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Modern Trailer Theory: Strategies for Standing Out

Modern Trailer Theory: Strategies for Standing Out

by Rania Richardson









An image from the trailer for "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring."

As the volume of new films coming into the marketplace continues to grow, independent distributors are rethinking their marketing strategies involving movie trailers. The creative philosophy, placement, and promotional use of trailers have become a source of new ideas and practices by a number of companies. The question echoed throughout the industry is, "How do we make a trailer stand out?"

At one time many distributors considered the use of subtitles in foreign language previews a taboo, since that was not an aspect of the film they wanted to emphasize. However in the past few years, Sony Pictures Classics has made a calculated decision to use subtitles in many films' trailers, including "Goodbye, Lenin!" and "Broken Wings" in current release. "Making a film feel more authentic makes sense to us," co-founder Michael Barker told indieWIRE.

The success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a turning point in the company's philosophy. "We found that the younger mainstream audience does not have an aversion to subtitles. With the CNN crawl, [instant] messaging, and personal computers, they are using 'subtitles' every day," Barker said. The success of "Run Lola Run" and "Amelie" also bolstered that view.

"If you go to the multiplex, you will see 5 to 6 trailers. I find that they look so similar. We want to be different, in pace or by using subtitles, or using a funky letterbox presentation for a Cinemascope film," said Barker, "If our trailer looks different, it will stand out."

Another example is "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring" which opened well over the weekend. According to Barker, "It is a lyrical, ravishing film. The audience for this would be turned on by its contemplative mood, so we used none of the scenes of violence in the film, and no subtitles. The trailer is leisurely, as you would enjoy the film."

Steve Gilula, President of Fox Searchlight Distribution, agreed "Some companies have a sameness in their trailers. We try to create unique trailers for every film and do not use a cookie-cutter approach." In response to the strategy of giving away the entire story of a film in its trailer, he said, "The art of research has shown that people want to know more about what they are going to see. They don't want to make a decision in a vacuum." To this end, more information is better, even if it removes some of the surprise element."

Focus Features distribution head Jack Foley said, "We respect the power of trailers. We see them as the second most important marketing factor next to TV spots. We have weekly meetings on trailer placement. We want them up no less than two months out, and we need to place them with the right thing."

"The Door in the Floor," the story of a children's book author, will open June 23 on a small number of screens, but Focus decided to run the trailer ahead of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" on every screen, to give the small film national awareness. "We are melding broad appeal with core appeal," he said, hoping to create a wider audience for the specialized film.

Competition for trailer "real estate" has never been so high, with spots for 5 trailers part of the pre-show for every film. As Foley put it, "The competition is brutal. It's difficult to elbow your way in."

According to Ray Price, Vice President of Marketing at the Landmark Theatre chain, "25 years ago there were 4 films at any given time under the mantle of specialized film. Now there are 20-25. I will have to promote almost everything somewhere," he said, referring to the gamut of independent and foreign films that play on the chain's 204 screens.

"The top 10 percent of titles have more than enough money to penetrate the market," Price said. "For the rest, it becomes daunting. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' and 'The Lost Boys of Sudan' are polar opposites. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a trailer or very little," he said, suggesting a range of upwards of $250,000 for trailers with commercial music to $25,000 for the lower end.

Some of the films shown in Landmark theaters don't have trailers. "If you have the choice (in your budget) for a trailer or an ad, you go with the ad," Price said. Israeli gay soldiers tale "Yossi & Jagger" was one film that ran at Landmark without a trailer.

In the last few years, Landmark has been hosting a contest that features clips from an upcoming film in a sweepstakes pre-show ad. "Frida" was their first, and "I'm Not Scared" is the latest of these trailer/promotion Hybrids (both films are Miramax's). The 60-second spots run on Landmark screens even in cities where the film is playing at a competitive theater, with the goal of bringing awareness to the market as a whole.

On the other end of the trailer spectrum, micro-distributors such as Avatar are making their own trailers in-house. Co-founder Jason Leaf studied video editing at NYU Film School and finds that the cost savings, complete control, and pleasure in the creative process are reasons to make trailers on their own. He created trailers for "Nico and Dani" and "Divine Intervention" on video using Final Cut Pro. "Keep them short!" he said, "90 seconds is the magic number for us." The entire process, including blow up to 35mm and reproduction, costs the company under $5,000.

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