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The Art of the Modern Movie Trailer on NPR

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to read the whole transcript of the story on NPR.

Brent Baughman of NPR interviewed me recently, along with some other folks who work in the industry making what are known as “trailers” or “coming attractions” for films about to be released. It’s both a science and an art, blending marketing and creativity to get people out of their houses and into the theaters, which is proving increasingly hard to do in the era of pads. cellphones, and laptops; even television is outmoded.

People would rather stay at home and stream a film instead of going out to the movies; this is why only the most mainstream films now get a national release. The more thoughtful films get a “select cities” release in New York, Los Angeles, and other major markets; at the same time, the film is unceremoniously dumped into video on demand, either on television or the web, at sites such as Amazon, Netflix, and numerous other locations.

All of which makes getting people to actually “go to the movies” all the more important for major studio releases, which cost upwards of $80 – 100 million to make on average, and another $12-25 million or so to market. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

“[The] trailer for the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol features the actor Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s great-uncle), speaking directly into the camera about this charming new film. Leatherbound book? Check. Pipe? Check. Armchair by the fire? Check. The whole thing is so clearly not the savvy, heavily focus-grouped work of a modern trailer house that it’s hard to imagine it ever worked.

Early trailers, says film historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, were all like this. Very comfortable — and often full of over-the-top superlatives, like the trailer for Gone With the Wind. “‘Never so tremendous!’” Dixon says by way of example. “‘The screen’s greatest achievement!’ One critic at the time said it was the supreme example of writing so as never to be believed.”

Compare that with something like last year’s trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which set a record for downloads in 2011. “The shots are shorter and shorter and shorter, and more fragmented,” Dixon says. “There have been a number of studies that demonstrate that the average length of a shot in a film have been shrinking every single year, because audiences absorb information faster — and there’s also a sense that you don’t want to bore them.”

You can read the entire interview, and see the trailers as well, by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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