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Never too much: Mastering the art of the film trailer

Film trailers, more so than ever, are an integral part of our film experience. In a world before the internet, trailers were a palate cleanser to ease us into the dark arena of the cinema. But now, with the ubiquity of social media, they’re proving harder and harder to avoid.

From their humble beginnings in the early ’30s and ’40s, film trailers have always served one purpose: to sell, sell, sell. Back then, monosyllabic adjectives helped sum up new releases in short, hyperbolic statements. By the ’60s, the auteur had taken over, imbuing their trailers with artistry and craft never seen before in advertising. The blockbuster age of the ’80s and ’90s replaced this with a competition for the most impressive display of CGI. But now, film trailers have taken on a more intricate role in the complex maze of the marketing world.

‘Trailer’ itself has become an imprecise term. We are bombarded with several teasers and multiple versions of the final trailer, as well as many more extended clips, scenes, and images to pore over. Trailers have become part of a wider culture of social media marketing, in which the final cut has become something of an event in itself.

For the die-hard fan, this can be a great way to build a healthy sense of momentum towards the official release date. But for the rest of us, it becomes endlessly tiring: the joke just isn’t funny when you’ve heard it four times before. And it isn’t only us journalists that weep at the prospect of yet another Beauty and the Beast press release to write up; audiences are becoming more lethargic, too. More and more people are becoming concerned that trailers are revealing too much, diluting their first viewing of the film; recent previews of It and Spiderman: Homecoming have felt like mini-movies rather than brief, fleeting glimpses.

Last year, editors at IMDb released their list of the site’s most viewed trailers of 2016. Unsurprisingly, all of them belonged to pre-existing franchises, big-budget movie studios (Marvel, DC – why even ask?), as well as easily definable (and commercially successful) genres such as the stoner comedy. Trailers for Assassins Creed, Justice League, and Captain America: Civil War all featured, and fit neatly into the conventions of the modern trailer. However, a few from the list – Suicide Squad, Sausage Party – were genuinely brilliant, even if the films that they spawned were goddam awful.

In the current climate of overlong and overdramatic teasers, the art of the film trailer isn’t dead just yet. The indie circuit produces some absolute gems, even if many of their trailers have to assimilate to get a look in whilst competing with big studios. Blockbusters are also slowly coming to the realisation that they’ll need to be more inventive if they want to entice their fans with new, tasty projects.

Increasingly, less is often more, structures are being cleverly subverted, and nostalgia is manipulated artfully rather than blatantly. To illustrate, here are just a few of the best trailers of 2017 so far – and why they worked so, so well.

The Disaster Artist:

Comedy trailer are a tough one to crack.  Most fall into the trap of using cliché ridden hip hop tracks – which are then paused emphatically for someone to fall into a bin. Yet The Disaster Artist manages to get its trailer just right. Music is pretty much absent, bar some light percussion, and it follows one extended scene that sees James Franco attempt to read one line of dialogue.  Sounds crazy, right? You bet – this extended clip is a refreshing take on this tired genre of trailers. Paul Feig, take note.

Blade Runner 2049:

Okay, this one is on a tightrope – one more teaser and I’m done. But when the first trailer for Blade Runner 2049 landed in May, my jaw dropped. Rather than exploiting our nostalgia for the original film, this doesn’t feel manipulative; rather, Ridley Scott’s epic has received a glossy update that doesn’t feel forced. The shots glide effortlessly and when we’re met with Harrison Ford, the reaction is one of euphoria, not dejection. Rodger Deakins also provides some of the most gorgeous cinematography of the year.

The Shape of Water:

Yet another foray into ‘adult fairy tales’ from Guillermo Del Toro, the beauty of this trailer lies in its ability to weave a complex and sophisticated narrative into a short two minute slot. Putting a ‘twist’ on fairy tales can often end up in something as ghastly as Banksy’s Dismaland, but Sally Hawkins’ performance fills this preview with enough warmth without making it feel like a caricature. It’s imbued with what most trailers this year have been missing: a genuine sense of magic.


J-Law is enough to carry any film along smoothly to box office success, but Aronofsky doesn’t let her take all the limelight here. For a thriller such as this, keeping plot safely tucked away is paramount – and the trailer for Mother! strikes a perfect between this and generating enough intrigue. What’s most appealing about the trailer, however, is its use of music. The score crescendos to the trailer’s climax, but does so in a minimalist fashion, relying on the pluck of increasingly taut strings. Aronofsky has created a tightly wound trailer that is big on tension but low on plot points – it embodies exactly what a great trailer can look like in 2017.

Words by Liam Taft

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