Movie Trailer Math: Getting 'Butts In The Seats' In Minutes

Feb 20, 2013
Originally published on February 27, 2013 2:05 pm

Before the award presenters open the envelopes on Oscar Sunday, before the actors and producers take a single step on the red carpet, and even before the films hit theaters, the trailers for these films grace the big screen.

These previews have the power to send audiences flocking to theaters or keep them away altogether.

"You really want to get butts in the seats and you want to highlight the best parts of that movie," says Stephen Garrett, the founder of the trailer production company Jump Cut Creative.

He tells NPR's Neal Conan that there's a fine balance between enticing the audience to theaters and spoiling the plot twists.

"That's one thing that always makes me cringe, when I'm in a movie theater and I overhear people after the trailer saying, 'We'll, I won't see that movie because it's given everything away,' " he says.

He points to Silver Linings Playbook as an example of a Best Picture nominee with a trailer that walks that line really well.

"It's hitting story beats, one after the next," he says. "And it kind of gives you a very clear overview of what this movie is like and what to expect when you go see the movie."

He says this trailer also makes it clear that this movie isn't a traditional romantic comedy. The trailer includes the scene where a teenager knocks on the door and asks if he can do an interview for a school project on mental illness.

"And then the door is slammed, and then the music kicks in," Garrett says." That's what you would call a nice little punctuation for the trailer. You start with this kind of cold open, and then you go into the body of the trailer, which is, this is a movie about mental illness but it's going to make you laugh."

Garrett's production company specializes in trailers for foreign, independent and documentary films. He has received 11 awards at the Golden Trailer Awards, an annual show that recognizes excellence in motion picture marketing.

He says generally, different strategies are employed for different genres of film. For a historical drama like Lincoln, the trailer has to draw viewers who may already be somewhat familiar with the plot.

"This is a man who's larger than life. So the treatment is very reverential," he explains. "They're already prompting you with the suggestion, 'This is an important movie. You need to go see this.' "

The most intriguing aspect of the trailer for Garrett is the fact that the voice of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln isn't heard until after the one-minute mark. He thinks that was done intentionally.

"You hear this thin, reedy voice," he says. "If that was the first voice you'd heard or the first one you've seen if you watched the trailer, you might have giggled a little bit."

Garrett says the editors likely asked this question: "How do we introduce him without scaring everybody away, or making them laugh or making them think this is a comedy instead of a historical drama?"

Garrett says there's a lot of pressure on the editors putting these packages together. "There's so much money involved with some of the larger, big studio films, that I think there is an anxiety about people not quite knowing what to expect."

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Before they tear open the envelope, before a single step on the red carpet, before the nominations, before we see the two-hour movies, comes the two-minute trailer. Best picture, best schmicture(ph). What's the best movie trailer you've never forgotten? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Yesterday, The New York Times dissected movie trailers with, among others, Stephen Garrett, founder of Jump Cut Creative, which specializes in trailers for foreign, independent and documentary films. And he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in today.

STEPHEN GARRETT: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And where do you start to make a trailer? From the print of the film?

GARRETT: Well, I mean, it's actually - it's what you would think, actually. We take the best parts of the movie, and we assemble them all together in a nice, neat, tidy two -minute trailer.

CONAN: The best parts of the movie. What are you trying to convey? The plot?

GARRETT: Well, it depends. You know, if there's a movie that's very plot-heavy, actually, the selections - you know, the best picture nominees, it's a great field this year. And there's a wide diversity of storytelling going on. There are a lot of very traditional narratives, and then there are other films that are, you know, kind of various to your(ph) art house films that don't follow the same sort of story beats that you would expect from a Hollywood movie, so to speak.

CONAN: Well, we're going to play just a couple. These are among the favorites. First, from the "Silver Linings Playbook" trailer. The movie stars Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, nominated, of course, for best picture.


ROBERT DE NIRO: (as Pat Solitano, Sr.) Pat?

BRADLEY COOPER: (as Pat Solitano, Jr.) Hey.

NIRO: (as Pat Solitano, Sr.) What's this? You didn't tell me you him out.

JACKI WEAVER: (as Dolores Solitatno) The court said yes.

NIRO: (as Pat Solitano, Sr.) Yeah. But what did the doctor say?

MATTHEW RUSSELL: (as Ricky D'Angelo) Can I do an interview for a school project on mental illness?

NIRO: (as Pat Solitano, Sr.) No.

COOPER: (as Pat Solitano, Jr.) I'm ready. I feel motivated. I don't feel so angry all the time.

(as Pat Solitano, Jr.) No. The whole time you root for this Hemingway guy to survive the war and to be with the woman that he loves.

WEAVER: (as Dolores Solitano) It's 4 o'clock in the morning, Pat.

COOPER: (as Pat Solitano, Jr.) I can't apologize. I will apologize on behalf of Ernest Hemingway, because that's who's to blame here.

NIRO: (as Pat Solitano, Sr.) Yeah, have Ernest Hemingway call us and apologize to us, too.

CONAN: Well, that's just the first 40 seconds or so. It goes on for two-and-a-half minutes, and pretty much in sequence. All the stuff we heard was right from the beginning.

GARRETT: Yeah, it is. I mean, that's in the first maybe 10 or 15 minutes of the film, and the whole trailer is actually structured that way. It's hitting story beats, one after the next. I wouldn't say that the movie's traditional, by any means, in terms of the characters. They're so eccentric, and they're very lovable and endearing in their own ways. But you do follow a story beat-by-beat when the trailer progresses, and it kind of gives you a very clear overview of what this movie is like and what to expect when you go see the movie.

CONAN: What is the purpose of a trailer? We often don't see that two-and-a-half-minute version.

GARRETT: Well, you want to sell tickets. So that's...

CONAN: (unintelligible)

GARRETT: I'm sorry. I don't mean to be...


GARRETT: ...pedantic, but you really want to get butts in the seats and you want to highlight the best parts of that movie. This movie, "Silver Linings," for example, the comedy is really fun, but also somewhat different. And it's making - I don't want to say making light of, but there is humor that is couched in fundamentally serious issues, mental illness, you know.

And you'll see that the way that they introduce the concept of mental illness, they do it in the first five or 10 seconds of the trailer. You hear that ding-dong, and then you hear a kind of a teenager's voice saying, oh, I'm doing paper on mental illness, and then you hear the father say no. And then the door is slammed, and then the music kicks in. So that's what you would call, like, a nice little punctuation for the trailer. You start with this kind of cold open, and then you go into the body of the trailer, which is this is a movie about mental illness. But it's going to make you laugh.

CONAN: Yeah. Is there a risk - because I've seen some movie trailers in theaters, and after I've seen it, I said, I've seen that picture. I don't need to buy a ticket.

GARRETT: Yeah. I mean, that's a huge risk. And it really - it's a fine balance. You want to give people as much as possible to entice them, but you don't want to give them such a feast, such an overload that they think, oh, well, you know, you've shown me every single beat, the first act, the second act, the third act, you know, the big climax. You know, that's one thing that always makes me cringe when I'm in a movie theater and I hear - overhear people after the trailer and saying we'll, I won't see that movie, you know, because it's given everything away.

But there is pressure - there's so much involved, there's so much money involved with some of the larger big studio films, that I think there is an anxiety about people not quite knowing what to expect. You know, one trailer which I thought was a very well-cut trailer, and there are a couple of trailers for it, but the Marc Webb "Spider-Man" reboot that came out I think last summer had a bunch of different trailers.

But I remember seeing at least one of the trailers, if not two, literally give you every single beat of the movie, all the way through to the big climax, you know, at the end of, I think on top of, you know, probably the Chrysler building or something like that or the big evil scientist's lair. But yeah, you see that kind of thing, and you think, oh, I've already seen it. But then again, with "Spider-Man," you kind of already have seen (unintelligible) the movie.

CONAN: (Unintelligible) Tobey Maguire (unintelligible).

GARRETT: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: We're going to play another one, and this is the - part of the trailer for "Lincoln," nominated for 12 Oscars this year, including best picture.


DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.

HAL HOLBROOK: (as Francis Preston Blair) We can't tell our people they can vote yes on abolishing slavery unless at the same time we can tell them that you're seeking and negotiating peace.

DAVID STRATHAIM: (as William Seward) It's either the amendment or this confederate peace. You cannot have both.

JACKIE EARLE HALEY: (as Alexander Stephens) How many hundreds of thousands have died during your administration?

LEE PACE: (as Fernando Wood) Congress must never declare equal those whom God created unequal.

BYRON JENNINGS: (as Montgomery Blair) Leave the Constitution alone.

DAY-LEWIS: (as Abraham Lincoln) We've stepped out upon the world stage now, with the faith of human dignity in our hands. Blood's been spilled to afford us this moment. Now, now, now.

CONAN: Well, that's a little bit different from the "Silver Linings Playbook."

GARRETT: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, it's a kind of film that is, you know, it's a, you know, capital I, capital F important film. This is dealing with Lincoln. This is an American icon. This is literally a chiseled statue that you can go visit in Washington, D.C. This is a man who's larger than life. So the treatment is very reverential. You hear those first opening chords of the music, and I think it's a piano tinkle then accompanied by strings, you slowly, softly are let into it. But it's a very classical sort of cue.

It's almost very, frankly, and I think probably quite consciously, reminiscent of the Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War. So orally, they're already prompting you with the suggestion this is an important movie. You need to go see this, you know. But they're also...

CONAN: In fact, you're probably a ratfink if you don't.

GARRETT: Yeah. You're pretty much, you know, a traitor to your country if you don't see this movie. But they are setting up some, you know, again, all these trailers are made masterfully, and they're made very consciously with a very specific structure. They are presenting an idea, immediately, that is the idea of the movie of the movie, the concept of the movie, you know, whether it's doing a paper on mental illness, you know, this is a movie about mental illness.

The first opening lines of this trailer, you know, let the dead not be, you know, have not died in vain. This is a new birth of freedom. I'm assuming that's the Gettysburg Address, although it's been a while since I've read it.

CONAN: You're right. You got that one right, yeah.

GARRETT: Yeah. And, you know, those are the Great Ideas, and again, capital letters on both those words, that is what the movie - is the reason that the movie exist. And then you hear a music break and then new voices come in. You know, you can either abolish slavery or you can have a negotiated peace. You cannot have both. And that's the fundamental tension in the film. They're not necessarily giving you the plot, they're giving you a broad outline of what the movie is about.

But, you know, you're not really getting the horse trading, which is what the bread and butter of this whole film is, in Tony Kushner's screenplay. But I think the most intriguing about this trailer is that it's introducing iconic images, sounds, ideas, but you're not actually hearing Lincoln until about the one-minute mark.

CONAN: Yeah.

GARRETT: And you hear him very - at the, you know, in your excerpt, he's right towards the end. And you hear this thin, reedy voice, you know, we've stepped out onto the world stage now. If that was the first voice you'd heard or the first one you've seen if you watched the trailer, you might have giggled a little bit.

And I think they were very conscious about how do we - we are being meticulous in our recreation of Lincoln, and we have documents showing that he had a high-pitched voice. How do we introduce him without scaring everybody away, or making them laugh or making them think this is a comedy instead of a historical drama?

CONAN: Yeah. We've asked listeners: Which movie trailer will you never forget? This is an email from Kim in Wichita: Movie trailer I'll never forget, 1980s, "The Shining." The elevator full of blood is something that caught my attention right away. On the other hand, the teaser for the first "Scooby Doo" made us think a new Batman movie was coming. I think it might have driven away more customers than it attracted. But getting back to "The Shining," there were a couple of different trailers for "The Shining," one we had a lot of Jack and one didn't.

GARRETT: Well, you know, the most famous one is the one that the listener is referring to which is the - it's a static shot, and of course, the best way to build tension - it's ironic because you see a lot of fast cutting in trailers, and that's meant to build tension. And it does to a certain extent, but another really insidious way to build tension is not to cut all. And it's a one-shot take. And it's a special shoot.

Actually, they use some of the footage in the film itself, because it's Danny's nightmarish vision of the elevators opening up and blood gushing out. But in the film, it's chopped up. And in the teaser, you are just stuck there watching the doors of the elevator. And for a while, it's very placid. But then the doors open and then the blood comes out, and then it keeps coming out.

CONAN: And then you see it splashes against the sides of the walls, and then splashes up against the camera lens. So it's literally bathing everything in red. And while you're watching that, you're hearing - Tangerine Dream composed the music for the film. I don't know if they quite did it for the trailer as well, but its high pitch kind of a drone screeching synth string cue that is incredibly disturbing. I mean, it's - I wouldn't say it's nails on a chalkboard, but it's pretty close in terms of unsettling you and making your, you know, hair stand on end.

GARRETT: And then also while that's going on, you're seeing credits roll backwards, which again subverting what you're used to because it's creating a sense of unease. That was the big thing with Kubrick in "The Shining." And you're watching these credits roll backwards. So already it feels weird, like, why are they rolling the wrong way? And that's, of course, giving you the information, the basic information. This is a movie that...

CONAN: Oh, backwards that way?

GARRETT: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Not just a giant picture of Westrex Recording System.

GARRETT: Oh, no, no, no. These are - I'm sorry - it's not the actual credits but the rolling of the screen instead of rolling down the screen, and it's giving you basic information based on Stephen King's novel, or it's a new film of Stanley Kubrick and then "The Shining" and every like that. It's very - it's there, which also very gothic and very baroque in a lot of other ways visioning this.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Garret, founder of Jump Cut Creative, which specializes in trailers for foreign, independent and documentary films. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Adan on the line. Adan with us from Elkhart, Indiana.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

ADAN: So the trailer that stuck with me this season was the trailer whenever the "Die Hard" number 16 is coming out.


ADAN: And it was just because of the "Beethoven 9" underscoring all of Bruce Willis (unintelligible).

CONAN: Probably used to the first time in a trailer since the Charles Grodin movie "Beethoven."


GARRETT: Yeah. I mean, it's a great...

ADAN: That's just the musician I have listened to what the music is in the trailers more.

CONAN: Yeah. And music is really important in a lot of these.

GARRETT: Oh, it's paramount. I mean, music will make and break certain types of trailers. And the trailer for "Die Hard," the latest "Die Hard" - well, first of all, there are two reasons why they're using it. The first is, of course, it's the signature piece of music from the original "Die Hard" film 25 years ago. So there's a certain, you know, it's very - apropos to use it in the latest film.

But it's got everything you need if you're cutting a trailer. It's got very fast syncopation. It's got, you know, a really staccato sort of beat to it. You've got voices hitting, you know, persistently and excitingly. You can cut a really good action montage - a lot explosions. I mean, I don't think, in particular, that's what Beethoven intended, but...


GARRETT: ...but a lot of skimpy ladies and explosions go well with his music.

CONAN: Oh, let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Morgan. Morgan with us from Oklahoma City.

MORGAN: Yeah. Hi. I'm glad to be on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MORGAN: My most memorable movie trailer is definitely "Cloud Atlas" for me, because it's the longest one. I think it was like six minutes and 30 seconds, and I think they could have done a lot better if they just didn't the movie and just did the trailer.


GARRETT: Well, the trailer is funny. It's really complicated - I've been told, I haven't read the book, it's a bit daunting - but I hear it's incredibly complicated novel. And it was quite a Herculean, maybe Sisyphean task, to actually make it into a movie. But I kind of agree with you. You know, the trailer, it was a longer trailer. I think they - that I first saw it on iTunes and it's very unusual to see a six minute trailer anywhere. That's usually what they generally call a promo that they show at - they show sales agents, they show at film markets during film festivals, they show potential buyers who want to see the movie but they don't actually have the film finished editing yet, so they put together a six minute, sort of, sizzle reel.

So I don't quite know the origin of this, but certainly it works quite well. And actually, time wise, all trailers, for the most part, are no longer two and a half minutes. That's a - if you're a signatory of the Motion Picture Association of America, they put a cap at two and a half minutes. And they'll give studios waivers for one or two films a year, I think, where you can go three minutes or three and a half minutes. So I have to imagine, Warner Bros. probably asked for a waiver for the "Cloud Atlas," you know?

I would say very quickly with that. You know, the movie is so hard to explain, but the concepts, freedom versus tyranny through the ages, through the centuries, and the different lines of dialogue they used for that trailer, all these people emoting and emoting, earnestly these ideas. And so it works quite well. It's very effective visually and thematically, in terms of the dialogue. But it's hard to really say what the heck is going on in that thing.

CONAN: As what's with the movie - Morgan, thanks very much.

MORGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: A couple of emails. This is from Ingrid in Custer, South Dakota: The trailer for "Jaws" and the music were chilling. We're used to sail our Hobie Cat in Southern Jersey shore, and the entire summer, I would recall the trailer and the haunting music each time we sailed.

Wileen(ph) in Austin: The best trailer was from my favorite movie "The Matrix." When I saw Neo, Keanu Reeves, bend backwards and the bullets fly by, I said, I have got to see this.

And then this is from Sarah in San Diego: What's the movie trailer you'll never forget? The "Watchmen" by director Zack Snyder, trailer number one this page. And there's been a couple of people who nominate that but I have to ask Stephen Garret. Are there awards for trailers?

GARRETT: There are. They're called the Golden Trailer Awards, actually, friendly enough. There's also - that's been around for, I think, close to 14 years at this point. I think it started '98 or '99. The Key Art Awards are an award show sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter, I think, and that's been going on for a few decades now. And what they recognize is the entire marketing campaign. They do the one-sheets, the actual posters you see, the television spots, the ads in the newspapers, you know, the whole thing and not just the trailers, but they do have an award for trailers. But it generally tends to be one or two awards. I think they have expanded it slightly.

But the Golden Trailer Awards are little more dear and hear to - near and dear to the hearts of kind of trailer editors like myself because they have more categories, so that's...

CONAN: Gives a better chance to win.

GARRETT: Yeah. Better chance to win, frankly. They're better odds. But you also get a little bit more recognition by your peers and four specific type of work. If you're cutting a romance, you're not going up against an action movie. It's a different, different set of priorities.

CONAN: Well, good luck at this year's Golden Trailers.

GARRETT: Thank you.

CONAN: Stephen Garret, founder of Jump Cut Creative, trailer house in New York. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, Jennifer Ludden's with the look at what's changing for gay military spouses and what isn't. Join her for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.