Commentators ranging from Ian Leslie at the Financial Times to Sam Thielman at the Guardian to David Carr at The New York Times have called our current era the “new golden age” of television.
“The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process,” Carr wrote in 2014, citing the nuanced storytelling and high production values of shows like Netflix’s House of Cards and HBO’s Game of Thrones.
But television isn’t the only audiovisual media experiencing a golden age. The same advances in cinematography, focus on storytelling and attention to musical choices has also led to a new standard for movie trailers.
“As a whole, the movie business is booming,” Michael Burgin writes at Paste. “And yet, the ultimate role of a trailer remains the same – to get butts into seats.” As the option to stay at home and stream movies and television has expanded, trailers have had to up their game in order to get viewers into theatres.
Many have risen to the challenge. “We like to think the Internet ushered in the dawn of the golden age of the movie trailer,” Golden Trailer Awards co-creators Evelyn Brady-Watters and Monica Brady told the Huffington Post in 2014, citing the additional options for entertainment and the shortened attention spans of the Internet as key reasons that movie trailers have improved in the 21st Century.
Here, we break down exactly how today’s movie trailers are surpassing expectations laid down by their predecessors — and why these trailers are worth our attention.
They Tell Their Own Stories, Not Just the Film’s Story
“Anybody with an editing system on their computer can take a movie and crush it down to two and a half minutes,” Buddha Jones trailer house co-founder John Long tells Fast Company. “But that wouldn’t necessarily be an artfully delivered piece. A great trailer is its own mini-story.”
Long’s recipe for a great trailer mini-story echoes that of any good story: It hooks the audience immediately, it escalates the promise of the film and it ends on a highly memorable note. But its editors also considers that their work must tell a tale in only a minute or two — and the trailer must leave audiences craving the resolution the full film promises.
The method for telling a trailer’s story, however, varies as widely as the films the trailers are meant to promote. The first “short promotional film” for an upcoming production was made in 1913 by Nils Granlund. It showed audiences actual rehearsal footage from Pleasure Seekers, a Broadway play. In essence, it told the story behind the story, according to John P. Hess at Filmmaking 360, and audiences loved it.
Audiences today see similar videos all the time, though not always as official trailer releases. Often, studios commission featurettes to give audiences behind-the-scenes glimpses into how the featured story was told. Mob Scene, for example, did a great one of these for the Netflix series Narcos.
Let’s return to classic films for a moment: The trailer for 1941’s Citizen Kane not only poked fun at the conventions of its more serious counterparts. It also mirrored the conceit of the film itself by having the film’s cast members each describe Charles Foster Kane from their own point of view, according to David Morgan of CBS Sunday News. While audiences may not have realized what they were seeing in the trailer, it certainly prepared them for the film itself.
Pleasure Seekers and Citizen Kane both featured truly groundbreaking trailers for their time — so much so that their techniques have been reinvented nearly from scratch in today’s digital world. The results have been trailers that are less afraid to stray from convention in order to tell a good story.
They Know When to Follow Conventions — and When to Break Them
There’s a formula for movie trailers, and it’s so well-known that it’s become the source of satire and parody. Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers, for instance, has racked up 6.4 million subscribers by playing on these stock elements in particular movie trailers for the delight of weekly audiences.
But in recent years, many film trailers have managed to strike a pitch-perfect balance between saying too much and not saying enough, notes Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic. Rather than packing every action scene from the film into a few seconds, these trailers have told just enough of the story to make audiences want to see more.
For instance, the trailer for Silver Linings Playbook stuck closely to the film’s original three-act structure, which makes sense for a movie driven strongly by its narrative, trailer specialist Bill Woolery tells the New York Times. By contrast, Stephen Garrett of Jump Cut notes the trailer for Lincoln eschews a chronological approach in favor of creating a mood and tone establishing Lincoln as a statesman and the film as a serious consideration of his life.
Sometimes, too, a trailer knows how to play with the genre itself. Take Rogue Planet AV’s trailer for 2018’s Bumblebee. The first 58 seconds of the trailer depict a teenager driving around in her first car, a yellow VW Beetle. At first blush, this looks like a typical coming-of-age film. And to be fair, it is, albeit with giant fighting robots. The reveal comes more than a third of the way into the trailer when Bumblebee’s eyes light up. Anyone familiar with the Transformers series will recognize immediately that this has all of a sudden become a trailer for an altogether different film.
They Know How to Use Music and Silence
Britta Archer at Synectics Media cites 2017’s Kuso as an example of a movie trailer that uses thoughtfully chosen music (here, by Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus) to carry the film’s “creepy, weird, unsettling, and original” feel throughout a trailer. Without that feel, the trailer might have been difficult to even understand. Are we meant to see Kuso as horror, comedy or both? The backing track points toward “both” and promises a wild ride different from any summer franchise reboot.
Similarly, in 2009’s Watchmen trailer, the creators had to introduce a complex story to audiences completely unfamiliar with the dark comic series from which the film originated. Setting the trailer’s scenes first to “Prophecies” by Philip Glass and then “Take A Bow” by Muse — paused at key points to emphasize a visual moment and build tension — allowed audiences who knew the song but not the move to better understand the film’s storyline, as Film Shortage points out.
Yet in some cases, the best music is no music at all. Aaron Gleason at The Federalist praises 1979’s Alien as “the most perfect trailer ever cut” for its absence of words or music leading into its now-iconic tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Creating aural tension is ideal for films that rely on that edge-of-your-seat feel, but many audiences love the familiar, too. “I’m all for the obvious tricks of trailers, especially the ‘big triumphant song’ part, which is why I’m never late to a movie,” AV Club staff member Becca James wrote in 2015.
A good recent example of this tension can be seen in Seismic Productions’ trailer for Chappaquiddick. Although the trailer is bookended with music and paced by sound effects, it’s the silence throughout that builds the tension for viewers.
They Know When to Use Popular Songs and When to Use New Music
Matching a song to a trailer is a very precise art.
Rob Harvilla tested this exhaustively in a 2018 article on The Ringer. Harvilla went through dozens of trailers for 2016’s Suicide Squad, each with a different pop song to soundtrack the visuals. He tried out “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You Don’t Own Me,” and “Ballroom Blitz,” all of which fell flat. The lesson, he reported, is when music becomes a gimmick instead of the driving force of the trailer, the trailer itself misses its shot at glory.
That’s why Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” worked so well in the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok. “It’s a thrilling exemplar of The Drop, when the sounds and the images (which in this case includes the Marvel Studios logo) crest simultaneously,” Harvilla wrote.
Currently, one of the most popular musical choices in movie trailers is a slowed-down cover of a pop song, according to The Concourse’s Tom Ley. Often performed acoustically and in a minor key, these songs create tension through the juxtaposition of the familiar pop lyrics and the unfamiliar tempo, instrumentation and key — placing audiences on the edge of their seats for a piece they recognize, yet don’t.
Creative Advertising’s trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse is a great example of this tactic. Halfway through the trailer, you hear a slowed-down version of Coldplay’s “Beautiful World” enter the soundscape. The opening lines of the song (“Bones sinking like stones / All that we’ve fought for”) are immediately recognizable, but not immediately easy to place amid the sounds of punches thrown and rockets launched.
The ability to use music effectively has improved alongside the development of more effective visual editing and storytelling. A 2014 list of “The 30 Best Songs for Movie Trailers” from Consequence of Sound leans heavily on trailers created after 1999.
“That’s largely due to the evolution of the movie trailer itself,” say the CoS authors. “In some respects, they’re short films … and that’s mostly because they have a stellar song championing the visuals.”
The golden age of movie trailers isn’t just about visual storytelling. It relies on music, as well. And it’s that marriage that makes today’s trailers so compelling.
Images by: Jake Hills, 279photo/©123RF Stock Photo, mediavn/©123RF Stock Photo