The secret anatomy of successful film trailers

When The Social Network trailer by Mark Woollen & Associates was released on YouTube in 2010 it was watched 1.8 million times. Since then, it’s been viewed by millions and won awards. Even if the film missed out on the top Oscar, it was a hit. So was the trailer.

Running just 2:30 minutes, the trailer went from “22,000 hits in two hours” to 200 million friends, from wanting to make friends to losing a best friend, from overnight success to the threat of a shutdown. It revealed the characters, the storyline and the style of the film, motivating moviegoers to regard the film as a ‘must-see.'

 As marketing campaigns for films try to meet audiences’ expectation, trailers have grown more sophisticated, increasing in importance with the heightened competition. With the trailer giving the first impression, there’s a skillful art to making a film standout.

Opening with an eerie choral version of Radiohead’s song “Creep” sung by a Belgian choir, lines like “I want to have control” and “I want you to notice” ran through a series of images to underscore the themes of The Social Network

“Music is critical to everything we do,” Woollen told Relaxnews. “It establishes the rhythm, gives shape to all that follows. Creating the first minute of that trailer was like a prologue or overture to a symphony. “ 

The Social Network trailer swept last year’s Golden Trailer Awards, which rolls around again in May. It took Best in Show, Best Drama, Music and Most Original. It also topped The Hollywood Reporter’s Key Art Awards and won’s top prize with a Perfect 10, with the site stating “this montage brings the cultural, physiological and emotional impacts of our new Facebook-driven social order into poetic clarity.”

Woollen’s attempt to connect emotions with the computer screen worked from a ‘Friend Request’ to ‘Relationship Status,’ and in creative shorthand, showed the intriguing story behind the phenomenon. There was great interest in the film but the trailer also connected emotionally with viewers.

 “I always try to capture the feeling that I have when I’m watching the film. I want to do it justice,” says Woolen, who leans toward impressionistic work and “lets the movie speak for itself.”

Woollen and company work on trailers for mostly indie and Oscar-type material, such as Tree of Life and Black Swan, instead of summer blockbusters. They screen a film dozens of times, often a work-in-progress, distilling the critical moments or dialogue to condense the plot into a few ideas.

 The craft of making a good trailer includes essential elements -- introducing characters, establishing the conflict and escalating events -- while still leaving viewers wanting more. Different genres, including comedy, drama, action, horror and animation, each require a unique type of marketing campaign, from booming voiceovers to lightning-fast edits.

 “Trailers fall into patterns but the best ones go beyond the formula and do something different,” Jesse Davis of The Film Informant explains. “Ideally, it can tell the story visually, creating the intended mood and reaching a target audience. But it’s got to be distinct.”

The Film Informant trailer scores, from 1 to 10, follow a list of criteria from originality of concept to quality of execution with points for editing, sound, etc.

 “Finding the happy medium between saying nothing and spilling everything is the goal,” says Davis, citing the teaser trailer for Rock of Ages as an example, with Tom Cruise not showing up until the end to build anticipation and create surprise.

When a trailer doesn’t entice viewers, there’s immediate feedback on film blogs and comments section. Creative fans of John Carter made their own trailers, re-editing posted footage, in an effort to ‘help’ the campaign, which didn’t fly in North America:

Film studios also make international versions in other countries, if more suitable to the market, such as this Japanese trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man:

In a primarily anonymous medium, the film trailer features work by unsung heroes that work at best reflecting the film. Can it make a film a hit?

“If it were a science, than every film would make over $100 million,” Woollen said refusing credit or blame. “There are so many contributing factors – the reviews, the release date, competition, and even snowstorms.”

The Social Network trailer: