Movie Trailer Editors Explain Why The Trailers Are Ruining Movies (And How To Fix Them)
Unfortunately he’s no longer with us, and now movie trailers often include major reveals, deaths, betrayals and climactic moments. If this trend bothers your inner cinephile, you’re not alone; industry professionals are getting just as frustrated, but they have some ideas for making trailers work as previews again, not just as CliffsNotes.
We spoke with Jeff Dodson and Sam Balcomb of Rainfall, a production company in L.A. that works with major film studios, TV networks, video game companies and musical artists (including Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Pitbull and Britney Spears). They’ve also created original viral hits such as this fake “Wonder Woman” teaser with 5.3 million views:
Dodson and Balcomb broke down the most spoiler-y previews lately, and which others serve as good examples for studios to follow.
MTV: Trailers used to have fewer spoilers, right? We’re not imagining that?
Dodson: I definitely agree, but older trailers, even before the “in a world…” guy, they’d have like the “South Park” Rob Schneider [voiceover]: “Rob Schneider’s just a regular guy — until one day, he’s about to find out he’s a stapler…”
That would ruin movies by [over-]explaining the plots, but now they’re ruining it because they want to pick the biggest shots — the money shots, the special effects shots that may show a main character getting killed off — in the trailer because that’s an excitement moment. So the film’s plot is now ruined, or can be.
I don’t remember older trailers being three to four minutes, but now they’re trying to fill up all this airspace. They’re not limited to 30s or 60s [seconds] like they were 10 years ago.
Balcomb: There’s a lot more pressure on francise-building now, where they don’t just have to sell the movie to the audience; they’re appeasing their investors by showing every character [or prop] that people might buy as toys and action figures. The studios need to pack in as much information into the trailer as they can, just to make it a marketable product, but unfortunately it spoils the experience for the audience.
MTV: Which classic trailers would you say were effective with “less is more”?
Balcomb: There were some trailers that really got it right in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Like the first “Matrix” trailer — there’s very little information told in the first trailer. You just see some crazy stuff you’ve never seen before, and Laurence Fishburne says, “Do you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes?” YES! YES, I DO! … Now they’d give [the big twist] away, probably. They underestimate how much audiences like to be teased.
MTV: Whereas the “Terminator Salvation” trailer was just like, “Oh yeah, the main guy’s a robot.” And the “Terminator Genisys” trailer seems to give a lot away too.
Dodson: They give you so many spoilers — the [old Arnold] Terminator, we know he killed the [young Arnold] Terminator, so now instead of appreciating the movie, you’re solving the pieces of the puzzle already.
Balcomb: I like trailers that take a scene and play it out to get you hooked with just a few little money shots. If that [“Genisys”] trailer had just been the chase to the clothing store, and you think, “Isn’t this T1?” And then [Sarah Connor]’s like, “Come with me if you want to live” [instead of Kyle Reese], and that’s it. That would’ve been like, “WHOA!”
Dodson: [But instead they spoil] a plot point: “Oh, we killed the Terminator.” And in “Mad Max,” it’s [the opposite]; I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it’s exciting.
MTV: So the “Mad Max: Fury Road” trailer gets it right?
Balcomb: Oh man, I love that trailer.
Dodson: So good.
Balcomb: They did show quite a bit — it was a relatively long trailer — but I don’t feel like I know what the plot is. I know there’s a resource like oil that everyone’s gonna want, and there are people who Mad Max is trying to protect, and some nasty guy, but that’s really it. And that’s all I need to know. Cool. Those visuals are amazing; it’s just lyrical the way it’s edited.
And just the excitement of seeing a lot of non-CG action. You can tell a lot of that vehicle work is practical, which is really exciting for audiences these days; it was real people in danger.
MTV: Promotional campaigns can be years-long now — there are teasers for teasers for trailers.
Balcomb: It can be a good thing or bad thing. It’s good to get word-of-mouth going, but you can give too much away or have burnout. I think a good example of that is “Tron: Legacy.”
They originally made a CG reel of the light cycle. It took everyone by surprise. Everyone flipped out: “Whoa, we’re getting a new ‘Tron’ movie?!” … But by the time the film came out [two years later], everyone had burnout: “Didn’t that come out already?” They did not get a particularly good opening weekend.
Dodson: I think the [new] “Star Trek” movies are a great example of putting people in seats who’d otherwise never see a “Star Trek” film. People were blown away; you made “Star Trek” appealing to a very new demographic.
MTV: For sure, although J.J. Abrams says he regrets hiding Khan’s identity in the trailers for the sequel.
Balcomb: It didn’t make sense for the fans. It didn’t make sense for the general audience who don’t know or give a damn who Khan is. … That goes to the Mystery Box [marketing technique]. J.J. Abrams gave a TED Talk on how it should be slowly opened until people see it — you can do that really well, or just terribly.
MTV: It seems like he’s getting it totally right with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The trailer gave no major plot points away, but it looks so awesome.
Balcomb: They’re being very friendly with the fan base. They’re saying, “We want you to be a part of this journey.” … “Star Wars” is in a unique position where they can do that. With “Star Wars,” you’re making a bunch of emotional connections: “Holy sh–, X-Wings flying over a lake! I want to see that!”
Whether you liked the end movie or not, a really good example of Mystery Box filmmaking was “Cloverfield.” Personally I enjoyed it. I remember being in a theater … and the “Cloverfield” [trailer] starts playing. I don’t even think there was a green bar; it was just the kids at a party, and the Statue of Liberty’s head coming past, and that’s it. They didn’t even give the name of the movie away, and everyone in the theater was like, “What? What WAS that?!”
I can’t even remember the movie I saw, but [afterward] everyone in the lobby was like, “What was that trailer? What was that from?”
MTV: What do you make of YouTube trailers for famous movies in new genres?
Balcomb: I think it’s great. We did those things in film school as challenges to show the power of editing, tone, music — how you can take something and completely change it. It’s cool, it’s being creative. My favorite was maybe the “Shining” one.
Dodson: Definitely the “Shining” one. It really shows how dangerous the [trailer] editor’s job is, because they can really screw up a film’s tone if the trailer implies it’s something that it wasn’t.
Balcomb: We were talking about the “Ant-Man” trailer last night. The funny thing is, every report we’ve heard on the film is it’s more lighthearted fun, like “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” but the trailer was very somber in tone. There’s a couple jokes, but it’s a deep “you have to save your family” type of thing. So who knows if that’s the actual tone of the film.
MTV: Are there any recent trailers you felt were outright deceptive?
Balcomb: I think “Birdman.” The format of the film and the trailer don’t sync up at all. [The film is] avant-garde and heavy — I can see the trailer editor saying, “Good god, we need to market this to people who think it’s a superhero movie,” then they see it and it’s like, what is this? It’s a 180 of what the film actually is.
Balcomb: It’s widely sought-after now. I think a part of that is how ubiquitous editing software is. Growing up, I hooked two VCRs up and prayed — but now, if you buy a computer, it has some kind of software. … People start earlier now; they’ll get to the college stage and say, “I want to do that for a living.”
MTV: What advice would you give to aspiring trailer editors?
Balcomb: I think anyone getting into editing needs to get exposed to as many styles as they can. The more tools in your toolkit, the better your chances of getting a job.
Dodson: Not every director’s good at doing every style. Just because someone is really good at cutting a [dramatic] trailer together, they may not be good at cutting a comedy narrative or something.
MTV: What’s step one when you sit down to cut a preview?
Balcomb: What are you trying to convey? Ideally you want someone to … watch something really memorable, and a lot of that is emotion. You laugh or you’re in awe of something, or it’s scary. Establishing tone right off the bat is important and you go from there.
We’re very musically driven, so if I can find an awesome piece of music that fits the vibe, then I will look for that first and sculpt the footage around that.
Dodson: There’s a whole market around people writing music for trailers to sell a small moment. Usually editors pick music for a trailer that has nothing to do with the music in a film, to give that kind of high, to get that rush of “holy sh–, I need to see this film.”
Balcomb: A good example of that is the “Man Of Steel” movie. The trailer’s amazing. They had a phenomenal piece of music Hans Zimmer composed, and I felt moved; it was powerful and unique.
Dodson: That’s an example of the trailer being amazing and the movie being a letdown. I wanted to give the [ticket] money to the trailer guys!