Making movie trailers is about three steps laterally from being a snake oil salesman waltzing through Topeka in the late 1870s. Everywhere else in American corporate society there are pretty strict rules about false advertising, but movie previews remain the one place where lying your ass off is not only recommended, but required. I worked for several of the big movie trailer houses in Los Angeles, and while there was enough money surrounding them to make each place its own hushed enclave of secrecy, the people working there would usually whisper that their advertisements are frequently hilariously off-base.
Most of the time it’s just because the movie sucked. Turd-polishing accounts for most of the misrepresentation, as studios will do just about anything to make a few bait-and-switch bucks back on opening weekend. I worked on one Ephron-esque vehicle that shall remain nameless – a lifeless, confusing, roadkill of a film that had the bloated sheen of the recently dead and they told us to come up with a trailer that was as fuckin’ happy-go-lucky as a juggling clown on crystal meth. And if I were an ordinary Josephine who paid money to see that movie because of the trailer, I would have been very, very upset.
As for the “giving away all the endings” thing, do what we did: blame the studio. They’re the ones that always ask for 19 great ideas and 1 stupid one and always go with the stupid one. They demand that trailer makers give away the endings to movies because they have no faith that your average McNugget-passing schlub has the ability to comprehend a movie unless the murderer is revealed thirteen seconds into the trailer. And thanks in part to the movies the studios make, they’re probably right.
I got into trailers almost by accident, if calling every day for five months seems like an accident. My friend Amy Hill said she wrote trailer copy one summer and the money was good, so I banged on doors until they brought me in. At the meeting, the president of Universal called and said that the trailers for Mystery Men “weren’t tracking worth a damn” and to get someone else on it. They looked at me, and I was thrown to the wolves. Two hours later I returned with twenty ideas, and the head of the department said, “we’re going to make you very, very rich.”
Of course, that didn’t happen, but I did manage to stay afloat in Los Angeles for a long time by writing everything that guy says you know, the “In a world where love means nothing…” kind of thing. And I did have three or four campaigns that went through the roof, the biggest of which was Sleepy Hollow, whereby three words paid for my 33rd year: “Heads Will Roll.”
Los Angeles being what it is, and me being deep-dipped in shit as I was, I lost most of my contacts in the business and moved to New York in mid-2000 and didn’t think about trailers again (unless a particularly awful one was screening). Until today, that is, when I suddenly had to make a trailer for my own movie, and another film I hadn’t seen until Monday. This was more intense than just copywriting, however, this is the whole shebang: I had to pick all of the scenes, marry them to the words, and still make people feel like filing in the door from thither and yon.
Writing for trailer copy is basically the marriage of haiku and commerce with a nice “parallel construction” thrown in. By that I mean:
HE TAUGHT HER HOW TO LIVE
SHE TAUGHT HIM HOW TO LOVE
BLAH BLAH BLAH FUCKING BLAH
One of my faves (never used, of course) from the Stuart Little campaign was this:
THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, CHRISTMAS WILL BE BIG…
SANTA WILL BE HUGE…
AND STUART… WILL BE “LITTLE.”
THE STORY OF A LITTLE MOUSE
IN THE BIG APPLE.
You get the idea. Looks easy, but you try it. And it’s a lot harder to do on your own movie, because you’re not used to looking at the forest for the trees. Our project seems to be going swimmingly, however our editor Jessie has lots of good ideas and never fails to admit her bad ones. I, too, am finding it a lot easier to say how bad certain things I make can suck. We’re back in the editing bay tomorrow for round two, so I leave you with the trailer for this blog:
IN AN ONLINE WORLD…
ONE YOUNG MAN WILL POST HIS INNERMOST FEARS…
AND SOMEONE DEEP IN HIS PAST
WILL BRIGHTEN HIS FUTURE
THREE FRIENDS ON THE BRINK OF ADULTHOOD
ONE HAS A SECRET
HE TAUGHT HER HOW TO LOVE
BLAH BLAH FUCKING BLAH
our editor Jessie and me on her birthday in February; my hair has been shorn since, as a public service