The Movie Trailer Formula: Why do we love it so much?

Posted on 20 April 2009 by Quaid

We open on a black screen.  Then an announcer’s voice (or just a simple title card) comes up, saying something dramatic.  We get a glimpse of something, but we aren’t sure what it is.  Back to black.  Another title/voice-over.  Another teaser.  Do this a few times.

trailer_still_betterThen cut to the big reveal.

Montage of action scenes with a bare-bones plot explained through them.  

Then the announcer comes back with one last line.  A hypothetical question, maybe (“When nobody is left standing, who can mankind turn to?”).  Then we get either a bad joke or a “HOLY SHIT!” shot.  Cut to black and a release date.

It seems that almost every action movie coming out this summer has basically the same trailer.  It’s the same overall structure, the same gimmicks, the same pace, and the same “big reveals” at the same moments.

Comedies have a formula, too, only they have friendlier voice-over and a lot more plot–usually enough to give away the story of the entire movie.  

So why do we (myself included) love these gimmicky, predictable movie commercials so much?

I mean, when it comes to movies in general, the average theater-goer is picky as can be.  Indie-film geeks and intellectuals alike complain like mad when a movie is too formulaic or when it is predictable or when the character development isn’t up to par.  

Why, then, are we so forgiving to trailers whose entire through-line is telegraphed a mile away?

trailer_card2Not that we don’t have trailers we don’t like, but usually it’s because we can see through the formula facade to notice that the movie will be one we will, most likely, not enjoy.  The montage of jokes are lackluster, or the action shots, while loud and dramatic, don’t impress us.  More often, though, we already have our minds made up.  We base whether we’ll like a trailer on whether we think the movie will be good, not the other way around, and if The Rock pops up, I’m most likely checked out regardless of the craftsmanship that goes into one of these teaser films.  

I have to admit, though, I love trailers.  And every once in a while they can change my mind about a film.  For example, I was totally 100% down on the new Star Trek re-imagining.  Even after the Enterprise-building teaser, I was less than enthusiastic.

But when the trailer hit, falling in line with one of these formulas, I changed my mind.  

Here it is, for reference…

We got the opening sequence, filled with action, fast cuts–very “what-the-hell.”  Then the first reveal (“My name is James Tiberius Kirk!” screamed by the little kid).  I was still not impressed.  Even rolled my eyes a bit.

Then we get the deep voice-over.  Not by an announcer, but by a character–talking about Kirk.  We see shots of the future Captain looking at the Enterprise getting built.  Title cards.  More voice-over about Spock, focusing on these original characters.  The music builds tension, the editing slowly gets more aggressive.  

Then we go into kickass montage world.  By this time, I’m actually getting jazzed.  The adrenaline begins to pump.  The trailer works its magic, and I see things I didn’t expect from this movie.  

startrekstillWe get out-of-context exchanges, a little joke from Simon Pegg, and even a girl taking her shirt off and making out with Kirk.  All the elements you need to get fanboys going.  I’m with it, now.  

Big crazy montage, amping up the energy, music going at a breakneck pace.  

The image goes to black, and we come up on Eric Bana, giving his one-liner.  ”The wait is over.”  It’s kind of a weak stinger for a trailer, but I’m already sold.  End on the Star Trek logo, music reminiscent of the old theme. 

All the trailers for this movie kind of work like that.  In the later trailer, we get a much better “Holy Shit!” line in “James T. Kirk was a great man.  But that was another life.”  And we get more aggressive montages, complete with skydiving and talk of ominous and dangerous things.  Plus a bit more plot.

In the end, though, they’re all kind of the same.  And I buy them hook, line, and sinker.

movie-theaterWhich is why I love trailers, honestly.  With a movie, it feels like I am constantly judging it, hoping it will surprise me, prove me wrong, and give me a new experience.  With trailers, I just want to get excited.  The goal is simple, and, since it’s not the full movie but just a smattering of images, we are more forgiving of them.

The other interesting thing to look at is the ways that trailers have changed over the years.  From the 1970′s style of showing a series of short scenes intercut with the title of the movie (500 times) to the goofy 80′s over-done voice over trailers to today, these things really do change over time based on audience sensibilities.  But that’s a whole can of worms that might be best left for another article.

In general, I think we forgive the trailer formula because we want to get excited.  With movies, the goal is more complex and varied.  With trailers, we want that rush of “I gotta see that!” excitement.  And we’re willing to overlook the flaws in order to let ourselves have that.  

And there is nothing better than seeing the first trailer for a movie you’ve been looking forward to since the day you heard it was getting made.  It blows your brains out, and you lean over to your friend and say “Midnight, opening day.”

Mission accomplished, trailer people.  I’m sold.                           

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Labbekak Says:

    If you want to see something totally different, then you got to watch the Eraserhead trailer!

  2. ????????????? Says:

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