Where were we?
Since its origin in 1912 trailers have gone through various transformations, from the first one which was conceived not for a movie, but a Broadway show; to the rise and fall of the National Screen Service, which held a monopoly of this marketing tool until the 60’s and 70’s, when auteurs took control of how trailers were edited and films were sold, closer aligning their artistic vision with the studios marketing goals.
Then came two little movies that would change everything…
THE BLOCKBUSTER ERA
Nowadays, it’s impossible to conceive a summer or holiday season without every big franchise fighting for the top box office spot which in turn means a saturation of merchandising, posters, food tie-ins, toys and, of course, trailers consuming our eyes and attention.
And it all started in 1975 with a small boat and a big shark.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws was an unmitigated success that would help set the benchmark for the current business model of what we know as “Blockbusters“. In fact, Universal studios was so sure it had a hit on their hands that it spent an unheard of (at the time) $1.8 million in marketing, which included constant appearances by the actors and director on every live morning show and an unprecedented $700,000 on national television spot advertising just three days before release.
The strategy worked. Jaws became the highest grossing film of all time.
At least for two years.
In 1977, 20th Century Fox and theater owners had such little faith in a small science fiction/fantasy film that the studio had to beg and negotiate in order for theaters to accept showings of it. In the end, the movie opened in less than 32 theaters.
As you surely know, Star Wars was a gigantic hit, quickly destroying every record set by Jaws to become the highest grossing film of all time and cementing the changes made by Spielberg’s movie on how studios saw films. More importantly, how studios marketed films.
After 1977, trailers moved to focus on the “hype”, emphasizing the spectacle, wonder, massive budgets and franchise potential, coming closer to what we’re used to seeing today in theaters through faster paced editing, catchy music (or the actual soundtrack) and over the top voice over narrations in order to entice audiences into making lines around the block to watch the newest Summer and Holiday blockbusters.
You can actually tell this difference between the trailer for the original Star Wars and its sequel (released only three years later).
It not only contains no recognizable features of a “Star Wars” film – understandable as no one even knew what a “Star Wars” was at that time – but not even the adventurous spirit, relentless pace or dazzling special effects were done justice instead going for slow music, a menacing narration and all the excitement of watching paint dry.
Now let’s take a look at The Empire Strikes Back.
Right from the start, John William’s iconic music and Harrison Ford’s awkwardly and cringe worthy voice give you an intergalactic punch right to your face with one hand and take your money with the other. Now, you had action, special effects and the “franchise” factor put front and center.
And throughout the next twenty years, studios didn’t find any reasons to mess with the formula established since the late 70’s.
These elements were amplified during the 90’s as the “In A World…” cliche was found in every single major release, to the point that it ultimately became a parody of itself.
It wasn’t until the late 90’s that auteur filmmakers like David Fincher, The Wachowskis and Quentin Tarantino looked to regain control on how their work was sold to the world, bringing back a more idiosyncratic touch to the marketing tool, losing the cheesy voice overs and star power in order to more accurately represent their movies.
While auteur driven trailers continued, big franchises saw the rise of the “epic music” which had to include BIG choirs (marketing departments/studios sure love themselves a good choir) to build into a series of fast cuts at the end during the first ten years of the new millennium. If you see it, you’ll know what I mean.
To be fair, the “epic music” trend in trailers is still very popular today but in 2010, two films would change everything… again, simultaneously reinvigorating and dooming trailers for modern audiences.
If you find yourself in a movie theater (or in front of a screen) watching recent trailers, pay close (or not even that close) attention and you’ll quickly notice most have two trends:
The first is that loud, brassy, electronic blast of sound you hear in almost every big action/adventure/science fiction/ superhero preview, otherwise known as the “Braaaams” sound effect.
Although it’s first use can be dated back to 2007’s Transformers –
It wasn’t until 2010, when Christopher Nolan’s Inception unveiled its first teaser that it truly blasted its way into the hearts of every marketing company intern pressured into delivering a trailer within 1 hour.
The sound instantly captured the audiences attention and thus, “Braaams” was born.
Studios noticed the effect this single note had and – as usual with anything that becomes popular so quickly – decided to implement it into trailer ad nauseam, having already proved to be a simple, cheap and effective trick to present their movies in an intense and bombastic fashion and lure audiences into theaters.
Even South Park joined the party by parodying the famous sound.
Now, there’s some dispute as to who actually created “Braaams“, with the film’s composer Hans Zimmer claiming he came up with it for the official soundtrack (heard below), while both the teaser’s composer Mike Zarin (seen above) and the full length trailer’s composer Zack Hemsey (also seen below) have said its their creation.
Regardless of whoever wants to take credit for the sound, its legacy and effect on modern trailers is clear as the iconic low brass synth now accompanies almost every big budget release in some form.
But that’s not the only trend we have these days…
The ominous opening, the slow singing, the menacing feel, the dramatic sound and the sudden burst of choirs (see? there’s those choirs again) are all signs of… THE TRAILER COVER SONG.
This time, it was Facebook’s fault.
In 2009, it was announced Columbia and Sony Pictures would adapt the novel The Accidental Billionaires, a non-fiction story which explored the creation of the social network.
First reactions were not favorable.
“A movie about Facebook? Hollywood has truly run out of ideas!“, “What’s next, The Yahoo Movie?” shouted the internet.
Even after it was revealed the highly respected – and Academy Award nominated – duo of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, A Few Good Men) and filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, Seven) would be in charge of the production, audiences still looked down at the project, openly mocking its perceived ridiculousness.
Nobody took it serious, with news stories proclaiming “Why the Facebook Movie Will Probably Be Boring” and “No, You Cannot Turn Facebook into a (Decent) Movie“. A first short teaser trailer which showed no footage nor indication of what to expect from the film did not help its case either.
Then on July 16th, 2010, Sony Pictures unveiled the first full length trailer for The Social Network.
Opening with a series of real life Facebook images for a full minute before being introduced to our protagonist Mark Zuckerberg while a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by the choir Scala & Kolacny Brothers is heard, the trailer switched the audience’s perception on the film from “That dumb and pointless Facebook movie” to “that highly respected and possible Academy Award nominee (it was) Facebook movie” almost overnight, perfectly showcasing Sorkin’s razor sharp script, Fincher’s unique direction and the film’s tragic style.
But once again, studios saw the trailer’s success and decided to drown the market with slow, dramatic and dark covers, whether it made sense for the movie they were promoting or not.
Or if you’re Marvel, you just use both the Braaams and cover song…
Even Fincher resorted to this trick a few years later with his The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake…
Whether you love or hate these trends, they’ve been around for over a decade and show no signs of slowing down as both “Braaams”….
…and the cover song…
…can still be found in 2020 trailers.
Then again, if history is anything to go by, trailers are in constant evolution with new trends arriving unexpectedly. Perhaps the next evolution for this powerful marketing tool may be in progress as you read this.
And hopefully the next time you find yourself sitting in a dark theater or in front of a screen, praying and waiting for the sixth trailer to finish, now you’ll see them in a different light.