Are Movie Trailers Evolving?

Movie trailers, like all advertising, have progressed dramatically in my lifetime. In the late seventies and eighties the focus was on synopsis. A deep-voiced narrator would describe the movie over straight, descriptive cuts. He’d let us know who produced, directed and starred in it. Before the Internet you saw trailers once, in the theater (or drive-in), and were likely distracted when you did. Trailers were about transfer of information. Here’s the original 1976 trailer for Star Wars [IMDB]:

In the eighties and early nineties trailers became more streamlined and, for better or worse, more homogenous. Production particulars were relegated to title cards. Narration was still the rule, but had evolved and was dominated by the work of Don LaFontaine [Wikipedia]. Known as the “In a world guy”, his trailers became cliche precisely because they were so effective. Here’s 1992’s Batman Returns [IMDB]:

In the late nineties and through the new century the Internet changed the landscape. Audiences enjoyed on-demand access to trailers and could, and would, dissect and analyze them endlessly. This new era relied less on narration, although it was still prevalent, and more on quick cuts from the film and sudden tone changes. It was also an era where spoilers became something of an epidemic. As an example, here’s 2007’s Superbad [IMDB] giving away at least seven of its 10 best gags:

In the past decade trailers have consolidated, creatively, even further. The majority rely on a small, specific collection of signature elements used in identical ways. Narration has become rare; replaced with isolate lines from the film. The same sound effects (the “foghorn”), poses (looking up and to the right), quick cut montages, audio drops to silence and video drops to black are chained together according to a rigid formula. Wanting to end on a high note, they also end by including – and therefore spoiling – the best joke, scare or line of the film. 2012’s The Avengers [IMDB] followed the formula to a T:

Trailers and TV advertisements also have a history of outright lying about a film. By carefully tailoring them to specific audiences the same movie can be presented as a wacky comedy, sweet romance or action spectacular. This genre stamping trend results in even more spoilers as each genre being courted tends to reveal different highlights. Sometimes, of course, they just plain lie. Remember when you thought Bridge to Terabithia [IMDB] was a family fantasy movie? (Spoiler: it isn’t.)

Recently, two trailers have been released that pair their visuals with nostalgic, popular music to set the pace and tone of the presentation. The standard bag of tricks isn’t ignored, of course, yet there is something that seems, if not “new”, then at least “novel”, perhaps?

The first is DC Comics super anti-hero blockbuster Suicide Squad [IMDB], due out February 12th. The trailer uses an abridged version of Queen’s sublime Bohemian Rhapsody (and deserves props for using the original recording) and twines scenes and themes of the movie to themes and tone of the music. It may be cheating to use such a beloved song, but there’s no denying that it’s an effective trailer:

The second is more impressive on many levels. A “stealth sequel” to J.J. Abrams 2008 Cloverfield [IMDB], the upcoming 10 Cloverfield Lane [IMDB] uses a cover of Ritchie Cordell’s 1967 hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now” to create a dramatic change from start to finish. Unlike Suicide Squad, which molded the trailer to fit the song, this molded the song to fit the trailer. The result is one of the most effective trailers I’ve seen in years:

This is a small thing, and I doubt an original one, yet I think it’s notable that two heavily anticipated trailers have used essentially the same technique in the same week. Only time will tell if this becomes a trend, but Hollywood has, as a rule, driven anything effective deeply into the ground.

Updated: February 4, 2016 — 8:34 pm

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