“I’m like my mother, I stereotype” George Clooney bellows in his classically dry voice in the trailer for Up In The Air. “It’s faster.”
Movie trailers tend to follow Clooney’s cue. They compound plotlines into clichés simply because it’s faster. With movie trailers or any video advertising, the faster you connect with the audience the better chance you’ll have of selling your product.
So what does an effective movie trailer do? Does it summarize the story, or does it tease? Does it use popular music or underground music? Or none at all? Does it setup the plot, or does it reveal it?
“Even though it’s taking pieces of the actual film itself, I think the relationship of the trailer to the film is not necessarily best thought of as a version of the same thing,” says Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Adam Lowenstein. “It’s actually quite a different thing, ultimately, because the rhythms of the film versus the trailer are completely different.”
As movie fans, we have a learned process for translating the language of movie trailers into our own expectations for the film. Years of watching movies and their trailers helps us to develop our individual intuition about movies. Simply put: we learn to make the ten-dollar decision based on the limited information provided by a biased informant.
Movie trailers are unique in the realm of marketing because you’re experiencing the advertisement in the same medium as you would the product. You can’t taste food or drive a car through the television, so advertising those products doesn’t require quite as much tact. Therefore, deciding what a movie trailer does reveal is vital to its success.
“All the things you probably hate about traveling are more reminders that I am home,” we hear Clooney declare over sliding shots of busy airport scenes. This reveals the theme of the movie’s campaign: airplane travel. The theme is far from subtle.
From the lyrics of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” in the trailer’s opening to the movie’s Web site menu organized in “departures” and “arrivals”, the prevalence of airport-related double entendres is overwhelming.
As with all movie trailers, we don’t know if this is the theme of the movie or the theme of the ad campaign. But, in this case it seems to be symptomatic of the plot.
Clooney plays some sort of consultant hired to fire people by “cowards that don’t have the courage to sack their own employees.” This requiring immense amounts of airplane travel, Clooney’s character spends most of his time ‘up in the air’, an indication of his general detachment from human intimacy.
Clooney’s character is instantly a familiar cliché. He’s slick and arrogant, handsome and superficial. Following in that cliché, we sense that he is due for change.
Thus begins the second act of the trailer: Iggy’s baritone is replaced by “Lake Michigan” by Rogue Wave, a slower more melodramatic instrumental tune signaling the beginning of Clooney’s transformation.
“From the director of Juno and Thank You For Smoking” flashes on the screen, as a means to channel Director Jason Reitman’s stylized storytelling.
Although its commonplace to use inter-textual references to draw your audience, it is still a strategic decision to do so. For example, in the trailer for Old Dogs, a romp starring John Travolta and Robin Williams, we’re presented with a puzzling boast: “From the Director of Wild Hogs.” This may seem silly, but it is conveying to the audience that if you liked Wild Hogs, you will probably like Old Dogs. If the two movies weren’t somehow culturally aligned, they wouldn’t take the time to name-drop.
So now that we know that it’s Reitman directing, we know a little more about what this movie will be like: we can expect snappy dialogue, quirky plotlines and probably boatloads of heart and self-aware tackiness (“Everybody needs a co-pilot”). We can expect that Clooney, like Ellen Page as Juno or Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, will be unreasonably well-spoken with charming attitude.
Enter Anna Kendrick as Clooney’s trainee, an adorably anxious and perpetually ponytailed sidekick who, if the cliché presides, will challenge his sense of self-worth and emotional isolation.
Balancing Kendrick’s cutesy nerves is Vera Farmiga as Clooney’s sexual counterpart; she’s equally empowered and superficial and enforces Clooney’s self-absorption.
“We’re two people who get turned on by elite status,” she tells him.
As the screen is paraded with scenes of Clooney and Farmiga canoodling in bed, we hear Clooney ask, “You know that moment when you look into somebody’s eyes and you can feel them staring into your soul and the whole world goes quiet?”
“Yes,” replies Kendrick.
“Right, well I don’t,” he responds.
Here is where the appeal of Up In The Air becomes clear. After being steered towards a mass of clichés, we recognize that this story isn’t wholly familiar. The trailer hints at a possibility of romance between Kendrick and Clooney, but it keeps it ambiguous. Our initial projection of a duality between Kendrick and Farmiga, as the girl he should be with and the girl he’s with, is quickly refuted.
Act three begins and we’re dropped into sentimentality mode with “Help Yourself” by Brad Smith, a pretty and reflective folk tune that aptly narrates the crossroads Clooney’s facing.
The three songs used to guide the three acts are well-chosen and symptomatic of increasingly music-driven movie trailers. Most notably, Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” featured in the trailer for Where The Wild Things Are seemed to aptly portray the epic surrealism of the story.
Another example would be the excessive popularity of MIA’s “Paper Planes” after being featured in the trailer for Pineapple Express (which, ironically, did not feature the song). Both “Wake Up” and “Paper Planes” were relatively unknown until featured in the trailers.
It might be more effective to use less popular music in trailers because, like using unknown actors, it allows the audience to experience the film as something entirely new. There are countless Web sites to help people find songs from trailers and dozens of places to ask “What’s that song…?”
“Help Yourself” helps us read the third act as it insinuates elements of intimacy, beauty and sadness after the rat-race scenery of the first two acts.
“You’re grounded,” says Clooney’s boss (Jason Bateman). “Everybody’s grounded.” This perpetuates the movie’s running metaphor, almost incessantly. As in, once Clooney is no longer up in the air, he’s forced to confront his issues.
It’s his proverbial return to Earth, but what’s appealing is the prevailing ambiguity of the third act. The trailer pulls back its scope and we’re left wondering how cliché the movie really is. From here, the scenes speed up and become less specific and suddenly the story is more tragedy than comedy (although peppered with familiar funny faces like Danny McBride, Zack Galifianakis and JK Simmons).
“You have set up a way of life that basically makes it impossible for you to have any kind of personal connection,” Kendrick tells Clooney. He’s being confronted, but the trailer does a good job of silencing our impulse to presume a happy ending. In fact, the tone insinuates just the opposite.
Now we’ve reached the point that movie advertising aims for: we’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens. In this sense, Up In The Air is a successful trailer. But a successful trailer is not an indicator of a good film. When we see a trailer, we don’t know if the movie itself will be an expanded two-hour version of the trailer or a much more complex transgression.
The translation from the trailer to the actual film is unknowable. Trailers are not even necessarily made by the makers of the film, so this arbitrary relationship makes sense.
“Movie trailers are usually a product of a specially contracted team,” says Lowenstein. “It’s not necessarily the director of the film or the producers of the film doing the actual work of the trailer. It’s kind of the equivalent to special teams in football; it’s a special group of people whose job it is to make these trailers.”
Up In The Air is based on the eponymous 2001 novel by Walter Kim. It “arrives” (ugh) in theaters on Dec. 4.