Decades ago, Hollywood used to put previews of their coming attractions after the conclusion of their theatrical releases. The teasers earned the nickname “trailers” because they followed the feature film.
Today, trailers aren’t such an afterthought. Studios spend millions of dollars stirring up anticipation for their big-budget movies by releasing trailers that promise consumers something worth the hassle and expense of a ticket. The responsibility for taking the most dazzling 120-odd seconds from hours of footage and splicing it into a coherent—and compelling—mini-movie falls on trailer editors, who screen films months in advance in order to create previews that will build the viral buzz filmmakers look for.
To better understand the job, mental_floss spoke with several editors at three of the most highly respected firms in the business. Here’s how they get you excited about the next blockbuster.
1. YOU NEED TOP-LEVEL SECURITY CLEARANCE.
If you think studios are worried about rough cuts of their films falling into the wrong hands, you’d be correct. As some of the few pairs of eyes outside of the production to see a movie months before release, trailer houses must make sure their offices can’t be tapped by potential pirates. Ron Beck, the owner and creative director of Tiny Hero, says that only employees at Fort Knox might be able to relate to the level of security that trailer editors deal with. “There are cameras everywhere,” he says. “We have sensors that record everyone who goes in and comes out of a door.” Rough cuts of movies typically get delivered on encrypted hard drives and are edited only on hardware that’s inaccessible to an open network.
“All of [the studios] are careful, but Marvel leads the pack,” Beck says. “Their stuff is super-strong. That’s why you rarely see their movies pirated.”
2. THEY MIGHT BE SEEING AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT MOVIE THAN YOU DO.
In order to begin work on marketing campaigns, trailer firms are usually given extremely early footage that has yet to be polished and edited. Rough cuts might emphasize plot points or characters that wind up getting minimized by the time the picture is done, or “locked.” David Hughes of the UK-based firm Synchronicity says he’s seen a few movies that he barely recognized once they hit theaters. “Bridget Jones’s Diary was quite dark at one point,” he says, “and I recall a totally different opening to Bowfinger where the film-within-the-film was called Star Wars rather than Chubby Rain because the accountant who wrote it was so stupid he didn’t know a film called Star Wars actually existed.”
Since films continue to get pared down right up until release, it’s also common to see scenes in trailers that don’t ultimately make the final cut. “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [is] my favorite example, because someone wrote to complain that they had waited the whole film to see Steve Martin push an old lady into a swimming pool, as seen in the trailer, only to find that the scene wasn’t in the finished film.”
3. THEY CAN ASK FOR SPECIAL EFFECTS TO GET PRIORITIZED.
Because editors see films so far in advance, they’re often looking at footage full of green screens and unfinished effects work. But if an editor feels like a scene would bolster the trailer’s impact, they can request the studio fast-track the CGI. “We can’t ask what they shoot first, because productions usually revolve around an actor’s schedule,” Beck says. “But we can ask for visual effects stuff we need to be done first.”
4. THEY MAY CUT A TRAILER YOU NEVER SEE.
Dan Lee, who spent 10 years at Mark Woollen and Associates before migrating to the buzzed-about firm Project X, says that editors are often called upon by directors or producers to splice together a “sizzle reel” made out of stock or existing footage in order to sell a studio on a movie. “It’s becoming increasingly common to do,” he says. “It’s an inexpensive way to sell someone on the vibe of a movie.” Director Joe Carnahan commissioned a reel when he was looking to direct a theatrical version of Daredevil (above).
5. THEY DON’T LIKE SPOILERS ANY MORE THAN YOU DO.
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