The new trailer released last week for The Social Network, the upcoming David Fincher-directed movie about the founding of Facebook, is an example of pure showmanship. A couple of underwhelming teasers helped introduce audiences to the concept — Fincher would explore the personal behind-the-scenes turmoil that accompanied the site’s launch as a networking tool for college students — but didn’t sell the idea as especially cinematic. But the full trailer crystallizes the film’s themes nicely, and has generated a wave of Internet buzz. Featuring actual footage from the film but relying heavily on a mood-setting chorale version of Radiohead’s early hit “Creep” (essentially an anthem for social misfits), the trailer finally shows how the film may deal in compelling ways with overarching themes of jealousy, betrayal, insecurity, and online identity.
It’s a terrific advertisement for the film, but it communicates ideas so effectively that it also works on its own terms. The melancholy vibe hints at a sadness underlying the modern world’s always-on Internet connectivity.
Watch enough movie trailers, and you’ll realize that they exist on a continuum from the sublime to the ridiculous, depending on how skillful the team behind them is at choosing footage that communicating a film’s story without resorting to abject clichés. (So many of them begin with an omnipotent narrator intoning the phrase, “In a world …” that those words alone have become a comic shorthand for a tedious and/or fundamentally absurd situation.) With so much riding on a film’s successful marketing, few films get trailers that go beyond a quick regurgitation of plot points and presentation of emotional beats that confirm a film will conform to one formula or another. Some trailers even end up showcasing shots or alternate takes that never end up in the film itself!
And occasionally a film will get the unique trailer it really deserves. Maybe the director himself will make an on-screen appearance in a bid to generate goodwill, a designer somewhere will implement a striking typographical treatment to play against the images, or someone will just find a really cool, evocative song that works well with a film’s tone and imagery. Here are a few that I’ve really enjoyed, some of them already famous and others not so widely known. Major props to the unsung editors, graphic designers, and marketing mavens who went out on a limb to make these movie ads unique bite-size morsels of entertainment.
Citizen Kane (1941)
“Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, we’re just showing you the chorus girls for purposes of … [pause] … ballyhoo.” Orson Welles was already a well-known radio personality by the time Citizen Kane was released, thanks to his hugely successful audio adaptation of War of the Worlds. It made sense, then, that he would take to the recording booth to deliver this wry, good-natured sales pitch for a new film starring many of his buddies from his radio work. Did Welles know that his film would be hailed for many decades as one of the greatest ever made? If so, then he may also have realized that this self-assured bit of salesmanship would be preserved along with it.
SPOILER ALERT! “You should have seen the blood,” says Alfred Hitchcock himself at the end of this justly famous trailer for Psycho, in which he gives audiences a tour of the motel location where the film’s famous shower murder takes place. Too much information? Apparently not. The film was a huge success and retains its status as a prototypical shocker — and harbinger of the later slasher-movie trend that would dominate horror in the 1980s — to this day. Another case of a celebrity filmmaker stepping in front of the camera to pitch his own work.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Most of the trailers for Stanley Kubrick’s films are interesting (you can see a near-complete set here). The one for Dr. Strangelove has a jittery, stutter-step rhythm plus some adventurous type treatment that’s appropriate to the surreal qualities of the director’s black-comic masterpiece. Anyone who went to see a Kubrick movie based on a trailer like this can’t say they didn’t know what they were getting into.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Spike Lee had completed a well-liked short film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads,” before making his first feature, so he wasn’t a complete unknown. But, by Hollywood standards, he was still a nobody when he appeared in this trailer for his full-length debut, She’s Gotta Have It. A little charm, a little hustle — it’s fun to imagine that the next Spike Lee could be hitting YouTube any day now to lure film-watchers with a similar pitch.
Strange Days (1995)
Strange Days was a James Cameron-scripted, Kathryn Bigelow-directed sci-fi action movie about a machine that records one person’s experiences for brain-based playback by others. There was a teaser for Strange Days, that consisted entirely of Ralph Fiennes playing his drug-dealer-like character, hawking his wares as he stared directly into the camera. That was an OK attention-grabber, but this follow-up teaser is a blast to watch, combining just a little bit of that footage with scenes from the film that emphasize its Y2K setting and Bigelow’s estimable action chops. This is the most conventional movie preview on this list, but it’s also one of the most kinetic, energetic trailers ever cut.
Buffalo 66 (1998)
Vincent Gallo’s semi-autobiographical feature debut is well worth seeing, but it’s a fairly unsettling picture even as downbeat American indie movies go. (Talking years later about her experience shooting the film, Christina Ricci said, “I’d never encountered such insanity.” She did not mean that in a complimentary way.) This trailer — mainly still images from the film cut up to play as a jittery slideshow to the tune of the progressive anthem “Heart of the Sunrise” by Yes — is one of the most intriguing ways to promote a movie like that, even if it doesn’t give you any real idea what you’re in for.
If you’ve made it this far, you must have some of your own favorites. What are the trailers you wish you had made?
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