Big news: Nearly two months before the film’s theatrical release, the trailer for director Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, the biopic about controversial FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, has made its way to the web. Based on that two-and-a-half minute hit, speculation is already rife about how many Oscars it will win, or alternatively, how abjectly it will fail. People have picked up on the Citizen Kane-like shape of the story, questioned Leonardo DiCaprio’s posh accent, and offered opinions on the make-up that makes him appear to age 40 years. And what is that throbbing musical theme that kicks in at the half-way mark?
Snap judgments abound. Is the trailer, cut by a private company outside of the studio, really a reliable indication of whether J. Edgar is a masterpiece or a dud? That's the problem with movie trailers – nuance is not a priority. Their job, after all is to psychologically shove filmgoers into line for that all-important opening weekend of a new film.
Movie trailers – so named because “coming attractions” used to come at the end of films – are now their own independent form of entertainment. Fan sites monitor them in detail. DVDs offer them as value-added bonuses. Academics write about how trailers are emblematic of a world where marketing and art are increasingly indistinguishable. There is a documentary about movie trailers, Mike Shapiro’s Coming Attractions: The History of the Movie Trailer. They’re also the centrepieces of marketing campaigns which, nowadays, typically cost about half the amount allotted to the movies’ production budgets.
Yet trailers remain an oddity, a hybrid of free sample and hype. Because the trailers are cut and released before the films are finished, they are cobbled together from existing footage in best-guess fashion.
In their efforts to turn sow's ears into silk purses, there are big risks. Masterpieces look generic. As someone once quipped, the trailer for David Fincher's horrifying thriller Se7en made the film look like a Brad Pitt-Morgan Freeman rom-com.
And they tend to be relentlessly formulaic. Just like real movies, most have a three-act structure – introduction, complication and then, instead of an resolution, a montage with soaring theme music that may include onscreen text and lists of the stars. The length, by U.S. standards, is no more than 150 seconds. Some trailers give too much of the story away: Adam Sandler's trailer for his upcoming Jack and Jill, in which he plays a man and his twin sister, feels exceedingly long. Typically, trailers present original narratives ( Before Sunset for example) as if they were cookie-cutter romantic comedies (“What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?”)
Within the formula, there are genre variations. The best horror-movie trailers make the audiences curious (the Cloverfield trailer, which was essentially the first few minutes of the film, was a great example). Trailers for comedies frequently use a “rug pull” comic reversal – signalled by the music stopping, either with the sound of a record scratch or sudden silence. You can see it in the trailer for the upcoming Seth Rogen comedy 50/50, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character tries, and fails, to use his cancer diagnosis to pick up women.
Family movie trailers revel in the familiar. Dolphin Tale, which opens Friday, begins with a voiceover using one of the most over-used phrases in the trailer business, with Morgan Freeman intoning: “In this changing world …” Not changing fast enough, apparently. The whole “In a world where …” intro should have gone with the man who created it, Don LaFontaine, the voiceover actor who narrated more than 5,000 Hollywood movie trailers before his death in 2008.
The most potent emotional hook that movie trailers employ is music, which, typically, has nothing to do with the final score of the film. Most musical cues are recycled from other films. Once you clue into the inspirational U2-like rock anthem used on the second half of the trailer for Dolphin Tale, you realize it’s a kid-and-horse movie in disguise. The 2008 song All Roads Lead Home by the band Golden State has previously been used in three horse movies – Lost Stallions: The Journey Home, Flicka 2 and Every Second Counts.
And as for that pulsing musical theme from J. Edgar, that’s called Last Days, from a 2002 album by composer Max Richter. He also composed On the Nature of Daylight, which was used on the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Well, major big spoiler alert – the trailer makes J. Edgar look like just another movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a seriously wacky law enforcer.