American movie trailers are better than ever, so of course a bunch of people want to screw with them.
The National Association of Theatre Owners recently released a new set of voluntary guidelines, recommending that trailers run no longer than 2 minutes -- that's 30 seconds shorter than the average. The group says that trailers are giving away too much of the movies they're advertising and spoiling the audience experience.
I'm sincerely hoping the studios brush off these guidelines with a terse, “Thanks for your opinion.”
I don't want Hollywood to give me shorter and fewer movie trailers. Trailers are one of the few things Hollywood still consistently does well. Much of the time, trailers are the best thing about going to the movies.
The Long, Long Trailer
Trailers actually used to trail the feature presentation. The name stuck, but theaters eventually started showing them before features.
And the trailers took forever.
Two minutes, 30 seconds is nothing compared to the indulgence of trailers past. Up until the 1960s, one company, National Screen Service, made all the movie trailers. And its house style was long and drawn out, with few edits and a lot of scrolling text. Close-ups of movie stars, wide shots of exotic settings and a “Gosh Wow!” male voice explaining the bejesus out of the movie.
Even after NSS lost its stranglehold on the movie trailer, the style stayed staid and samey.
The "special shoot" trailer to “Psycho,” one of the best films ever made, is tedious by today's standards. It clocks in at six and a half minutes and has Alfred Hitchcock at the Bates Motel, bumbling around interminably. It's somewhat delightful as an historical artifact, but can you imagine sitting through this before a showing of “Pacific Rim”?
Mediocre movie, masterful trailer
I love movies, but most movies are crap. It's always been this way and always will be. A few are worth your time down the road on DVD or even further down the road on HBO (or even further, on TBS, where all movies eventually go to die). But only a handful per year could be considered essential enough to see in the theater.
This makes trailers a fantastic way for one to CliffsNotes the mediocre. For a few reasons.
For one, they give you all the spectacle of the movie. Summer blockbuster trailers, especially, are in an arms race to pack in as many WOW! moments as possible. There's no surprise left by the time you see the full movie.
I see this as a virtue.
If a movie is only worth seeing for its WOW! moments, why not just savor the highlights reel of spectacle in a mercifully short trailer. A blockbuster like “The Avengers” or “Inception” has a lot more going for it than spectacle. But once I've seen Vin Diesel drive through the plane, haven't I seen all of “Fast Six” that matters?
Another public service trailers perform: They give you the long story short.
The blockbuster movie trailer has become a precise craft, with a structure that works as a mini version of the movie it's promoting. Like a mainstream movie, a trailer usually has three acts. In the case of the trailer, you get an establishing of the character(s), an introduced obstacle, character fighting/dealing with said obstacle. This third part might include both spoiler-y details and a rapid succession of gasp-inducing special effects shots.
1. This is Superman. 2. These are some bad guys. 3. Punch punch punch.
1. This is Iron Man. 2. Here's the new villain. 3. Iron Man has a bunch of Iron Men.
Let the trailer spoil the movie for you. The best thing about the spoiler-and-money-shot-laden modern movie trailer is that it can reduce a mostly ponderous 140-minute movie to a 150-second masterpiece. A well-made trailer can save you both the price of a movie ticket and a little precious leisure time.
The main reason blockbusters have felt so lackluster in the past few years is pure exhaustion, not just from the increasing freneticism of the filmmaking but the audience-bludgeoning marketing machine. We don't just get the trailer; we get a Vine video to the teaser clip to the teaser to the trailer to the final trailer to the movie. And all of that noise is preceded by years-in-advance casting rumors and release date updates.
The movie itself isn't the thing anymore. The anticipation of the movie is the thing, the theatrical trailer the crown jewel in that anticipation.
Trailers as art
There's an alternative to the spoiler-ific three-act structure of the blockbuster trailer: the artsy movie trailer, a relatively recent development driven largely by the remixology of the Web.
Now formally daring films regularly get formally daring trailers, previews that eschew plot details and sometimes even dialogue in favor of quick imagery juxtaposed with a good song. The effect is often exhilarating, while at the same time being an even more accurate advertisement of a movie than a rote rundown of the cast and narrative.
The best trailers (which are almost all done by one trailer boutique) don't just tell you what a movie's about. They show you how a movie's going to feel.
Let the trailer evolve. Let it play with its form. And let it have the running time to do so.