10 secrets about movie trailers – from the people who make them

How spoilers accidentally end up in trailers, the real reason the gruff voiceover died out and why most film trailers are never released

Youtube screengrabs, TL

In a world of Hollywood hype, a time of monthly blockbusters, humanity now faces one inescapable entity: the movie trailer.

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And it’s getting stronger. Remember when the much-hyped Avengers: Age of Ultron sneak peek dropped in 2014 and picked up an unprecedented 35 million views in a single day? That record has been broken 20 times since. And it’s been broken by the likes of The Incredible 2 teaser trailer – a 53-second video showcasing at most one shot from the movie.

Now, three and a half years after the Ultron trailer held its seemingly unassailable record, The Avengers: Infinity War primer (see below) now wears the trailer crown, with its first glimpse racking up 230 million views in 24 hours. That’s over twice the number of views of every single video on Youtube combined on a day in 2006.

Yet, here’s the thing: for all we watch trailers, we don’t know an awful lot about them. Are directors asked to film scenes specifically for the trailer? How much of the film is made before the trailer is put together? And why are some of them loaded with some pretty heavy spoilers?

So, to find out the secrets of the movie trailer, we spoke to the people who have crafted them for some of the biggest films over the past 25 years, from Pulp Fiction to Black Panther, to Jurassic Park to La La Land. And luckily for you, they gave us plenty of surprising insights.

Starting with…

1. Filmmakers almost never edit the trailer

Direct a movie and it’s very unlikely yourself, your editor or even your studio will cut its promo film. The people actually behind that? Contractors from the 10 specialised ad agencies based in London or the 100 in the US.

But why? What reason would you have to take your movie to an external company? Surely it’s easier – not to mention a whole lot cheaper – to get the people who actually made the film to create a two-minute preview, right?

It’s not that simple. You see, generally filmmakers know they’re not great at marketing. They’re not people who want to reduce down their beloved project to its genre and bankable stars then package that up to a specified target audience.

“[Filmmakers] are brilliant at making a narrative movie – fantastic at it – but they need somebody else to make a short form of their film with a marketing eye – somebody who knows what’s going to attract people,” explains Suneil Beri, managing director of film marketing company Create Advertising, the folks behind the trailers for Baby Driver, Black Panther, Spider-man: Homecoming and Coco.

“We’re on the edge of the film industry, a place in a movie’s life where it goes from a piece of art to a business proposition. You’re balancing a creative eye with business sensibility. Sometimes trailers are created that are stunning pieces of art, but they haven’t assured potential moviegoers of the film’s genre or that they’re going to be engaged in its narrative. And that’s our job.”

This isn’t to say that filmmakers don’t have a say at all. Although the actual trailer is usually down to a small team (an editor, copyrighter, music supervisor and producer), often the director of the movie is involved in discussions.

“David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky are people just like that – filmmakers who certainly think about their trailers and what direction they’ll take,” says David Hughes, head of trailer house Synchronicity II and producer of the trailers for Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction and more.

“Often it’s a collaborative process – one that can take 18 months. The days when you took a trailer to a studio and say ‘what do you think guys?’ are long gone.”

2. You won’t see most of the trailers made for a film

Here’s the other reason a movie studio will hire out an external agency: they can hire out more than one at a time. This means that instead of getting creative input from one set of people, the studio can source ideas from myriad teams. Often four or five different agencies will make their own trailers for a movie, competing against each other to get a blockbuster advertising contract.

And the trailers that don’t get picked up? Well, they’re left on the cutting room floor. “It happens more often than you think,” says Beri. “There are times where an agency will spend a year on a campaign and cutting different versions of different trailers only for another agency to get the end job. It can be a tough game in that sense. It’s not all unpaid work, but you lose out on that pedigree.”

“There’s a real sense of competition among the agencies,” agrees Hughes. “You get agencies that are hot for a little while because they got work on a big film, but it comes in waves. Sometimes you’re at the top, sometimes you’re at the bottom.”

3. Yes, editors hate those trailer tropes too

Remember that time when almost all film trailers started with an atmospheric piano note? Or that Inception-style horn? Or a moody remake of a popular song? Trailer editors have spotted all these clichés too – and they are as annoyed by them as you.

“The fades – those get to me a lot,” admits Hughes. “A few are okay, but people who don’t know about trailers tend to put in a lot of them. It just looks like your eyes are slowly closing again and again.”

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo: the ultimate fade trailer, dipping to black 15 times in 60 seconds.

So, here comes the obvious question: if editors hate these clichés so much then why use them? “There are thousands of films out there with several trailers for each, so not every one is going to reinvent the wheel. If a trailer uses an effective technique then other editors will want to use it – it’s exactly like how movies themselves evolve,” says Hughes.

And sometimes piggybacking on an emerging trope might not be down to the editor, but the studio themselves. “Occasionally there’s a trailer that works and does really well and it leads to execs saying ‘I want a trailer just like that!’” says Beri.

However, there’s another answer to the question: some tropes are simply too effective to drop.

Take, ‘the button’ for instance. That’s the part of the trailer that’s served up after the title card at the end – the bit with an extra joke or something to give the trailer more “spice”, as Hughes puts it.

It’s the bantering between Hulk and Thor at the end of this Ragnorak trailer…

…or this Eddie Redmayne tumbling gag at the close of the Early Man one…

These final stings are used almost universally because test audiences react positively towards them. The buttons serve viewers a strong final flavour of the film to take away and suggest there’s so much packed into the movie that the trailer couldn’t possibly fit in all the best footage before the title card.

So, until this technique fails to push the test audience’s button, it’s set to stay.

4. One trailer may have killed off the voiceover trope

Perhaps the biggest trailer cliché of all is, of course, over-dramatic narration from a sandpaper-throated man. Specifically, a man called Donald Leroy LaFontaine who turned his thunder throat to over 5,000 trailers over his career.

Don La Fontaine in 2005 (Getty, TL)
Don LaFontaine in 2005 (Getty, TL)

However, you’re probably aware it’s a past cliché, something that nowadays you’re more likely to see in a parody trailer than the genuine article.

Why? Some might point to the obvious answer that LaFontaine himself sadly passed away aged 68 in 2008. However, this explanation forgets something revolutionary that happened in 2002: Comedian.

The fourth-wall-breaking trailer for this Jerry Seinfeld documentary featured esteemed voiceover artist Hal Douglas taking the mickey out of himself and his entire profession. It sees Douglas on air in his voiceover booth, trying – and fantastically failing – to come up with an opening narration outside the realm of “in a world…”

“It was great and ground-breaking,” says Hughes. “It shone a light on the inherent ridiculousness of that style – how silly it was. And it rapidly declined after that.”

Decline it did: in 2000 and 2001, six of the year’s highest grossing films were marketed with trailers featuring gruff voiceovers. But this suddenly dropped to three out of 10 films in 2003 and only two in 2004. And last year? Not a single one of the top 10 films in 2017 used any form of voice artist in their main trailers.

Sure, voiceovers are still used in trailers for kids. Frozen, Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda 3, The Boss Baby – they’re all wrapped in gravelly tones to better explain the plot to their young audiences. But, besides these exceptions, the rumbling voiceover is now virtually extinct.

Not that it’s a great shame for trailer makers. “I don’t miss it!” laughs Hughes. “They always came with a massive bill – they would get a few thousand dollars for 10 words!”

5. Sometimes a trailer editor will stand in for an actor

Well, presuming that editor is David Hughes. “There are one or two trailers out there at the moment that have my voice in, imitating an actor,” he says. “It’s me doing an impression of somebody because I didn’t have the time to get them in.”

And this isn’t just something Hughes has done recently – he says there are several trailers through the years where’s he’s needed to reword a line that will work better in a trailer.

“For instance, there’s a trailer out there where a character counts down from 10 with a gun to somebody’s head, but in the film he gets a phone call and picks up halfway through. But in the trailer I wanted him to finish the countdown. I couldn’t get the actor in so I finished off the countdown myself,” reveals Hughes.

Which trailer is he referring to? He wouldn’t say. And, at the time of writing, we’re yet to uncover it. However, we do know that you’ve probably heard his voice before. You know all those promotional ads for Odeon? Not only does Hughes edit a lot of them, but he also lends them his voice…

6. No, filmmakers don’t shoot scenes just for the trailer

Think about that shot of Jyn Erso taking on a Tie Fighter in the Rogue One trailer, or the Joker’s “I can’t wait to show you my toys” line from Suicide Squad’s. Both great moments, but scenes that were cut from the final movie. So were they only filmed with the trailer in mind?

Probably not. “The reason that happens is not a cynical approach of ‘let’s just use this in the campaign and not put it in the movie’. It’s because decisions about the marketing material might be made before the film’s final edit is made,” says Beri.

Hughes agrees: “Nobody involved in the actual making of the film is going to be thinking ‘oh, what do we need for the trailer?’. Shooting a film is such a ridiculously expensive and complex thing that that’s a factor they often don’t think of – that can be left to the agency.

“I have seen situations where filmmakers have said ‘let’s shoot these scenes first if we can’ and that footage is then used in the trailer. But it’s incidental. Those shots won’t be for the explicit benefit of the trailer – they’ll be got out the way quick so the visual effects guys can start their work as soon as possible. It just happens that the big explosive VFX shots are likely to be used in the trailer too.”

7. Trailers are made long before the film is finished

In fact, thanks to delays in visual effects or general post-production, editors might have to make a trailer from 20 minutes worth of finished film.

“It’s like squeezing a lemon to fill a pint glass,” says Hughes. “When you’re dealing with hardly any footage it can be a great challenge for the creative mind.”

For some movies you’re lucky to even have a lemon to squeeze, according to Beri: “In animation projects, you can be working on a trailer with just pencil sketches – you’re preparing for these big moments without actually seeing them. Alice in Wonderland was a movie that existed in green screen for a long time. And that can be, well, let’s say, a bit of a challenge.

“The first stage of making a trailer sees an editor categorise all the shots from the film – the reaction shots, all the scale shots, all the actor shots and potential ID shots. If you’ve got no actual footage you might have to build up this database with pen and paper.”

But there is a harder challenge for editors: sometimes they’ll have to create a film trailer with no footage at all. Such special circumstances call for a sizzle reel, a Frankenstein trailer made from shots from other movies.

“Sometimes there might be a film at script stage that is looking for a distributor, so we’ll make a sizzle reel for that, showing potential distributors how they’d market the film,” explains Beri.

And, as weird as they sound, these hybrid trailers can certainly be effective. In a few short minutes, sizzle reels can convey the tone of the film while – if the editor sources their shots correctly – subtly reminding studios of the box office success of similar films.

There’s just a small caveat with these kind of trailers: they make absolutely no sense.

8. Spoilers can accidentally end up in the trailer

Some spoilers are understandable: for instance, you were probably much more likely to pay for a ticket to Thor: Ragnorak after seeing the God of Thunder battling The Hulk in the first teaser. Others, less understandable.

For example, why did Terminator: Genisys’ trailer give away the movie’s only twist (that John Connor has been compromised by the machines, a spoiler director Alan Taylor was not happy about)? Why did we have to know Spider-Man was going to appear in Captain America: Civil War? And why did the Alien: Covenant trailer give away, well, everything?

Sometimes, it’s for the exact reason you’re thinking. “Those unforgivable trailers out there are normally from a distribution house that doesn’t have enough nerve to show enough of a film to whet your appetite,” says Hughes. “There’s a real fear of not getting a good opening weekend, especially in the US when the first days after release are everything. This could leave you to pile in everything in the trailer.”

However, even if a studio is committed to saving their secrets for the silver screen, surprises can still be blown unintentionally. “Often you can accidentally put in a spoiler because you simply don’t know it’s one,” says Hughes.

“For instance, a trailing house might be asked to hold out until the last thing on a Friday night when the studio will send in this amazing shot of a ship crashing or whatever and they want to use in the trailer [think of the exploding Juggernaut shots in the Prometheus ad]. You’ll think it looks amazing, so it goes in. And then when you see the film you realise it’s ‘Oh god, no! It’s revealing a pivotal part of the plot just before it happens!

“Because trailing houses often work on a film without seeing it, spoilers accidentally happen if you combine dumb luck with a lack of visual effects shots.”

However, sometimes spoilers are dropped deliberately – and justifiably so. Take Evelyn. This 2003 flick follows Pierce Brosnan as he battles the Irish courts to gain custody of his children – and the trailer gives away the ending.

“I put in the shot of Pierce Brosnan reuniting with his daughter – that’s the very end of the film. But the target market of that movie was my mum and she wouldn’t go and see that film unless she knew in advance it had a happy ending,” explains Hughes.

“Sometimes people are more into the journey than the destination. Think Titanic or Apollo 13 – we already know where it will end but we still wanted to watch those films.”

9. Film trailers are tested. A lot.

Most people know that big blockbusters are extensively test screened and changed accordingly. In fact, test screenings are the reason why Dodgeball was changed from a sad to happy ending and why James Bond film Licence to Kill wasn’t called Licence Revoked (US test audiences thought the movie was about 007 facing a driving ban).

Well, despite only a tiny percentage of the feature film’s runtime, trailers will undergo similar rigorous testing.

It happens in two stages. Firstly, the trailer is shown in special online screenings to collect basic feedback (essentially whether audiences liked it or not). And secondly comes the real test: a series of focus groups where five to 20 people from the movie’s target audience meet to discuss the trailer in detail.

How many of these test screening groups go ahead? It depends. “The bigger the movie and the more money pumped into it then the higher the stakes, so they test a lot. Particularly if they’re trying to hit the four key demographics,” says Beri.

And those four key demographics are: males over 25, females over 25, males under 25 and – you guessed it – females under 25. “If it’s a big tentpole superhero film, for instance, the studio is trying to hit all demographics and it’s what’s known as a four-quadrant movie,” explains Beri.

This means that despite hints from Ron Howard that the Han Solo trailer was put together just before its release, such a blockbuster movie would likely have its trailer extensively tested and streams of data would have been collected to tell the studio exactly which shots responded best with which quadrants.

In other words, it’s almost impossible for the editors to score a miss with such trailers – they’re effectively bowling with the gutter guards up.

Yet, however useful they are, however much they can predict how audiences will react on a second-by-second basis, test screenings aren’t always too popular with trailer agencies. “I wouldn’t say they’re the enemy, but picture that you’re slaving away on 50 versions of a trailer for six months and then it’s screened to a bunch of 16-year-olds who say they hate it,” jokes Beri.

And people like Beri are aware that film focus groups can often get things, well, plain wrong. For instance, 1995 film Se7en’s suitably dark ending – [SPOILERS AHOY] where Brad Pitt discovers his dead wife’s head in a box – was received terribly by first test audiences. In fact, the only reason the now critically-acclaimed denouement wasn’t altered is because Pitt’s contract demanded the film’s close had to be the same as in the original script.

“When a film or trailer breaks convention, it often doesn’t do well at testing phase,” says Beri. “I was at Fox when they released Devil Wears Prada and on a purely numerical basis with trailer focus groups, we weren’t sure it was going to be a success [it ended up making $325 million worldwide].

“Ultimately testing can often push you to a conventional and unsatisfying place. For instance, when you see a trailer where all the jokes are in there then that’s often because a film has been rigorously tested and they’ve just put in what everyone likes.”

10. Technology has changed trailers – but not as much as you think

Here’s a shock: most people don’t expand a trailer to full screen when they watch it online. Okay, that’s probably not a surprise to, well, anyone, but this fact of the internet age has revolutionised how film trailers are thought of.

How? First, the obvious: the text in online trailers is comparatively bigger than a cinema trailer so you can read it on a smaller screen. Second, and far more importantly: trailers now have to craft thumb-stopping moments – something that will make you pay more attention to it than anything else on the screen. Essentially it means putting an explosive teaser at the start of the trailer to hook in a distractible audience (see in the Venom trailer below).

A simple change, maybe, but for the film-loving trailers editors – people who chose to work in the movie business – it’s torn their connection to the cinema. “Certainly among old school trailer makers like myself, there’s a feeling that you want to make a trailer for the big screen. You want to work for as big a canvas as possible. You want to pretend that the audience is seeing it on the cinema screen,” says Hughes.

“But the reality check is that it isn’t and you need to make changes for online.  That’s why it’s quite common to see a trailer structured for the cinema on YouTube or Facebook, but with five seconds of grabby stuff up front to get your attention.”

Sounds ominous, right? As the old guard of trailer makers fall away, could we end up with solely attention-grabbing trailers, not five seconds but a few minutes long? Will there be so much emphasis on online trailers that their format becomes standard? Will we soon have to endure an exhausting string of high-tempo teasers in the cinema?

Perhaps. But what if trailers moved in a completely other direction? What if virtual reality trailers began to rival conventional adverts?

Think about it: a VR advert can provide an experience the audience will remember and maybe discuss with others. And such trailers can essentially serve up a taste of the film without giving too much away. The perfect way to entice an audience, right?

For instance, this VR trailer for Stephen King’s IT does a lot the conventional trailer does – establishes the horror genre, villain and even the 1980s setting – but keeps spoilers to a minimum. With a VR headset, you can spend minutes deep in the world of the film without seeing any actual footage.

So, is the trailer as we know it about to drastically change? “At the moment [VR trailers] feel a little like publicity stunts. They’ll only take off as much as VR takes off and become mainstream only if VR becomes mainstream,” says Bari. “It’s just a question of distribution. It could be that soon there will be a VR booth in cinema lobbies, but I can’t see it replacing the conventional trailer.

“Trailers might change a bit, but they’re not going away anytime soon.”

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This article was originally published on Febuary 14