In the last few years, film previews have become viral sensations — and increasingly sophisticated works of art
Trailers have become a culture and an art form all to themselves. Being a true movie obsessive now means not only being up on films as soon as they come out, but trailers, too, and this practice has been greatly facilitated by the Internet. A certain kind of person will remember downloading the original “Phantom Menace” trailer in 1998 and then buying tickets for “Meet Joe Black” just to see it on the big screen. (Some of these people also may have worn matching T-shirts to this event and then left immediately after the 130-second clip was over.) The online release of a much-anticipated movie’s trailer has now become a major media event, as the viral frenzy last week over the trailer for Ridley Scott’s “Aliens” prequel “Prometheus” shows.
New trailers are dissected second-by-second for clues about the movie on online message boards and in fan communities across the Web. The “Titanic” rerelease — and the marketing around it — offers a rare opportunity to see directly how the trailer has evolved in the last decade and a half, along with the art of making big-budget movies.
In conversations with trailer editors, they said that the form has changed in three main ways over the last decade and a half. The first is the move from narration to title cards. By the end of the ’90s, the use of omniscient voice-over narration, which had been a feature of trailers since they began, came to seem as dated as Hypercolor shirts or wallet chains. The trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedian” did a great job parodying the cliches that had built up over time, though they didn’t use the style’s originator in the spot. (That was Don LaFontaine, who later did it anyway in a Geico spot; Don is the first hit when you Google “‘in a world’ guy.”)
Voice-over actors (who are still used for some trailers, and are almost always used for TV spots, where the audience can’t be expected to pay as much attention) have been replaced by two different devices. One is title cards: simple, straightforward slides giving you information. The other technique is to use clips from the movie to tell the story. In some cases this can be straightforward, but it can also be more abstract, as with “Prometheus.” And it’s been remarkably consistent across genres: compare the trailer for “Mrs. Doubtfire” to something like “Bridesmaids.” It’s the same basic idea, but without the narration. What you realize, watching these two, is how little the narration was really needed. Remove it from the “Doubtfire” trailer and you get the point just as well.
Oddly enough, the rerelease of “Titanic” also shows how this trend may be starting to turn back. “When you’re cutting a 3-D trailer your speed goes down massively,” said McCaughey. “You can’t do the fast Michael Bay, Tony Scott cuts. If you cut it that way in 3-D, the eyes don’t have a chance to adjust to the images in 3-D. They’re going by too fast and it just doesn’t work.”
It may be too much to hope that we really see a slowdown in cutting. (That it is premised on the survival of 3-D seems an awful sort of Sophie’s choice.) What’s clear, though, is that trailers have come into their own. Those who make them have to stay out of the spotlight, not wanting their work to overshadow the movie itself. But a careful eye will reveal some true treasures from the past decade and a half, from “Gone in 60 Seconds” (“a real game-changer,” said Smith) to “Where the Wild Things Are.” And trailers have spawned their own communities, like the forums at Movie-List.