Sitting in a darkened movie theater this summer, you may have wondered: Why are movie trailers always voiced by men? Or, more specifically, men with ocean-deep voices proclaiming “In a world…”
The formula has been parodied everywhere from Geico commercials to a recent promo for a Louis C.K. HBO special. This month, the small world of voiceover actors gets the big-screen treatment with Lake Bell’s biting comedy about an actress desperate to break the glass ceiling. Naturally, it’s titled In a World…
This is a narrative Bell knows well. When she first came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a voiceover artist, she admits, “I couldn’t get arrested.” She isn’t alone. “The field is absolutely male-dominated,” says Jeff Danis, owner of the agency DPN Talent, which specializes in voiceover actors. “It always has been.”
Invented in 1913, the movie trailer has evolved from a stab-in-the-dark marketing gimmick to a serious line item in the budget. A trailer for a summer blockbuster can cost more than $1 million to produce. This year, these little two-and-a-half-minute teasers that establish both the story beats and tone of a film have been watched more than a billion times on YouTube (GOOG), and rising. Americans searched for trailers three times more this year than in 2008. Still, why no women?
The conventional wisdom among Hollywood studio executives is that a man’s voice commands attention and cuts through the clutter of explosions and car crashes, says Danis. There also appears to be a scientific basis for featuring brawnier voices. According to Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford and the author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, while the human brain is hardwired to prefer the sound of a female voice (this is why even men speak to babies in high-pitched voices), trust is another issue entirely. “Deeper voices are associated with more perceived intelligence and competence,” he says.
A small fraternity of men dominates the world of movie trailers—guys like Ashton Smith (Wolverine) and Howard Parker (Pacific Rim), who earn $50,000 to $100,000 for a major studio campaign, which also includes promotional TV spots. They earn upwards of seven figures a year. When asked about the money, Parker doesn’t blush: “I’ll tell you,” he says, “the money is wonderful. I worked in radio and was in poverty for quite a bit of time.” Don LaFontaine, the man who popularized the “In a world…” phrase and recorded more than 5,000 trailers before his death in 2008, famously took a limousine to his recording sessions.
As for women, you can count on one hand the number that have voiced trailers. In 2000, Melissa Disney narrated the spot for Angelina Jolie’s Gone in 60 Seconds. A full decade later, Tasia Valenza voiced the campaign for the horror flick Piranha 3D. But, as she says, “It never happened again.” She posits: “Piranha worked because it was that kind of summery, sexy, everything-is-going-great and then it turns really bad. It was the right time, right place, right trailer.” Still, she’s earned a very healthy living as the voice of SoapNet for 10 years, and has also worked frequently in video games, which draws on her background in front of the camera. “I like to call myself a recovering actress and a fully functioning voiceover artist,” she says. In other words, she makes more money now than she ever did on The Bold and the Beautiful. Even without trailers.
Still, John Zaffarano of the Los Angeles-based ad agency Cimarron Group is hopeful that more women will get voiceover work in trailers. The Cimarron Group produced the trailers for all of the Twilight movies, and rather than employ a traditional voiceover for the first film, it used star Kristen Stewart’s narration to establish the story. “Our job is to figure out who the consumer is,” Zaffarano says. “And Kristen’s voice really spoke to the audience for that movie.”
Without spoiling In a World…, Bell’s character does get a shot in the voiceover big leagues. “There’s been some progress,” Zaffarano says, “but I don’t believe women in trailers will ever have the career that men have. We’ve talked about it for years.” For her part, Bell would certainly welcome the shot. She’s voicing the role of the Mona Lisa in next year’s DreamWorks (DWA) animated film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and hopes she’ll get a crack at voicing the trailer. “Listen,” Bell says, “I’m campaigning hard.”