The Art of the Trailer (Video)

A guide to this season's best movie promos

We live in a wondrous time of innovation in the third great American art form: the movie trailer. (It follows jazz and the newspaper comic strip, naturally.) And this spring, a few unusual and perfect trailers have been circulating. Mike Mills’ Beginners, which opens in early June, has a funny/sad, impeccably edited trailer that perfectly delivers the director’s quirky voice. (In it, Ewan McGregor falls in love, deals with his gay father, and talks to his dog. It is unknown if he does full-frontal in the film, but there’s typically a 50-50 chance.) Also great is the pre-Cannes teaser for Sleeping Beauty, an Australian film about a girl who becomes a prostitute and whose designated sex niche is to sleep through her encounters. This bit of fetishism—icy and sexy and frightening (with a corpse-ish Emily Browning being measured in a bra and panties, falling in a dining room with china crashing, getting investigated by a man in a lab coat)—set the Internet on cold fire when it was released.

With Hanna, the trailer matched the movie in tone, and in fact, it teased, with techno and panache, exactly what was delivered—a bad-ass spy/chase flick about two badass chicks. Conversely, the gorgeous trailer for Battle: Los Angeles portrayed a haunting alien invasion movie that, sadly, never existed. Instead we got a bad army buddy flick, which still made $82 million in six weeks—surely at least in part thanks to the deceptively great trailer.

These fine critters displayed the best of what can happen when marketing meets film-making, when trade and craft alike decide that it’s in everyone’s interest to fill as many seats and take as many screens as possible. And all were hybrids of risk taking and tradition. They positioned the films in a niche (girl on the run! dude with feelings!) but stood out by means of being wildly atmospheric or by featuring an artful voiceover. They were mini-movies in and of themselves instead of smooshed-up clip jobs that give it all away.

That’s not to say that all great trailers have to have artistic inclinations. There are moments when absolutely adhering to the established formula of the grand American tradition of trailer making is called for. Take Fast Five, the latest entree in the big money, Vin Diesel-starring, ooh-you-got-a-fast-car franchise, whose entirely conventional and right-on trailer well prepared its ticket-buying marks for opening weekend last Friday. It featured optimized pacing, hot girls wearing not much, and the barest sketch of plot (they’re stealing something?), all of which perfectly exploits the film’s stunts without ruining their mystique. It teased what’s best about the movie without bogging it down in what’s bad. Perhaps most impressively, the canny trailer even informs viewers that they can be stupid and enjoy the film, as it opens with a meaningless shot of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue—and then helpfully explains by caption that the film’s set in Rio de Janeiro.

Thor (out May 6), the fourth independent release from Marvel Studios, is about, well, a hot-bod god with a magic hammer, cast out to suffer on (and, inevitably, defend) earth. Yet the first trailer for the film was engineered like a spy movie (though it then moved on to address Norse god-related politics at a somewhat numbing length). The goal? To interest straight boys in a movie that is basically about magic. And magic, everyone in Hollywood knows, is kind of gay. The promo’s job is to paint Thor as a badass: the man hammer you’d dream of being. And it works. Expect good box office to follow.

The purpose—and artfulness—of the trailer for The Hangover 2 is simple: to remind people that they enjoyed The Hangover. The spot dutifully performs this task, while also unintentionally reminding the moviegoer just how many trailers start with meaningless location establishing (The Hangover 2 begins with a helicopter shot of some anonymous Thai water and rocks). How quickly a breakout film becomes a franchise . . . becomes a formula!

A bigger challenge? The currently circulating trailer for Anonymous, a film about Victorian history that doesn’t open until September. After stock-looking zoomy aerial shots of New York City, we are then segued, by Shakespeare-denier Derek Jacobi’s soliloquy, to an idea: What if Shakespeare “never wrote a single word”? Then, thanks to an 11-year-old Radiohead song (“Everything in Its Right Place”), we’re transported to a (terrific-looking) Ye Olde England, where a playwright appears to be in trouble with the Crown!

You can almost feel the beads of sweat on the brows of the trailer’s editors. “How shall we sell a Roland Emmerich film about Queen Elizabeth’s succession and the controversial and unproven theories that Shakespeare did not exist?” Oh, yes: with Radiohead—and with exponentially quicker cutting. The trailer is designed to activate the excitement centers when really no one who hasn’t read the journals documenting the contemporary scholarly fight over Shakespeare’s authorship (zzz) has any reason to see this fiction. These brave trailer-splicers are masters of the form, though, and made something you might believe you yearn to see (this ain’t your daddy’s Shakespeare in Love).

At least for now, they have not yet stooped to selling Anonymous with the tagline “From the Director of Godzilla and 2012.” Which would, of course, only detract from this deceptive and sneaky trailer for what is surely an awful movie.