Hollywood’s Two-Minute Auteurs

The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards are to the Oscars as film trailers are to films: short and sweet. There’s free popcorn and soda, speeches are brief, and the ceremony consists mostly of high-impact montages featuring the best trailers, TV spots, and Internet campaigns Hollywood marketing has to offer. For those still smarting from The Social Network’s Best Picture loss to The King’s Speech, the Oct. 19 ceremony provided a measure of redemption when Mark Woollen won the Grand Key Art Award for his trailer to The Social Network. You might remember it: The two-and-a-half-minute affair showed almost as much footage of actual social networking as it did of the movie itself. The boys’ choir that covered Radiohead’s Creep for the trailer landed a record deal.

With movie marketers desperate to grab the increasingly fractured attention of audiences (and fight declining theater attendance), trailers such as Woollen’s are fast becoming the standard. Heavy-handed voice-over has given way to subtler presentation, and the same overused cues are being replaced by more eclectic music selection. Trailers have begun to resemble tone poems selling a taste of how a film will feel rather than showing audiences everything they will see. They’ve found their medium on the Internet, proving to be snack-size events in their own right.

Trailers have been around almost as long as movies themselves; initially they followed a film’s end card to drive audiences out of theaters between showings (hence “trailers”). Until only a few years ago, a tight-knit world of fewer than 100 editors created the lion’s share of Hollywood trailers. Now these large houses face an expanding market of independent editors working on their own, facilitated by lower-cost editing software such as Final Cut Pro.

Woollen’s hip, modern Santa Monica (Calif.) office belies the stereotype of editors as cloistered, Gollum-like creatures, surfacing from dark rooms only to pick up Chinese takeout. Contrary to Tinseltown custom, Woollen, 40, doesn’t decorate his offices with posters of the films he’s worked on—among them Where the Wild Things Are, The Tree of Life, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—in the belief it stifles creativity: “We’re always trying to do something that honors the unique films we work on,” he says. “What we felt from the movie, that’s the big thing, and seeing if we can communicate that in two minutes.” Woollen relies heavily on sound design and music selection to find the shape of a piece, always listening to his iPod for cues that may one day come in handy: “I’d say music is 90 percent of the work we do; it establishes the rhythm.” The finished product ideally leaves the audience wanting more: “One of the things to figure out is at what point do we leave off, where you’ve ramped up the anticipation enough to do that.”

Studios spend a premium to create that anticipation. Although Hollywood is loath to relinquish marketing costs, it’s generally acknowledged that Prints & Advertising budgets can regularly swell to over half a film’s production cost. (A single trailer can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000, though the most lucrative contracts encompass multiple versions of the trailer.) Of all the ways to hype a movie these days—billboards, talk show interviews, junkets, viral campaigns—trailers continue to be the cornerstone of film marketing. Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures, says exit surveys consistently show trailers are the most influential driver of audience interest—generating 50 percent, compared with 30 percent for TV spots. With movie attendance at its lowest level since 1997, the pressure increasingly is on trailers to cut through the cultural white noise. “Our biggest fear is being average,” says Weinstock. “We don’t want people to think, ‘Maybe I’ll see that movie the second weekend.’ We want that trailer where people go, ‘I have to see that movie now!’ ”

To get as many options as possible, studios often “double-” or “triple-vendor,” farming out assignments to multiple houses that compete for the glory, financial and creative, of “finishing” a trailer (i.e., being chosen to edit the final trailer). Sometimes studios mix and match, using the beginning of one editor’s take with the end of another’s. They then employ the same focus groups for trailers—and data-driven surveys—that they do with feature films. The Internet provides an added resource. Trailers are the third-most-viewed videos online, after news and user-generated clips, and studios pay attention to the reaction. According to Weinstock, “We look at all the instant feedback: Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms, our own in-theater analysis, as well as all film-related websites.” He is particularly proud of a decision to let a more enigmatic trailer for 2009’s District 9 build interest: “We made a last-minute decision based on feedback to let the mystery simmer.” The film, an unknown property from a first-time director, made $210 million worldwide and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Nick Temple is the go-to trailer editor for traditional blockbusters, having worked on the last Transformers film and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming War Horse, yet he too feels a push to innovate. He used an indie-techno track to score his trailer for the mainstream action flick Battle Los Angeles. “We need to grab attention in a different way now,” he says. “You’ve seen things that you might not have 10 or 15 years ago.”

For example, bawdier red-band trailers—those with nudity, profanity, or violence—are now common on the Web, as are longer trailers freed from their traditional two-and-a-half-minute length. Warner Bros. successfully launched The Dark Knight with a mega-trailer—the first six minutes of the actual movie played in front of I Am Legend four years ago. The studio is looking to repeat that success by running the opening of The Dark Knight Rises before Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Editor Stephen Garrett (co-founder of Kinetic Trailers) thinks the Internet helps push creativity. “The good trailers reverberate in a way they haven’t before,” he says. “Clients remember those campaigns, and they’ll either go back to that vendor or challenge another vendor to do something just as interesting and dramatic themselves.”

The proliferation of trailer houses has also improved the products they create. As cheaper editing software such as Apple’s Final Cut has brought down the cost of professional systems, more top trailer cutters are starting their own businesses. Michael Andolina, Shawn Yashar, and Justin King-Hall recently left a well-known trailer production outfit and have prospered with their new company, Transit, which finished a trailer for Puss in Boots. King-Hall says they’re far from alone: “A lot of editors go out and start their own company, maybe because they want to create a company that is a reflection of their own style or attitude.” The result is an increasingly diverse field of unique voices. As Woollen notes, “It’s a seriously competitive business. You have several companies working on a given campaign, all trying to do their best work and get finished.”

In this environment, the key to success and survival for both the trailer houses and the films they represent is to constantly defy convention. Last year’s innovation quickly becomes this year’s cliché. Woollen now fields requests to replicate his Social Network trailer: “If you’re working on a drama, everyone is excited to use a Radiohead song, and I don’t really want to hear those anymore! I feel like those have been done—let’s keep trying to find what the new thing is.”

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