Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Trailer moments

When you go in and pitch a comedy idea to a movie studio, they’ll usually ask you, “What are the trailer moments?” Sometimes they’ll ask this in lieu of, “What is the story?” But studio comedies are all about boxoffice. High-concept ideas, bankable stars, sequels, franchises.

Some studio people will tell you (but deny it) that sometimes the trailer is more important than the film.

Nancy Meyers makes trailers and then just pads the remaining 89 minutes with filler.

My writing partner and I were once hired to write some jokes expressly to be inserted into a trailer. It was maybe the greatest and shortest gig we ever had. We asked, if the jokes work, will you put them in the movie itself?  No.

When you watch comedy trailers, be aware – these are the funniest moments in the film. These are the big pratfalls (trailer makers LOVE pratfalls), the best zingers, and what they hope will be the most memorable moments. Or, in the case of Nancy Meyers, the only moments.

So if the trailer isn’t funny, if the jokes are forced, if the physical stunts are lame, if the best they could do was a gag about shit on Katherine Heigl’s face, then you can bet the movie will be what’s on Katherine Heigl’s face.

But what if the trailer is funny? Knowing that these are the best jokes, you may wonder if it’s still worth seeing because you know all the highlights? Here’s the amazing thing. The laughs in the trailer get the biggest laughs in the theater, even though most of the audience has been exposed to the jokes already. It's bizarre. 

However, the same does not hold true for giving away plot twists in the trailer. Spoiler alerts might not apply for jokes but they sure do for stories. And as a general rule, if you can set up the premise easily and clearly in a trailer, then you don’t need thirty minutes of screen time to do the same thing.

Trailers today have become an art… and a science. The amount of creativity and research that goes into previews is staggering. I can’t imagine J.D. Salinger ever went to his editor with a new book he intended to write and heard the editor say, “What are five good blurbs?” But that’s the current feature world. So when you pitch your comedy, make sure someone gets hit in the nuts, at least two people are humiliated, people dance to a 60s hit, the punchline to a joke is “vagina”, and you feature Betty White. Close your sale, and then go write STALAG 17.

21 comments:

Mark said...

>>Nancy Meyers makes trailers and then just pads the remaining 89 minutes with filler.<<

Hey, don't downplay her "talent"...

How many other writer/directors could have managed to create a comedy starring Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and Meryl Street that-- except for the first 15 minutes or so-- was completely unwatchable?

Bill Peschel said...

I had seen enough trailers to recognize that if it didn't make me laugh, the movie wouldn't, either.

Of course, laughing at the trailer didn't mean the movie would, either, but the reverse is guaranteed.

Tom Murphy said...

"So when you pitch your comedy, make sure someone gets hit in the nuts, at least two people are humiliated, people dance to a 60s hit, the punchline to a joke is “vagina”, and you feature Betty White. Close your sale, and then go write STALAG 17."

Shouldn't a dog be humping someone's leg as well?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Didn't Nancy Meyers used to be a movie executive back in the 1980's?

As far as trailers go, they're definitely made down to a science these days. You can anticipate every single little moment that brings the audience's attention, especially when it comes to comedy film trailers.

My cousins and I have a tradition. Every friday afternoon or so, we sit down on the couch and screen a bunch of trailers for films we haven't seen yet. So, I tend to pay close attention to their structure. Horror films and comedy films are exceptionally predictable in that regard.

Tony said...

I had no idea who Nancy Meyers was, so I IMDBed her. I haven't seen any of her recent movies (ah the joys of being single), but I don't remember Father of the Bride being all that bad. Am I crazy?

Joad Cressbeckler said...

You've told us that story about writing jokes for the trailer that didn't make it into the movie so many times, I think you're almost obligated to let us know what the movie was. I know, professional courtesy, you won't. But please stop teasing because I've been wondering for years what movie that possibly was.

Anonymous said...

What, no mention of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves being required in the trailer as well?

Ben said...

Ken--have you seen Movie Trailer yet? Really funny:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcD292xrpjY

gottacook said...

To be fair: There has been one funny line ending with the word "vagina" in a movie, in Bullets over Broadway (of course it wasn't used in the trailer): "You stand on the brink of greatness. The world will open to you like an oyster. No... not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina." Dianne Wiest took home an Academy Award for the part. Any use of "vagina" as a punchline since then is guaranteed to be inferior.

As for Meyers, the Shyer/Meyers comedies before they split up weren't always bad - I'm thinking of the long-ago Irreconcilable Differences and its scene from the musical version of "Gone with the Wind," starring Ryan O'Neal's character's paramour played by Sharon Stone.

gottacook said...

Addendum: Just checked IMDB and learned that one of the writers of Sharon Stone's wonderfully ludicrous song in Irreconcilable Differences (sung during the burning of Atlanta) was none other than Jerry Belson.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

Once again, we disagree. Nancy Meyers is actually quite talented and makes really funny films. "It's Complicated" as an example, is a fun, very well made movie. But what do I know, I like Woody Allen's recent films, too:)

Dave Arnott said...

The laughs in the trailer get the biggest laughs in the theater, even though most of the audience has been exposed to the jokes already. It's bizarre.

Actually, this has always makes sense to me, if you don't look at it from the surprise/joke/comedy-writer POV.

When you watch something at home, you're likely to react to it in a way that's, for lack of a better term, "honest."

But once you become part of an audience, whether you want to admit it or not, there's now this chance for social embarrassment. A chance that you might react to something differently than everyone else (or most, anyway). And we, for the most part, don't want to do that when we're in a group. We want to be part of the group, right?

This is not that big a problem during a drama/tragedy, because pretty much the same things make us all cry, or feel sad. And even if you don't cry at something that I would - Lord help me, now that I'm older, I get misty, like, five or six times now during It's A Wonderful Life - even if you don't react as strongly, you likely understand that reaction. You can recognize that moment, regardless.

But comedy is all over the place. Heck, Ken, just go back and read the comments to those "Comedy Test" posts of yours. It's not just that some people didn't laugh at the clips from The Honeymooners or from Frasier, but they actually found these clips to be UNfunny. Meaning they didn’t necessarily understand, even, why others were laughing.

So... there we are. Sitting in a movie theater. Part of a audience. For the next two-ish hours, we are a mini-society. A whole. And we're all gonna see a comedy. And even though it's waaaaay down deep in our subconscious - we don't even recognize it, even - we all likely have this same fear: please don't laugh at something that NO ONE else does.

And this is why the trailer gags get the biggest laughs... almost always... for all funny (and even not funny) movies.

They are "approved" spots for laughing.

You may laugh at these moments without fear, because the trailer has already shown you that these are "proven" "funny" moments. Regardless of whether they genuinely are - it doesn't matter. Which is why people might laugh at these bits even if they DON'T think that moment is funny.

They wanna be part of the group. Or they don't want to stand out. Or both.

Because it's not about funny in those moments (though, of course, it still can be), it's about not being embarrassed and/or feeling like you belong.

My long-standing theory, anyway.

Mac said...

That's very interesting that you were hired to write for the trailer. I'd always assumed if jokes in the trailer weren't in the movie, it was because the trailer was made from an earlier cut, but obviously not.

Another major comedy klaxon in a trailer is when the opening music is stopped with the sound of a needle being scratched across a record. Or when a word like "hilarious" appears and disappears so fast you're unable to make out the review credit in tiny letters below it. It's usually some really obscure website or a magazine for people who like cats.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, Cameron Diaz's character in Nancy Meyer's "The Holiday" was a trailer editor.

Write what you know, I guess.

(though, as a friend of mine pointed out, it's probably best not to show a fake trailer within your movie that is more intriguing and entertaining than the real movie that surrounds it.)

-G

YEKIMI said...

I watched 2 minutes and 30 seconds of a "coming attraction" trailer for a comedy, laughed pretty hard and then saw the movie when it came out [sorry, cannot remember the name of the movie].....not one scene that was in the trailer was in the movie and I didn't even get a chuckle out of the movie. Talk about your false advertising.....

Jaded and Cynical said...

Interesting theory by Mr Arnott.

The same group dynamic probably explains why audiences laugh at painfully unfunny stand-up comedians.

Craig M. said...

A few years back, I did a post on my blog about the trailer for '"Romancing The Stone," one of those rare trailers that was built around new footage to frame the clips"

http://craigmcnamara.blogspot.com/2008/01/when-movie-previews-were-more-than-just.html

Deconstruction On Madison Avenue,
A fun blog on advertising's pop cultural influences

Paul Duca said...

Craig...the trailer is no longer up--there is a message saying the YouTube account has been terminated.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I disagree somewhat with Arnott's theory.

When I watched The Social Network, there were plenty of fun moments. The audience laughed at the more predictable ones. But not everyone did. I didn't either.

To me, the best moments were the more recognizable Sorkin dialogue traits. Those were the ones that got a laugh out of me. Not everyone gets these moments, and I didn't have a problem with being the only one on the theater who was really laughing at these moments.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

How many other writer/directors could have managed to create a comedy starring Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and Meryl Street that-- except for the first 15 minutes or so-- was completely unwatchable?

She also does not know how, and when, to end her movies. They always run too long. She's the female Garry Marshall, except with a better eye for talent, though not her own.

WV: prepi - The numbers that were famous before "pi" came along and relegated them to not getting any more work.

Lou H. said...

Overheard on the NY-Philly train last month: someone who worked for an indie distributor was talking (to his friend across the aisle, so half the train heard it) about how they got the goahead to buy a film based just on the trailer. Then someone got ahold of the script, realized the movie was horrible, and ran to reach the buyer to scuttle the deal with apparently just moments to spare. It seems insane to me that someone would buy a movie based on just the trailer!