Sunday, December 28, 2014

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.

This is a repost while I celebrate the holidays.


MikeK.Pa. said...

Can't wait to see the trailer of Nancy Meyers' newest film THE INTERN, starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. Will save me $10 at the box office.

Speaking of De Niro, funniest line at this year's WH Correspondents' Dinner delivered by Joel McHale was his impression of De Niro's agent answering the telephone: "He'll do it!"

Diane D. said...

God, I loved this interesting and hilarious post. It also solved a puzzlement I have had for years---how is it that I sometimes see things in trailers that aren't in the movie.

I wasn't surprised to hear that the laughs in the trailer get the biggest laughs in the theatre. Most of the time I don't laugh out loud at a joke the second time (and never if it is just a joke that is told to me), but there are some scenes in film/tv that I laugh at every time I see them.

In the first year of Cheers there is an episode where a customer tells Coach he wants to talk to "Gus". Coach says, "Gus who?" the guy is very annoyed at the question. Coach then turns and asks Norm if he knows a Gus and Norm also says, "Gus who?' The customer overhears and is again very annoyed. When Coach then says, "He hates that question!" I laugh every time. It's not even a sophisticated joke, but something about it gets to me every time. I'm sure Nicholas Colasanto's talent and delivery is a big part of it.

Your J. D. Salinger reference and advice to comedy writers was an LOL moment this morning!

Igor said...

As a general matter, I'm not a fan of Nancy Meyers' films. Because I don't have much interest in the worlds depicted in them.

But a friend suggested I read some of her scripts, and I found them really well written - clear, well-structured. And then I watched the films made from those scripts, and they were also well done. In other words, she skillfully hits her marks.

So, Ken, did I chuckle at your above quips about her? Yes. But I still thought to put in this plug for her work.

cadavra said...

I remember seeing the trailer for WAITING FOR GUFFMAN several times, and then when I saw the film itself, realized almost nothing in the trailer was in the movie. But since it was mostly improvised, I wasn't duly bothered.

But it IS odd how often very funny lines in the trailer somehow fail to make the final cut. THE classic example of this is the "Yellowstone" joke in MAJOR LEAGUE. So many people complained that it wasn't in the film that when they made the sequel, they shot it again and this time made sure it stayed in.

David S. said...

I once worked on an interview show which featured director Joe Dante. Dante talked about working on trailers for Roger Corman during the 1970's. There was a film called "Tidal Wave" which was a Japanese movie that Corman was releasing in the U.S. To add to the Japanese version for American audiences, he shot new material featuring Lorne Greene at the United Nations. Even though Lorne Greene never interacted with the people in the Japanese film, they would cut away to him at the U.N. for his scenes. Lorne Green (and the U.N.) were never in danger, as the movie was about a tidal wave hitting Japan. However during the making the trailer, they sprinkled dust onto Lorne Greene and shook the camera, so it looked like the U.N. was about to be hit with the tidal wave. This was never in the film!

Also during that same interview, Joe Dante talked about footage of a helicopter crash they had available to them that was inserted into a number of trailers for films that did not actually have helicopter crashes in them. Though they clearly made for a more exciting trailer!

Hamid said...

C'mon, Ken, you've gotta tell us which movie trailer you and David wrote jokes for!

DBenson said...

Anybody see that "Foxchaser" spot that makes it look like an inspirational sports film, with Steve Carell playing an idealist instead of a rich psycho? I'm beginning to wonder if I hallucinated it.

TB said...

I am so sick of the stupid sound effects they use a dozen times in every trailer. You know, zzzzZZZZZONGG!!! It is totally played out. Enough already.

Barbara C. said...

When I saw the real teaser for the new Star Wars movie, I thought it was a joke. The black stormtrooper popping up out of the sand made me think of Spaceballs. Honestly.

All of the fake teasers that were made by fans were a million times better and made me want to see the movie more than the official one.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I recall the trailer for "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" with Michael Caine and Steve Martin, depicted a scene in which Martin pushes a woman in a canal (as the voice over says, "They ARE dirty...rotten...scoundrels"). It was hysterical. But it was not found in the movie.

cadavra said...

Two favorites that didn't make it into the film:

Rickman: "Are you an American?"
Willis: "Only if New Jersey counts."

MURDER AT 1600--
Benzali: "You were born to be a chalk outline."

Johnny Walker said...

There's been a few times I've seen a comedy, and later caught the trailer. What amazes me is when they put a huge laugh from the film in the trailer... that was a big payoff from something setup earlier in the movie.

You can imagine the meeting Discussing the trailer:

Producer #1: "Where's the big laugh moment?"
Producer #2: "I thought we were agreed that the biggest laugh in the movie was a payoff from earlier in the film, and that it doesn't make much sense on its own."
Producer #1: "It's the biggest laugh in the movie, ergo it's going in the trailer. End of story."

Also, although I laugh when I see a joke played out in the trailer, I never laugh as hard, and sometimes even inwardly groan. The funniest moments always work best when they're surprises if you ask me.

As an aside: I'm in Spain at the moment and caught a Canadian silent sketch show called LOL. It's abysmal. Jokes that you could write in half a second executed terribly. Has anyone seen it? I'm amazed such a thing could be so popular as to be imported.

Johnny Walker said...

Exported, I mean.

chuckcd said...

Like that great line from Major League that only appeared in the trailer:

Catcher: "That ball wouldn't have been out of most parks"

Pitcher: "Name one"

Catcher: "Yellowstone"