Stephen Garrett is the owner of Jump Cut, a marketing company that specializes in making trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary cinema. He is also the former film editor of Time Out New York and has written for Slate, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, among other outlets.
“On this day. In this time. At this moment.” And you thought commemorative Summit coins were flashy! The new trailer (wait, what?) for President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un just dropped, and it’s a doozy.
Banal sloganeering slathered over a litany of overfamiliar footage! Tense piano notes giving way to a furious volley of synthesized sturm und drang followed by cascades of cautious but hopeful uplift! Internationally recognizable boldface names! And it’s not a Marvel movie?
Okay, okay—complex global diplomacy isn’t usually reduced to the kind of propagandistic oversimplification best left to Hollywood. And the fact that the White House produced this mock trailer really is just surreal. But let’s assume that the trailer, though insanely goofy, was made as a sincere token of friendship to Kim wrapped in a tongue-in-cheek homage to bombastic studio blockbusters. (Lighten up, everybody: the fact that this “movie” is a “Destiny Pictures Production” is actually kind of funny.)
And casting the egomaniacal Kim as the reluctant hero in his own real-life popcorn picture, tacky as it may be, is arguably kind of genius (casting Trump in the same role, though, is just sadly predictable). But say what you will about the political wisdom behind the short video. We’re here to discuss the efficacy of the trailer itself.
Some parts of the trailer genuinely work. More often than not, it misses the mark. Repeatedly.
First off, this is technically a teaser-trailer, since there was no footage of the actual event. And as such, teaser-trailers are historically pretty short—we’re talking 45-90 seconds long. Sometimes teasers do have footage from the film, in which case they can run as long as 2 ½ minutes. But this White House trailer clocks in at 4 minutes 12 seconds. Come on, guys! How much generic video can people stomach? (Speaking of which, I hope and yet somehow doubt that the White House paid the proper royalty fees for worldwide use of all that footage).
Secondly, that copy is really kludgy. Sure, lines like “Two Men/Two Leaders/One Destiny” are on-point (though a bit on the nose). But some lines are just factually inaccurate. “History is always evolving.” No, it isn’t. (Species evolve, not history). And some lines feel like word salads. “There comes a time when only a few are called upon to make a difference. But the question is: what difference will the few make?” Do they think this inversion sounds wise? Because it’s not. Or even better: “The past doesn’t have to be the future.” No, actually the past will never ever be the future. It’s the past.
By the way, who uses voiceover anymore? It’s been 10 years since the death of protean narrator Don LaFontaine (who has 5,000 film trailers on his resumé), and even longer since trailer v.o. was a popular trope (I’m looking at you, ’90s). This White House trailer is wall-to-wall narration, and it’s absolutely suffocating.
Which leads me to the leads. If you’re cutting a trailer, always let your protagonist talk. Even if it’s a teaser where you want to build up suspense before a big character reveal, you can be coy about it but you gotta let your big celebrities speak. In this trailer, neither Trump nor Kim utter a single word. What’s up with that? Where’s “Fire and fury?” Where’s “Little Rocket Man”? If you’re marketing stars, you need to show them using their catchphrases.
KEVIN LIM/THE STRAITS TIMES/SPH/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock
That said, there are a few elements in the trailer that the White House does right. The repetition of “What If?” is actually pretty good branding: short, concise, hopeful, optimistic. And most importantly, it asks a question. Trailers are most engaging when they pose hypotheticals, bring up possibilities, and point towards different choices. Audiences are more likely to be hooked if they see that there’s a protagonist confronted with a challenge without a clear solution. What will happen? You’ll have to wait and see.
The trailer also starts big. The first image is our world from space, followed by the line, “Seven billion people inhabit planet Earth.” Blockbusters always want to look monumental. Well, mission accomplished. And the shots that follow are basically effective, although they occasionally do go off the rails (why are we looking at a basketball player making a slam dunk? Wait—did I just see Sylvester Stallone?).
Some platitudes are properly dramatic: “Out of the darkness can come the light,” intones the narrator as we see time-lapse footage of the sun rising over the surface of the earth. “And the light of hope can burn bright,” he continues, as the image dissolves to a wide shot of hundreds of paper candles floating into the night sky. A bit cloying, but poetic nonetheless.
Will the trailer make any difference? Who knows. Will a million subreddits light up with snarky viewers condemning it? Sure, why not. But one YouTube comment helps to put it all in perspective: “I’m korean and I want peace. thank you president trump.” ’Nuff said.