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Why trailers are more than just advertisements

December 22, 2011

I woke up today and got pretty cross at a few things I saw flying around twitter regarding the first trailer for The Hobbit. To name names in the nicest possible way, Stuart O’Connor of Screenjabber got me wound up enough to write down why I disagree a million with the idea that trailers, as he insisted this morning, are “nothing more than an advertisement.” This is crazy, and here’s why.

It paints the film itself as some kind of sacred artistic artefact, and ignores not only the craft that goes into creating trailers, but their importance to the project as a whole.

There is an art to making good trailers. Yes, some of them are full of spoilers and brick-subtle voiceovers. But others aren’t. The trailer for Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is such a wonderfully condensed slug of everything the film aspires to be that it’s better than watching Scott Pilgrim itself. Wes Anderson’s trailers have developed a signature style as expressive of his authorship as anything in the films, and so recognisable that it’s parodied regularly. And as the Walt Disney Classics home video trailers have shown for over two decades, trailers can also be a fascinating insight into the industry’s self-expression (the way these trailers reinforce and protect the value of the Disney canon is masterful).

Then there’s the flip side of the argument. Anyone who looks down on trailers as the clumsy commercial end of an otherwise laudable creative enterprise is forgetting that films are very often just adverts themselves, for a lifestyle or a world view, or a DVD or a persistent entertainment IP. I’m not normally militant about this, but in the face of trailer snobbery it’s worth pointing out that there’s commonly no kind of cultural or emotional substance inside a film past the urge to sell other things. And I would rather watch the Scott Pilgrim trailer 60 times than anything with Ashton Kutcher in, ever.

Then, more practically, there’s the consideration of what pulling assets and resources together to create a trailer midway through a production does for the production itself. I recently visited the offices of Naughty Dog, the games developer behind Uncharted. They’d just revealed that they were working on a new IP, a post-apocalyptic drama called The Last Of Us, and had released an announcement trailer to that effect.

Speaking to the creative team behind the game, they didn’t view the trailer as a gaudy off-shoot of the project, or a piece of marketing. It was the game’s first major milestone. It was a project landmark that forced them to make creative decisions about character, story and setting that would effect the final game. It forced them to analyse which elements of the game they wanted to draw attention to, which in turn shaped the game itself. And it gave them the opportunity to shape the public’s first reaction to their new world.

The same is almost certainly true of any trailer, especially a first-look trailer, of a film in production. Music, effects and sound mixing would have been finalised on chosen sections of The Hobbit footage. Shots selected, bits of story and character interaction teased. A year ahead of release, certain sections of the film would be fast-forwarded through post-production to ready them for a public airing, in a way which would inevitable impact their final form.

Trailers don’t just shape expectation, they shape the creative product itself, and should be recognised as a full and proper part of the filmmaking whole. There are bad trailers, but then there’s no shortage of bad movies either, and I wouldn’t get very far claiming that all cinema is a juvenile crock of cock-waving bullshit just because the last thing I’d seen was The Change-Up with Ryan Fucking Reynolds.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dave Medlo permalink
    December 22, 2011 9:25 am

    I’d go one further than this and claim trailers are near perfect encapsulations of the films – in many cases their artistry and entertainment value far outstrip the feature film they’re selling.

    Trailers are the last chance a film has to be great; before the cynicism, and the critics, and the press and the creeping realisation that it’s just not as good as you were promised kicks in.

    I love watching trailers and I excitedly devout each one that is released – the only trailers I don’t watch are for the films I know I’m definitely going to see. I shall be avoiding all the Dark Knight Rises as I’d like to approach it as fresh as possible, but I’ll gladly watch the GI Joe 2 trailer multiple times – that comes with all the guilty throwaway popcorn entertainment you need, but without the disappointment and time waste of actually watching the damned thing.

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