Welcome to The Art of the Trailer, a (hopefully) regular piece that breaks down the good and the bad of a studio's decisions when selling their movie or TV show to an audience.
Trailers have evolved over the years. Voice over is out, so picking the right visuals and audio from the film becomes increasingly important. Studios are also banking heavily on the quality of a trailer to determine the success of their film or TV show. If an audience is seeing a film in theaters, they're likely going to see five or six 3-minute-long trailers, you damn well better make sure yours is the best so they'll remember it three hours later.
A few weeks back, a trailer was released for the film Cargo starring Martin Freeman. An expansion to the short film of the same name, Cargo tells the story of a man tasked with finding a safe haven for his infant in a zombie-infested Australia. The trailer was released before the film was acquired by Netflix, and was presumably cut in-house by Umbrella Entertainment.
This version isn't bad, but it's not ideal. We're shown an awful lot that audiences don't need to see which could otherwise make for a pleasant surprise upon viewing. The opening with his wife becoming infected, biting him, and leaving him with their daughter is mostly unnecessary while we're told twice "After you're infected you have 48 hours before you turn." We're shown the "Clever Man" the boy speaks of a few times (played by David Gulpilil, always a welcome sight since I first saw his work in The Proposition), leading the audience to know that Martin Freeman does, in fact, find him. Then there's the overly-ernest music, with no less than 8 dramatic swells using the same musical cue. Some of what's shown is fine, the image of the soldier with his head buried in the sand is extraordinary.
Now watch the version Netflix just released after the acquisition.
First you might notice is the runtime; Netflix's trailer is 2:13 while the original is 2:44, definitely some fat-trimming there. But even without the shorter runtime the original feels like it's much, much longer than it actually is, likely due to how many times it stops the action to show a plot point, as if they have any time to actually slow things down and build tension (spoiler, you almost never have that kind of time in a trailer). The trailer focuses less on Freeman's struggle with his change and his destination and more on the danger surrounding him on all sides, all while only suggesting once that he's been bitten and is doomed unless he finds a cure. The entire setup with his wife has also been scrubbed, instead devoting more time to the world around Freeman and his daughter. Another big change is the relationship between him and the young boy he teams up with. The original suggests that the kid's father has become a zombie and subsequently killed (and maybe Freeman is around to witness it?), so Freeman throws him a bone and offers him to tag along. The Netflix trailer instead shows Freeman saving the boy from a group of murdering humans, establishing a more dynamic relationship between the two of them.
It's normal for a film or TV show to come out with several trailers before its release, but it's rare and fascinating to see a trailer released for the same film by two different studios. It really goes to show you how effective a trailer can be and how differently a story can be told based on what you choose to show and how you choose to show it.
MAKING A BAD MOVIE BETTER.
Your film can be a steaming pile of garbage, but if your trailer is good enough the audience will never know. Take, for instance, the critically panned Battle: Los Angeles.
Though overly done these days, the surreal cover of a classic song combined with stark war imagery is staggeringly effective, especially without hearing a word of dialogue from the film. I remember seeing this trailer and thinking "Wow, this is 'Platoon' with aliens!" Then it came out and was revealed to be an absolute turd; the reason they didn't have a word of dialogue or any plot details other than the invasion was because they knew it was garbage and they'd never in a million years sell it on the plot or characters. As much as the movie stunk, I'd gladly acknowledge that it had one of the best trailers of the year.
MAKING A GOOD MOVIE DIFFERENT.
When the first trailer for Drive dropped, we were shown an image of a smoldering Ryan Gosling racing around Los Angeles, doing what he does best: he drives. Audiences around the world saw it and thought "oh snap, it's like a moodier Fast & the Furious!"
Gosling's on the run and everyone's trying to kill him when a robbery goes wrong. The trailer is technically not wrong, that is what happens in the movie, but when the film came out audiences were not shown a moodier Fast & the Furious, they got a mostly quiet, introspective rumination on what it means to be a good person who does bad things. Yes, there was driving, but roughly 4 scenes of it. And based on the reaction after the movie came out, people did indeed feel they had been duped into seeing something other than what was advertised.
It didn't really matter that critics loved this movie, proudly shown off by a solid 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences didn't want artful, poetic introspection, they wanted to see Gosling put a hammer through a dude's skull.
MAKING A GOOD MOVIE BETTER
Though it seems a no-brainer, it's not enough to make a good movie. A trailer can still make or break the excitement that leads up to its release. When Christopher Nolan's Interstellar was announced and the first vague plot details were released, I was already hooked, but nothing could have prepared me for the first trailer.
This trailer made me tear up in only a few minutes, and even now, years after its release, I still get goosebumps when I see it. What's more incredible is almost everything you're seeing is from the first act. You're brought into a world that is dying and shown a man who must sacrifice his relationship with his children in order to save them. The trailer sells the movie's bigger picture without even showing it, but by suggesting exactly where it will go.
SAVING YOU THE TIME YOU'RE ABOUT TO WASTE
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a trailer I was bestowed upon while I was in a theater earlier this weekend. Adrift is the classic story of boy meets girl, boy gets an opportunity to sail around the ocean, girl goes with boy, there's a storm, they are in trouble, and then they're saved. But don't take my word for it.
It's nice of them to save anyone from going to see this by showing the entire film in the trailer. Yes, I'm sure there are some things they're leaving out (I'll eat my hat if Sam Claflin doesn't die just when they spot land), but there's not much left to the imagination here. I've noticed trailers doing this more and more often, but I imagine it's the same phenomenon as when you buy a new car or article of clothing and suddenly start seeing it everywhere.
JUST MAKING A DAMN GOOD TRAILER
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher split audiences and critics, and I don't blame anyone for being a bit indifferent with it. It's a strange movie, breaking most conventions by adapting a 5-act structure and leaving things hanging when we all assumed there would be two more films out there, but it certainly still has its following. What did not split audiences was the first trailer, which is, to date, one of my favorite trailers of all time.
I simply cannot get over this trailer. The cover of Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rex featuring Karen O is phenomenally well utilized and mixed to throw the viewer into the chaos which is this film. The trailer never even overtly says what the plot of the movie is, who the protagonist is, or what the stakes are, all you know is that everybody is in danger and it's all coming down to this one singular location. Most viewers probably already knew about the novel or the original film trilogy, but I hadn't seen a thing before this trailer and I couldn't believe how badly I wanted to see it.
I wouldn't be the first to make the case for an Oscar for Best Trailer, but I don't think it can be stated emphatically enough. Whether or not the end result is actually a good film, a trailer is an art form all its own and deserves the recognition its due. Besides, if an absolute garbage pile of a movie like Suicide Squad can get an Oscar for best makeup, I think it's time to consider trailers as well.
And now, I will leave you with one of the most baffling trailers of all time: Zardoz. Yes, that's Sean Connery in red underwear.