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Summer movie season is in full swing, but one iconic part of the viewing experience is missing in action: the trailer voiceover.
The gravelly voice that narrates previews – you know the one, he often starts with the words “in a world” – has all but vanished, according to a review of more than 200 blockbuster trailers over the past 20 years by The Globe and Mail.
None of this year’s most-anticipated films, from the Godzilla remake to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, used voiceover in their debut trailers. Among last year’s top-10 box-office performers, only Disney’s animated film Frozen used it.
It’s a historic moment for movie marketing and a death knell for a narrative device once seen as mandatory to quickly convey a story to theatregoers before the feature film began.
“We’re only at the beginning of this new trend of not having the narrator,” says Ryan Parsons, co-owner of the movie-preview website Trailer Addict. “Studios are getting more creative and the narrator is going to be gone for a while.”
The decline of trailer voiceovers Top 10 box-office performers
The voiceover artist held the limelight for decades, reaching their peak in 1994 – the last time when all top-10 films at the box office used a narrator in their trailer, from the critically praised The Lion King to the panned Dumb and Dumber.
By 1997, the voiceover was a favoured companion for films like Con Air, a Nicholas Cage action-adventure production that hired voiceover legend Hal Douglas to deliver the trailer’s cringeworthy tag-line: “This summer, check your weapons, take your seat, and say your prayers.”
Comedian (2002)This documentary about Jerry Seinfeld used the voiceover as a punchline in its trailer. Hal Douglas starred as a voiceover artist obsessed with trailer clichés.
Douglas, who died earlier this year, might have seen the coming sea change a decade earlier when he parodied himself in the trailer for the 2002 documentary Comedian.
In it, Douglas reads a litany of tired trailer catchphrases like ”in a world” and “when your life is no longer your own,” over the protests of the sound mixer. Then he’s fired.
It was the clearest sign yet that the voiceover had become a punchline.
Overuse may not be the only reason for the voiceover’s decline. Today, the highest-grossing movies are multibillion-dollar epics with built-in fanbases, such as the Harry Potter series and myriad comic-book adaptations. Audiences are already experts on the story, so they don’t need a narrator to communicate those details.
Gone, too, are the days when a trailer is viewed a single time inside a movie theatre. Parsons, whose Trailer Addict website serves 40-million pageviews a month, says today’s marketers use dozens of previews and featurettes, on top of other marketing vehicles, to capture attention. With such ubiquitous marketing, a narrator isn’t necessary.
By the 2000s, a few box-office performers still used a voiceover in their marketing. However, most were animated pictures, like last year’s Frozen and Pixar’s 2011 film Cars 2 – a sign that family films might be immune to the negative association that hangs over it.
Ted (2012)Seth McFarlane's comedy used the voiceover but only as a send-up of classic family films.
And there’s at least one more voiceover mainstay: the parody. Seth McFarlane’s comedy Ted used the voiceover as a bait-and-switch, employing actor Patrick Stewart’s wholesome British timbre to imbue the film with a sense of whimsy, describing the power of “a young boy’s wish.” Then, the switch: The movie is actually about a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking stuffed bear.
While the narrator himself might be used sparingly these days, marketers actually haven’t changed the basic structure of the trailer in years. To impart key information like tag-lines and release dates, voiceovers have been usurped by new trailer trends that follow the same format.
Many modern trailers use what are called title cards: text that appears on screen with familiar phrases like “this summer the rules have changed,” for example, in a recent Transformers trailer.
Marketers have also turned to actors, either using dialogue from the film or writing entirely new scripts. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, released later this summer, used a monologue from actor William Fichtner that includes a classic trailer tag-line: “Heroes are not born, they’re created.”
Even this could be waning in the face digital media and shorter attention spans. Last year, The Wolverine became the first big movie to release a trailer on Vine, Twitter’s viral video-sharing platform. The trailer used a flurry of 21 different cuts in six seconds. No character narration, no trailer voiceover.
In a world with that kind of marketing, what hope does the voiceover artist have?
Watch the related video with clips from trailers mentioned in this story.
The review by The Globe included the debut theatrical trailers from the top 10 box-office performers each year back to 1990. The trailers were sourced from TrailerAddict.com, which lists trailers by date, and other websites. Box office data was collected from BoxOfficeMojo.com.