First Impressions: Why Trailers Matter

“We don’t know where first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility.”

~Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer at The New Yorker

It could be argued that more work goes into creating the perfect trailer than the movie itself. The trailer is two minutes of introductory gold–either it blows the minds of cinephiles and gets millions of views online or it baffles the minds of cinephiles and just gets trolled.

Either way, when they are released, movie production houses discover how their movie will do at the box office in a little more than 120 seconds. Why? Because trailers matter.

They set the stage for how the movie–the life’s work of that director, producer, acting team, and crew–will be consumed. And you have just two minutes to decide if you care.

Some introduce the movie as a full eight-course meal (see recently Avengers: Endgame, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Others create a take-a-bite-and-spit-out-immediately feel (see recently Replicas, Ugly Dolls, Hellboy). Regardless of how a trailer looks like or is viewed, the objective is always to tell a storynot share amazing visual effects and character arc teases.

Will You Read This Book?

WARNING: This video is eight minutes long, but if you want to understand the business behind trailers, give it a watch. You know, after you read this post.

Anyone who sees a movie with me knows we are getting to the theater at least 20 minutes early just for the trailers. I have apps (plural) dedicated to trailers. Anyone who is minimalist should love trailers. Don’t like reading books? Watch trailers. Can’t decide what to binge? Watch a trailer.

It’s like a dating profile. If you are shallow…eh, someone who believes looks are very important, you see a person and decide to swipe. No reading the profile. Just a glance is all it takes. That’s a trailer in essence. They showcase a page of a much larger story. If you dig the trailer, you’ll “read the book.” If not, next. 

Trailers are designed to do one of three things:

Hook — Throw some bait out there hoping people will bite and make up their mind to invest $10 and go see a movie.

Line — Give a glimpse into what could be so the audience ruminates a little about the film to eventually decide to go see it.

Sinker — Solely feed what you have already determined. This is your genre, so if this trailer gives you those feels, you’re in.

The polarizing issue with trailers is they can have the completely adverse effect if they suck. A director’s vision of a movie doesn’t always translate to a trailer, and if not, there goes the box office triumph.

Case in point: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. 

Did you see this movie starring Johnny Depp? If you did, you know exactly what’s coming. The trailer is gripping. The stars are visible. Tim Burton is at it again! Of course, Johnny breaks out in a quick song, but it’s Burton. Dude always goes oddball with Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, right?

Then, you see the movie and realize… it was a damn musical. 

Domestically, it made $52 million. So, yeah, it made a profit (of $2 million) but the movie was a flop because word got out — the trailer is not the movie. So no one wanted to read (or hear) that book. Why would you? It’s like being told you won a free vacation but only if you listen to this 30-minute workshop on timeshares.

Forget it. You suck. And I’m telling everyone I know. Again, trailers matter.

Setting the Stage

This section may not be popular but it’s good for those who don’t like to read. Ready? Can you think of any great movies with terrible trailers?

Doctor Strange

Sorry, is that a sequel to Inception?! Marvel knows the nerds will flock to the movie. They really aren’t interested in you. They want the bandwagon fans. And this pissed them off.

Braveheart

What’s the most important thing missing? James Horner’s majestic score! The hell was that? The trailer looks like just another period piece and it turned out to be one the best movies of a generation.

Star Wars

Sacrilege, but did you really watch that thing? The voice over and scene editing was taken from the 1950s. I expect to see crap like that on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The future of cinema may have arrived on the Millennium Falcon but the future of trailers was behind by a few million parsecs!

But to be fair, there have been fantastic trailers for some ham-handed movies too. Talk about a bait-and-switch. How about these for example?

Suicide Squad 

Before Bohemian Rhapsody, we had this. I personally watched this trailer more than 100 times because of the music and movie. It was excellent and everything you hoped for…only it wasn’t when you saw the film.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Oh shut up. Let’s be fair. That trailer had us all geeked beyond belief. Get right to the issue with intrigue. Offer a promise of what’s to come. That amazing score. Those newish fabled characters. Mercy. Then…well, let’s just end this review now.

Prometheus

You have the Alien master back to play with the toy he created. The trailer had it all — score, graphics, story, mystery, and that build-up! See the movie? There’s a reason we haven’t been back. In a word, “Huh?!”

Telling the Future of Film

movies

From the initial tease through the production houses jacking with their logos (which is always a nice touch) to the final delivery of what to expect, trailers are completely art and science.

They are the crucial link between audience interest and box office buzz. If a trailer is trash, the movie won’t get a sniff regardless if it’s Oscar-worthy or not. In fact, why are most Oscar-caliber trailers sucky? I mean, this is the precipice of a fantastic film but all we get are glimpses of characters and mild entry to a plot that may or may not matter.

(Paul Thomas and Wes Anderson. Alejandro Inarritu. Spike Jonze. Jeremy Saulnier. Kathryn Bigelow. Sofia Coppola. We’re looking at you.)

The trailer is the appetizer to the main course. If the trailer is weak, unseasoned, or lingers on the palette in a terrible way, odds are ticket sales will reflect that experience. To continue with the culinary metaphor, there is a recipe to making a dynamic trailer. Ingredients are show us a peek with foreshadowing, capture the senses with color and light and a damn good score or soundtrack, and possibly show a big reveal.

We don’t want to jump to the dessert course one minute in. Let it sit and make for a magical experience. For the last time, trailers do matter. Make them count for your cinephile viewing too.

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