Cinematic Convolutions: The Trailer


The Trailer. A common sight of our society; it plays in ads, in movie theaters, and in our TVs, and because of that it seems like a simple thing, at most being only 2-3 minutes long. But the trailer, in reality, is a complex package of decisions, ones that could make or break its movie.

I’ve always liked cinema and film, especially watching and analyzing movies, and so I wanted to start a series where I talked about my analysis of various movies/shows/ and different forms of media. I’m gonna start this week with The Trailer.

Think of the trailer like a balancing act:

The concept is solid, the filming is almost done, and you want the public to hear about your movie, but there’s a problem.

What do you show them?

You know you’ve got this really amazing shot of action here, but do you want to spoil it on the trailer? Or you’ve got this touching, tearjerker line delivered by a great actor, but shouldn’t you keep that for the real film? Or you really want to surprise the audience with this twist in the plot, but if you don’t include that in the trailer, won’t the trailer be too boring?

Too much information, you risk ruining the plot and therefore the movie for your audience, you have become your own spoiler! Too little information means you have a boring or dull trailer, one that would make your audience fall asleep.

This is the Game that Trailers must play: the balancing act of what they want to reveal to be interesting at the risk of what that reveal brings, and what the trailer might not have.

For example, watch this trailer:

Ask yourself, what’s wrong with this trailer?

If you answered: Way too much plot, then congratulations! You’re correct! This trailer revealed way too much of the plot, including a major twist in the story that should have been saved for the movie, and even included shots from the ending of the movie!

Now here’s a good example for a trailer:

Lets break this down, Shot by Shot:

[0:00-1:00] – An intriguing intro into our main character, with excellent use of indirect characterization to show that he’s desperate for a job, and experiencing the set up to his own business, a nightcrawler, while also introducing a secondary character.

[1:00-1:30]- A set up of background information showing the main character’s rise as a nightcrawler, setting up the beginning of a conflict point later on in the story, and beginning a moral theme of what is right and wrong to do as a nightcrawler.

[1:30-2:12] – This begins the rising action of the trailer, getting into some actions scenes, but also continuing themes that the trailer wishes to show the audience. “How far would you go for the American Dream?” The trailer begs the question: Is what the Main Character doing moral? It is intriguing and thought provoking, and makes the audience question themselves. Conflicts arise with the main character, experiencing pressure from his news outlets and the police, but not real plot is revealed.

[2:13-2:28]- This is the climax and end of the trailer. The almost disturbing shot of the Main Character in the mirror is jarring at first viewing and acts as a change of pace and adds shock value, as well as let the audience into the mind of the Main Character. The ending shots of action show the dangers of a Nightcrawler, and the last scene acts as indirect characterization for the News Cast Boss, and the last shot of the MC is sort of ominous and foreboding, intriguing the audience.

This trailer, overall, is a solid trailer. It explores the plot, the conflicts, and the general background information, but extends itself to ask moral questions and presents what should be recurring themes within the actual film itself. Aesthetically, it has a color scheme it follows, a general dark atmosphere, and was synced perfectly to a fitting soundtrack, adding to the trailer’s overall feel.

A trailer, done correctly, will create the same feel and intrigue as this one. It should inspire curiosity and create the desire in the audience to see it. But, in this modern day, most trailers are merely slapped together in two days by an editor or an editing team, creating disasters like the trailer I showed earlier. A great trailer knows its role and its purpose, and will use something called the “Rhetorical Situation.”

Under all media falls the Rhetorical Situation:


Applying this to a trailer is fairly easy, the subject is the movie, the context is the current time and culture of the time of the reveal of the trailer, the audience is well…the audience, the speaker being the studio that produced the trailer, and the message is the trailer itself. But the purpose is what makes trailers interesting in the rhetorical situation. Normal literature looks to express a purpose or meaning to the work, but trailers already know the message of the movie, but look to present that message in a way that doesn’t fully reveal it, but looks to create the desire to see that full message. In a way, trailers aim to obscure the view of a movie for an audience, clouding the rhetorical situation to create interest, rather than express a message.

Lets apply this to the trailers that we saw: Avatar and Nightcrawler.

In the case of Avatar, there was no clouding of the original message, the movie. The full plot was revealed and even the twist in the movie was given to the audience. Now under the normal Rhetorical Situation, it had a clear message and was textbook in its delivery, but we’re not operating under the “normal” Rhetorical Situation, we’re under the “Trailer” Rhetorical Situation, which looks to obscure the message, rather then present a clear view.

Now look at Nightcrawler, it has an obscured message, I know of the message, I have a general view of the movie, but it never gives me as much detail as Avatar, which in this Rhetorical Triangle, is a good thing. I have a general idea of plot and conflict, but no concrete details of the inner workings, those I will have to get from the movie itself, meaning the trailer has done its job.

But despite all this detail, there is a fundamental point I must make: At the end of the day, trailers may remain independent from the movie. What does this mean?

In laymen’s terms, no matter how bad or good the trailer is, it actually might have no impact on the movie itself, or its critical reception. The “bad” trailer I showed you? Well you should already know that it was from James Cameron’s “Avatar”, a movie that broke records and won many awards, in spite of having a terrible trailer. Disney’s “Frozen” had a terrible trailer, one that actually didn’t have enough info and, many critics wrote off the movie as soon as they saw the trailer, but it too came out to critical success and reviews. But it works the other way as well; “Watchmen” had a technically sound and fantastic trailer, but was a lackluster movie, with lackluster reviews.

But I believe these are exceptions to the rule, and generally, I feel that if a studio has enough attention to detail to create a great trailer, then its movie will have been made with that same level of detail, ensuring a great movie.

Take for example, what I consider one of the greatest, if not the greatest, trailer of all time:


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