Making big Impressions on the big Screen

James Hale, Benedict Coulter and Tim Nett
The Trailer Park, Los Angeles, California

Friday, December 4, 1998, Los Angeles, California - It's Friday afternoon at the Trailer Park, a motion picture advertising production company housed in a very cool suite of offices in the 7000 block of Santa Monica Boulevard, and it's time for the band to start warming up. Hey, this is L.A. and this is show business and these guys know how to party. On the stage overlooking the pool table and the break room, between the six state-of-the-art editing bays and the finishing room, are a couple of guys and their amps and axes and a week's worth of tension ready to blow off at the week's end ritual around here; the Friday afternoon blowout.

If you have seen the movie trailers or TV spots for "Armageddon," "Dumb and Dumber," "Alien," the latest Bond film, or hundreds of others they have produced, you've seen what these guys do all week, and you can grant them a little weekend pass. So take some R&R yourself and catch a movie tonight. Get to the theater early and watch the previews for upcoming movies. After reading this, you won't want to miss a second of them.

There are many misconceptions about a film trailer, but this is not unusual for a product of Hollywood, the land of illusions and rumors. Here is where (as usual) you will find the record set straight.

a movie producer does not make the trailer. He or she hires private companies, like The Trailer Park, to do this. The trailer is a very important part of promoting a movie and the studios make sure they get it right, and they pay huge sums to do this.

Production costs alone for a basic trailer can get into the tens of thousands of dollars, plus the cost of music, at sometimes over $100,000. Then you have the cost of making several thousand prints, and of distributing those prints, and you could buy a Malibu estate with the money you just put into celluloid. Consider, however, that the motion picture you made cost tens of millions of dollars and that running your TV spot on prime time can cost millions more, and that you will just be throwing that money away if your trailer is lame, and the cost of producing the spots seems small.

It is not unusual, according to Jim Hale, one of the three owners of the Trailer Park, for several companies to make trailers for one movie, to ensure a good product. The studio will then select one, and may even combine two or three into one.

the trailer does not tell the whole story. "We never disclose the resolution of the conflict," says Hale. "We try to leave that as pregnant as possible." The trick is, however, to leave the viewer fully aware of the conflict and anxious to discover that resolution. The trailer has to impress upon you the dramatic conflict of the movie and then leave you hanging. "When you're unsuccessful at setting the conflict up," says Hale. "That's when you get; 'why do I have to go see the movie?'"

Sometimes, the trailer tells very little of the story. With a comedy, explaining the plot may not be necessary, as in the movie Dumb and Dumber, in which a plot was barely visible. "If it's a comedy," says Hale. "I usually don't care what it's about, if the jokes will sell the story." The jokes told that story very well. "We were laughing all the way through that project," says Hale.

trailers are not made by computer. Good guess, though. Actually, much of the work is done on computer, but an important part is still done by hand. Here is how a typical movie trailer is produced:
3 T's to Movie Promotion

Teaser - (30 Sec.) Shown up to a year before a movie's release, this sparks awareness of the film and will usually announce the film's release date, such as "Summer, 1999.". Works best with sequels. All footage used in the Austin Powers II teaser was shot exclusively for the teaser, costing over half a million dollars, according to Hale.

TV Spot - (30-60 Sec.) Often trimmed from the Trailer, this is the most effective advertising device for a film. "Most people are educated [about a particular movie] with TV spots," says Hale.

Trailer - (2 1/5 Min.) This device is very important to studios. It is shown to a qualified market (viewers of similar films at theaters) and is used for everything from investor and media relations, to parties and award nominations. "The trailer is the way of saying 'this is our product,'" says Hale. You call them trailers because that's what they called them years ago, when they ran after an evening's film.

About five months before a movie's release, the studio provides the Trailer Park with a 3/4" video tape of the movie, and they describe the type of audience they want to target.

The tape is hardly the same as what you see in the theater. Watching it at this point in the process is a very odd experience. There is usually no music - maybe some temporary music - the sound is dull, without Foley effects, as if it were recorded with a home video camera. (In a car chase, for example, the tires and engine sound dull.) The cuts are relaxed and there are frame numbers on the screen.

The trailer editor's name is emblazoned on the bottom to thwart piracy. So, if you were thinking this would be a cool way to get paid for watching movies, apply elsewhere.

This tape, usually longer than the final version, is copied to a computer disk. Writers will select the shots to use in the trailer and will then write a voice-over script. "Everybody says; 'you probably just use the best parts of the movie when you make a trailer,'" says Adrian Sainsbury-Carter, a Trailer Park editor. "And that's exactly what we do."

Editors at the Trailer Park use Macintosh computers and software called Avid to work the video images frame by frame. It can be tedious work, spending weeks perfecting a film that is shorter than your average music video, but it is all worth it for the editors, especially when they go to a theater and watch the trailer - and the audience. "To know that you were responsible for an audience's reaction is very gratifying," says Sainsbury-Carter. "Just seeing your work on the big screen is pretty exciting."

Since they are working with low resolution video images, the trailer they produce on the Mac is not what you see in the theater, but is only a blueprint for that product. The audio is real, however. Sound is a very important part of a motion picture, and also of a trailer, and the editors mix in up to sixteen tracks of audio.

If the tape does not have sound effects, like gunfire or footsteps, stock effects are inserted into the trailer. Dialogue comes off of the video tape, but often, the sound quality is poor, and in a fast-paced setting of a trailer, words must be clearly spoken. Sometimes they have to "give it a little love" says editor Tommy Gargotta, meaning they alter the equalization of the sound, adding bass or treble, for example. Gargotta is working on the trailer for Nicolas Cage's new movie, 8mm, and a key line, spoken by an elderly woman, is muddy. Gargotta gives it some love until you can hear her tell Cage; "It's a film, where a girl appears to be murdered."

Audio will also include a voice-over, written by a Trailer Park copy writer and spoken by one of the famed Hollywood voice-over artists. This will usually end with a strong line which sums up the movie, or at least leaves a memorable impression on the viewer.

the music in a trailer is not usually in the movie. "99% of the time, the music we use has nothing to do with the movie," says Hale. Selecting two or three music clips for the trailer is one of the most important aspects of the editors' work, and an area where they have a remarkable amount of freedom. Record labels give the latest CD's to the Trailer Park in hopes that their music will be included in a movie trailer. Not only would this give the song nationwide exposure, but it pays well - sometimes up to $50,000 or more.

The reason the music is not related to the film is in the timing. The trailer is produced well before the movie is finished and usually before the music soundtrack is selected. Also, the trailer is a much different device than the movie and has different needs - usually a bold, intense soundtrack to convey the emotion of the entire film. Also, playing the movie's music would be giving away yet another secret of the movie.

This may be a disappointment to some who, for example, saw the trailer for James Woo's "The Big Hit" and heard the hip remake of "Staying Alive" and, as hard as they listened, couldn't hear it in the movie. But you now know better.

Adrian Sainsbury-Carter works on the trailer for the new Mod Squad movie. He will use up to 200 different shots in the 2 1/2 minute presentation.

The final step in the process, as far as the Trailer Park is concerned, is getting the blueprint they have made into an old-fashioned, 35mm film. First, the Mac prints out a list of exactly which frames are being used and in what order. The studio by now has given the Trailer Park an inter-positive of the movie's footage.

Connie Hearn, the Park's Finisher, cuts out the needed frames of the inter-positive, and splices them together in order. She uses the same camera flatbed, cutting bench and film splicer that have been used in this industry for decades. If special graphics were produced, as in the new Mod Squad trailer, they will be inserted. She now has a celluloid version of the visual part of the trailer. This will be sent to the lab that has the original negative and they will marry the audio tracks onto a final copy. "The editors do the creative work," Hearn says. "My job is to work with outside vendors to make sure what they create gets produced."

trailers do not last half an hour. It surely seemed that way for a while, but recently, the industry set itself a limit of 2 1/2 minutes. Given the state of the industry and of technology, you will find that most trailers take up most of that time.

the trailer makers do not get in the credits. They are not considered a part of the motion picture making process and you won't see their names in the movie's credits, nor will you see any of them clutching a statue on Oscar night. They are not SAG (Screen Actors' Guild) members and are not bound by SAG restrictions.

They work with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) which rates movies for violence. In front of each trailer, you will see the MPAA card, just as in a movie. A green card is for general audiences and a red card is for R rated films. The trailer for a movie must be less violent and graphic than the movie itself, as there is less control over who will see it. "We won't show somebody's head being blown off," says Hale.

Trailer makers are not completely without recognition, however. Hollywood Reporter magazine awards companies in the motion picture promotion industry at an annual event. A shelf in the lobby of the Trailer Park is packed with awards this company has received.

The band's warm-up was just a teaser for the party. After getting several hours more work out of the way, they are ready to take the stage again. With the usual crowd of employees and friends circulating around the pool table, the bar and the 50's era camper trailer, Charlie takes up his bass guitar, Benedict and Tommy share the lead on guitars and Jim works the drum kit. They crash through a set of eighties and nineties rock and blues, and they finish off a week of promoting someone else's art with a little of their own.

Residents of L.A.'s Hippest Trailer Park

Front Row: Tommy Gargotta, Editor .:. Charlie Austin, Editor
.:. Melissa Jubinville, Office Coordinator .:. Kristi Taylor, Receptionist
.:. Mike Wood, Runner .:. Jim Hale, Owner .:. Connie Hearn, Post Production Coordinator.

Back Row: Tim Nett, Owner .:. Ellie Speare, Assistant Editor .:. Benedict Coulter, Owner
.:. Adrian Sainsbury-Carter, Editor .:. Michael Southerly, Editor .:. Raul Moreno, Graphic Artist
.:. Ann Mugglebee, Director of Operations .:. Doug Dezzani, Copy Writer.

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