking up his signature fedora, dusting it off and placing it on his head. Granted, Spielberg's staging includes a more artistic "Michael Curtiz-style" shadow of Indy donning his hat, but the idea behind both is exactly the same and it clearly didn't take a genius to think of it.

Secondly, as someone who has always been interested in movie publicity (particularly posters and trailers), it has long been apparent to me that trailers look, sound and just plain feel different than they used to. I realize, of course, that this is not news to anybody, but Ted's piece made me realize that while the primary intent of trailers is (as it always has been) to promote the films they represent, they really do function differently in our culture than they used to. We, as moviegoers, seem to perceive trailers and their significance quite differently than we did 20 or 30 years ago (let alone 50 or 60 years ago). Ted makes an excellent point about the release of trailers themselves now being "events." In 1989, I heard stories about people buying tickets to whatever movie they heard would feature the Batman trailer beforehand and then walking out before the movie itself had even started (apparently folks did the same thing up until as recently as the Phantom Menace trailer). I happened to catch the Batman trailer on the big screen as well, but in my case it was purely by accident. Thus, I didn't leave the theatre after the trailer finished because it played before a movie that I actually wanted to see (although interestingly, and probably significantly, I don't recall what film that was). Here is the trailer I saw as an adolescent:

I also remember that when I was working at the video store in high school, one of my favorite practices was to stick in a copy of the latest release and see which trailers were at the beginning of the tape. Of course, in the digital age, when trailers are available for free on the internet, such behaviors are unneccessary and unheard of, but they nevertheless clearly demonstrate a shift in the way people approach trailers (particularly trailers for big "event" movies which audiences are so eagerly excited to see). Nowadays the trailers are anticipated with as much fervor as the films themselves. I don't know that anyone could've ever predicted that trailers would, like movies, have actual "release dates." In a documentary on the special edition Batman DVD, excitment that surrounding the film's trailer in 1989 is discussed and Kevin Smith makes an excellent point. He says that it really could've been just a guy walking out and writing Batman on a chalkboard and everybody would've still freaked out. In point of fact, the teaser for the upcoming Dark Knight movie is little more than that.

In a way, films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Dark Knight don't even need trailers. As continuations of incredibly successful movie franchises they more or less of "sell" themselves (anyone who has seen the teaser trailer for J.J. Abrams' reinvention of the Star Trek series knows exactly what I'm talking about). So, one can't help but wonder then how we arrived at this place. How did we get to a point where our teasers are essentially just the title of the film appearing on screen with music behind it? Where we consider ourselves "lucky" if we get to see actual footage from the movie itself? Where hordes of people scrutinize every millisecond of a trailer rather than simply getting a general "impression" of the film it promotes? Where anyone can make a trailer that is just as good (and sometimes even better) than what the professionals are putting out?

I'm not sure, but it's worth thinking about and discussing. I suspect that in the coming days I will continue to pontificate on the ever-changing nature of trailers and share my ramblings here. I may even take the opportunity to mention one or two of my favorite (as well as some of my least favorite) trailers and what makes them so. Through the process, a topic that will no doubt be broached (as it was in the comments section of Ted's post) is whether a trailer can be a work of art or not. This question will, of course, be a divisive one (just as Ebert sparked a huge discussion about video games with his assertion that they're not art) because it inherently leads to the more fundamental question of "What is art?" and we all have different ideas on that. I'm not sure I've satisfactorily answered that question for myself yet, but I will say that I am currently leaning toward the perspective that movie trailers (as well as posters and just about any aspect of movie marketing) are art... or at least, they can be. Granted, perhaps the majority of the time they're not, but just as I think a TV commercial or a music video can be a work of art, so can a movie trailer.


Burbanked said...

You make an excellent point early on, Damian, about the fan-made INDY trailer being perhaps just as good, if not better, than a professional teaser. When one considers the explosion of "mash-up" trailers over the last few years - BROKEBACK TO THE FUTURE, SHINING and all the rest - you realize how true it is that movie fans have figured out exactly what all the conventions and clichés of movie trailers are. No one's fooling us anymore, and studio marketers have not figured out yet how to innovate their efforts in order to keep things fresh.

And that's probably because they don't want or need to do so. I've read a number of articles in the last couple of years in which movie trailer production houses increasingly say that audiences want to know exactly what they're getting when they watch an ad for an upcoming movie. They don't want hints or impressions or teases; they want to know the jokes are funny, the action is huge and they want to see the biggest dramatic moments featuring their favorite celebrities. What that means is that movie trailers now show much more of the plot's biggest moments and sequences than ever before. That, coupled with the fact that we'll now see as many as three theatrical trailers and a dozen TV spots before a movie's release - as well as "internet-only" footage, clips on talk shows and hundreds of online *spoiler!* production stills, and I'm betting that you could probably assemble about 60% of a given upcoming high-profile feature before it ever hits the theater.

I agree with you that movie trailers can be works of art, but within the context of modern-day movie marketing, I'd say that much more often they are decidedly the opposite.

Roc of the Desert said...

One of the things I always admired about pixar is that their teasers do just that -- tease the audience -- rather than give away any plot points. There have been some excellent teasers and trailers in recent years, but the percentage of good ones has gone down significantly. Most trailers now-a-days convince me that I don't really need to see the movie in question. I get really tired of the trailers shown before a movie, and often wish I could have a junk-trailer-free movie-going experience sometime in the future.

Damian said...
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Damian said...
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Damian said...


It's funny you should mention the idea that a person could conceivably assemble 60% of the movie using just the shots, images and soundbytes available from trailers, TV spots, clips from talk shows, etc. I had that exact same thought when I was much younger except I actually wondered whether or not I couldn't assemble the entire film.

Also, your comment that audiences want to know exactly what they're getting when they see a movie trailer is absolutely correct. Nowadays people essentially want the entire movie boiled down into 2 minutes. As someone who likes to be surprised, however, I find this frustrating because I often feel like I don't even need to see the actual movie since I'd just be getting a longer version of the trailer.


I remember seeing the teasers for Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. and I thought they were both cute. Around the time The Incredibles teaser was released, though, they all began to feel more or less the same to me (variations on the main character in one single environment talking either to the audience or to another character) and when I saw the Ratatouille teaser, despite its starting out differently, it eventually fell back on that same formula.

You are correct, though, in that they do a good job of teasing the audience because they never give away any major plot points. They merely communicate the essential premise of the story. They also contain no actual footage from the film but original footage created exclusively for the teaser.

(P.S. It took me three tries to get this message right. hence, the other two deleted ones.)

Megan said...

I almost prefer Will Ferrell's method of introducing the character obliquely (if Will could ever be oblique) by doing straight-up-in-character-commericals for beer and deoderant. At least he knows that you know. I won't be paying any money to see Semi-Pro, but I have to applaud the marketing strategy...

Piper said...

Two of my favorite trailers have been for the American version of The Ring where it didn't say anything, it just showed the visuals that you saw on the tape. It was excellent.

And I loved the trailer for Fight Club. It showed visuals from the movie, but then had a very gruff announcer in effect reading the MPAA warning saying why it was rated R.

There was also a pretty good trailer from Escape From LA that played off the movie theater PSAs saying that there was no talking and no smoking and then it went on to say that there was no eating red meat, etc.

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