Trailers tow more weight

With TV in war mode, studios push pix the old-fashioned way

Audiences are going crazy over trailers for New Line Cinema’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Universal Pictures’ “A Beautiful Mind” and Paramount Pictures’ “Vanilla Sky.”

Judging by their opening-weekends, “Bandits,” “Hearts in Atlantis” and “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin” didn’t grab as high a place in the trailer park.

Of course, a film’s first-week performance is not based exclusively on its coming attractions. But at a time when the airings of all-important TV ads and stars’ talkshow appearances are under constant threat of preemptions, the humble theatrical trailer is left to carry an extraordinary burden.

And this is a particularly tricky time, as a slew of big pics are about to open, to take advantage of the holiday rush of filmgoing.

Traditionally, in-theater attractions are most important when building early awareness — but then TV advertising kicks in to trumpet the arrival. Now, television can no longer be counted on as the medium that carries the message.

“Any exit survey puts the trailer at the top of the stack as to why people came (to the film),” says Sony chairman of worldwide distribution Jeff Blake. “We always throw a lot of time and effort behind it.”

Stakes are high and support is low — will trailers rally to save the day?

There’s added pressure on trailers, but not much more can be done to make them more powerful marketers than they already are.

The usual studio procedure is to hire top-dollar outside firms to do the spade work. Increasingly, the majors are submitting those companies to a “bake-off,” when three or four different houses prepare trailers for one film, with the studio then selecting the cut it likes best.

Then there’s the not-inconsiderable cost. While a studio could spend as little as $50,000, the total production cost can range as high as $2 million.

And then, of course, the trailers are tested — often repeatedly — until their audience scores gleam.

As to what makes a good trailer, “There is no recipe and there is no sure thing,” says Universal marketing prexy Peter Adee. “This is a fluid process. If a runner has a good idea, I’ll use it.”

In the past few years, theaters have increased the string of trailers; it’s often 20 minutes between the time the lights go down and the feature begins. And the jockeying for position is an art in itself.

Studios want to make sure their trailers are seen by audiences of big films, and the closer to the start of the film, the better. Right now, execs say, competition is particularly keen to get their trailers aired before the upcoming “Harry Potter” and “Ocean’s 11.”

Some say distribs swap good trailer distribution in exchange for making exhib concessions on film rentals. And sometimes the negotiation is a simple numbers game: With the release of Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” in 1999, every other studio was trying to trim its trailer lengths so they could stand a chance of fitting in the Fox-mandated five minutes of non-Fox trailer time.

Studios often add a trailer to the first reel of their film, to ensure that it’s the last ad seen before the pic starts.

Sony’s Blake recently added money to the mix when he paid exhibitors to trailer “The Animal” on Universal’s “The Mummy Returns” — something that inspired public outcry and, he says, he won’t do again. (Says Blake: “That didn’t work so well.”)

In a time of war, a loss of TV ad time is hardly the nation’s top concern. Still, when studios’ parent companies are struggling with slumping share prices and downgraded debt ratings, the concept of iffy media buys couldn’t come at a worse time.

This year, companies have pinned particularly big hopes on celluloid. Over the next 10 weeks, two AOL Time Warner companies will ready the launch of two potentially mammoth film franchises: Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Among the other pictures that will be trying to be heard are Columbia’s “Ali,” Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.,” U’s “Spy Game” and 20th Century Fox’s “Black Knight,” not to mention WB’s “Ocean’s 11” and “The Majestic.”

It’s a lot of effort for two minutes that often inspire scoffs and muttering from impatient filmgoers.

So what’s to be done to boost the marketing power of trailers? You can’t make them longer: The MPAA requires that trailers be no more than two minutes, 30 seconds — with one exception allowed each calendar year. You can’t make them louder, either: Trailer soundtracks have their own trade association, and since its formation in 1999, the Trailer Audio Standards Assn. has forced studios to reduce trailer volumes three times.

Still, if there is anything that remains to be discovered, studios will surely find it: Never has free advertising beamed to a captive audience seemed more valuable.

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