I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Balzer, a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture (now IU’s Media School), about his current research on movie trailers and the industry creating them.
What was it about movie trailers that first peaked your interest as an area of research?
It was simply how familiar and simultaneously unfamiliar we all are with trailers. We all watch them, we love them, we hate them, they are such an integral part of film culture; yet, unlike the films they sell, we almost never discuss who makes them, how they’re made, and what they mean. I want to correct that. And, as a researcher, I’ve discovered that there’s so much I can do with trailers; I can write about film history, industry, stardom, fandom, genre, aesthetics, gender, race, sexuality, you name it! My goal is simply to deepen public knowledge about trailers, and their cultures, in as many different ways as I can.
This might seem like a basic question, but who makes movie trailers? It seems the labor that goes into a trailer is often unacknowledged, which is generally the opposite with popular, cult, and mainstream movies themselves.
People! That’s the simplest answer. I’m currently interviewing trailer producers, editors, and copywriters, and in doing so I’m engaging with an entire body of film work and workers so crucial to continued existence of the industry, but almost certainly taken for granted as an artistic endeavor.
When we watch trailers, I think it can be very easy to treat them as if they were just taken wholesale from their parent films, but really trailers, and entertainment promotion more generally, possess their own histories, workflows, hierarchies, institutions, and aesthetic judgments. I think learning more about trailers and those who make them will ultimately help us to reconsider large swaths of film history and aesthetics, particularly authorship.
I know you recently attended some industry award shows that are relatively obscure to industry outsiders. Could you describe the events? What types of awards are conferred and how are those awards evaluated?
I’ve attended the Clio Entertainment Awards for the past two years. This is an annual event which takes place each year in Los Angeles (this year’s ceremony was at the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars are sometimes held). It used to be known as The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards until 2015, and the idea there is to recognize the individuals and agencies responsible for “creative excellence” in the promotion of movies, TV, and gaming: so, trailers, posters, billboards, social media, packaging, sponsorships, and so on.
From what I’ve observed, the events are very similar to the Oscars or Emmys in that they tend to run long, winners tend to give fairly verbose acceptance speeches, and the whole endeavor (which is untelevised) seems designed to prop up and build community between those who work in this field. I’m most interested in the criteria used to judge winners, which from my research so far seems to be a mix of “creativity” (vague and differentially-defined) and “success,” measured in terms of box office earnings, social media impressions, likes, shares, and other metrics. Award-winning work seems to be located somewhere between those two poles.
Are there industry standards or conventions that generally make a “good” movie trailer versus a “bad” one?
Absolutely! Events like the Clio Entertainment Awards try to codify “good” trailers, or “good” posters, or “good” social media engagement, by lauding them with cultural-prizes, and thereby distinguishing them from the rest. Unlike the Oscars, however, there’s no pretense of artistic purity at these award shows: in other words, the best trailer isn’t simply the trailer for the film which made the most money.
Trailers, for example, are derivative works by definition, so in this context they can only be understood as potentially good insofar as they ultimately serve the purpose of pointing viewers towards something else. A good trailer isn’t just the most artistically beautiful trailer, it also has to land with audiences in a quantifiable way (box office returns, likes, shares) and in that way it has to work successfully as a promotional vehicle. I find this negotiation, between momentarily asserting the autonomy of a trailer as a praise-worthy work of art and reasserting the place of a trailer under the authority of a parent film, to be one of the most fascinating aspects of my research.
2018 Clio Entertainment Gold Winner for Theatrical Trailer: Sorry to Bother You “Red Band Trailer” (warning: contains mature content)
Could you describe the life cycle of a typical movie trailer?
This is probably one of the most volatile aspects of contemporary movie trailers, as studios try to find the best way to coach audience desire and awareness across months, sometimes years, and now across multiple media platforms. It’s an unstable process, with an audience now largely accustomed to being engaged in a promotional campaign sooner than ever before, and as a result I think this is an audience whose expectations for trailers have shifted considerably.
You see this occasionally with fans demanding trailers on Twitter, or with other fans refusing to see trailers at all, as we’ve seen recently with anticipation for the Avengers 4 trailer: either case is indicative, I think, of a larger shift in how audiences want trailers to fit into their extended viewing experiences of a film. So, to really answer your question, I have no idea! It’s very much up in the air right now.
I’m curious if you’ve done any research on how trailers have changed over time. Are there major differences, for example, between trailers of the 1940s or ’50s and today?
For sure! Modern movie trailers have much more in common with music videos now, and they’ve more or less shucked off a fair amount of the ostentatious trappings of the old style: booming voiceover narration, ridiculous hyperbole in huge fonts, and the “free sample” style of editing which many old trailers use. Movie trailers today strike me as far more impressionistic, kind of a mélange of scenes and ideas from the film, an overuse of fades and dissolves, and generally much more rhythmic in their layout, relying far more on music and sound design than older trailers. I think it’s also important to consider how we all watch movie trailers now. It’s no longer strictly, or even primarily, a theatrical experience. Obviously, I think this may have had a dramatic effect on how we engage with movie trailers.
Also, I’ll admit it, I miss the voiceover narration of old movie trailers.
It seems trailers can take various forms, such as teasers. What are some of the different trailer forms and are they used differently to promote a movie?
For the studios in charge of rolling out these promotional campaigns, the key now is sustaining awareness and cultivating desire across more platforms, and for longer than perhaps ever before. And, when we talk about trailers, we’re actually discussing a category that’s far more diverse than the classic theatrical trailer: we’re looking at teaser trailers, announcement trailers, international or domestic trailers, audience or demographic-specific trailers, and the bizarre contemporary phenomenon of mini-teaser trailers announcing the debut of teaser trailer for the theatrical trailer for the film.
I think there is a heightened strategy now of building trailers around different media platforms (such as trailers cut specifically for Snapchat), rolling out more trailers sooner in the lifespan of a media property, and no longer hinging a promotional campaign around the debut of a big trailer during the Super Bowl. That still happens, obviously, but the duration and scope of trailers has changed dramatically in recent years, and, consequently, so has our engagement with them.
2018 Clio Entertainment Gold Winner for Theatrical Teaser: Deadpool 2 “Meet Cable” (warning: contains mature language)
Two of my favorite movie trailers are for Alien (1979) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Do you have some favorite movie trailers or ones you just can’t stand, and why?
Like the examples you give, I remember unconventional trailers better than others, the trailers which experiment with the form (and the stylistic links between experimental film, music videos, and trailers is something I’d like to explore sometime). One of my favorites is a trailer for The Ten Commandments (1956), in which the film’s director, Cecil B. DeMille, lectures for about 10 minutes on the historical accuracy and credibility of the film, which is really something to see:
I’m also very much drawn to trailers with interesting sound design and editing, à la music videos, like this excellent trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015):
What’s the downright weirdest or most obscure trailer you’ve seen?
I often go back to the American trailer for Chungking Express (1994). It gets the tone of Wong Kar-Wai’s film so completely wrong; I actually love it because it’s a beautifully clear example of what not to do with a trailer:
And few things in life have filled me with the same mix of genuine befuddlement and thorough, all-over existential dread as the trailer made by President Trump’s administration for their summit this past summer with Kim Jong-Un. It’s fascinating (and frightening) to see diplomacy presented as rom-com. Like many trailers, all the best bits were in the trailer, leaving us with the very upsetting movie we all live in now.
To find more insightful research and articles from Jesse Balzer, check out his blog Ruining Trailers.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 film and a Tarkovsky nut.