The topic for this post came to my mind as I was on Youtube yesterday. A giant ad banner for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the new David Fincher adaptation of the Swedish bestseller, was flashing on the home page, and I quickly succumbed to the temptation of watching the two movie trailers.
Trailers can be considered as advertisement – after all, like any ad, they’re here to sell their product by making it look good. But trailers are also governed by more specific laws. They must give a good idea of what the movie is about, without giving away too much of the plot. Some take these rules very seriously: a woman recently sued the company distributing the movie Drive because she found the trailer too misleading!
On top of all that, I’ve always thought that trailers, kind of like music videos, are an art form in themselves, with different conventions and styles. Trailers vary greatly according to genres: we all know for instance what the typical trailer for a typical romantic comedy is going to look like (and therefore we can deduce what the movie will be like): cheesy pop/piano song, male voice-over or text outlining the plot, etc. etc.
Trailers can also vary across countries. Take the French movie Tomboy for instance: the French trailer does not have text, and does not structure the plot in the same way than the US one does.
Trailers also vary a lot in structure, and the Girl with The Dragon Tattoo trailers are good examples of two extremes:
The first one is what I would call a montage-like trailer, a rapid succession of shots that flash too quickly for your eyes to process everything, in sync with the music. This trailer doesn’t explain anything at all about the movie.
The second one is a micro-movie: this trailer keeps the exact same narrative structure of the movie, only cutting out the end.
And now, the crucial question: which one is the best? I have to admit that I prefer the first one (I mean, c’mon, it’s so badass!), but since we’re dealing with ads here, the right question is probably which one is the best for whom? Indeed, I suspect that the use of two radically different trailers is an attempt to target two different populations: namely, those who already know the plot, and those who don’t. The second trailer leaves you hanging and makes you want to know what’s next, but if you already know who’s the bad guy from the beginning, the first trailer will convince you to go watch the movie for the visuals and the feel of it, not the plot. Such a strategy seems pretty justified when dealing with such a famous book, since so many people have read the book or seen the Swedish movie. We can observe a similar phenomenon with the trailers for Watchmen, the adaptation of the famous graphic novel (montage-like and micro-movie).
However this hypothesis does not seem to explain everything: the Harry Potter movies, for instance, have some pretty classic, “linear-narration” trailers, when one would assume that most viewers already knew the story. I guess that in this specific case, with such a famous and beloved franchise, people don’t care about what the trailer (or the movie…) looks like, and will go watch the movie anyway (the same could be said of the Twilight series).
But in my opinion, more than a simple commercial strategy, the decision to use montage-like trailers stems from an aesthetic preference and a desire to communicate a specific mood or ambience rather than a simple plot. The (only) trailer for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a good example: very short, no dialogue, no plot… if you ask me, it works great!