Company has become go-to house for artsy, offbeat

Here’s a hypothetical: Put a hostage in a room full of movies and tell him to make a trailer. He has no experience, he has no clue, but he does one of two things: An action movie (steal the explosions) or a comedy (steal the best jokes). Pure survival instinct says to avoid the existential art film, biting social satire, foreign drama and/or documentary. Otherwise, he’ll never get out of the room.

That said, it’s slightly uncanny how Mark Woollen & Associates not only turns out acclaimed trailer after acclaimed trailer but does so with movies that seem impossible to distill. “Tree of Life.” “The Social Network.” “Catfish.” “Biutiful.” All are up for Golden Trailer Awards today and all were done by Woollen, whose recent output also includes “Black Swan,” “True Grit,” “Super 8,” and the upcoming Errol Morris documentary, “Tabloid.”

“Yeah, we usually get the calls that say, ‘We have a really difficult film and we thought of you,’ ” Woollen says with a laugh. “But it also means we get challenging films, and movies I’d really like to see. The extra challenge is, if I believe in the films, I want to honor them. And there’s a lot of pressure in that.”

Woollen, 40, started editing professionally before he was out of high school — he took four years of television production classes at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., editing part time, winding up at Craig Murray Prods. in Burbank and working on a lot of films for Disney, including “Beauty and the Beast.” He then went to work at Universal Studios, and had what he still calls his proudest moment, cutting the trailer for “Schindler’s List.”

“That really wowed a lot of people,” says Stephen Garrett of the New York-based Kinetic, which, like Woollen’s company,specializes in the indie and arthouse. He says Woollen’s “sterling” reputation is augmented by a sense of daring.

“When he did ‘Little Children,’ ” Garrett recalls of the 2006 New Line film, “the trailer didn’t have any music in it. It was all atmosphere, with the sound of a train in the background, and a sense of ‘We gotta get out of here.’?” Garrett says at one point the studio added Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” and then thought better of it. “At the last minute they dropped the song, and wound up with one of the most acclaimed trailers.”

“The thing that’s unique about Mark,” says Angus Wall, who won an Oscar earlier this year as co-editor of “The Social Network” and who has cut trailers himself, “is that there are formulas for making trailers. And all those formulas have these tricks. And after a certain point, a lot of trailer cutters become a collection of their tricks. But not Mark. I think he considers each film individually and his approach depends on the film. And that’s the reason he’s so good.”

It was Wall who suggested Woollen to Errol Morris, who didn’t need much encouragement. “He’s legendary,” Morris says of Woollen. “I’ve gotten a really favorable response to the trailer. People write me via various blogs and websites, responding to it. I got a message from someone recently who had gone to the movies and said the best thing they saw was the trailer for ‘Tabloid.’ ”

However, Morris added, “the proof is in the pudding. Will it drive people to the theater?”

And there’s no real way to quantify that. Web hits don’t translate into dollars; trailers are sometimes better than the movies; screening trailers for enthusiastic fanboys at Comic-Con can prove a bust (see “Scott Pilgrim,” and “Tron: Legacy”). “The best gauge,” says Wall, “is ‘Do you like it?’ and ‘Does it sell the movie in a somewhat genuine way? Does it get inside the skin of the movie?’ ”

That is Woollen’s guiding principle. And it means playing to your strengths.

“We don’t do the summer blockbuster-type movies, but we might do something like ‘Super 8,’ ” he says. “We might do Academy films like ‘Social Network’ and ‘Black Swan’ and have historically done a lot of director-driven films like ‘Tree of Life’ and independent films. We don’t do horror really well.”

Unless it’s existential horror: One of Woollen’s most acclaimed trailers was for “A Serious Man,” the Coen brothers’ Jewish-identity-angst comedy. “I had worked on a number of Coen brothers films, like ‘The Big Lebowski,’ so I had a long history with them and it was great to have that kind of a challenge and do something different. It wasn’t an ordinary movie. And shouldn’t have had an ordinary trailer.”

Likewise, “Tree of Life,” which paired Woollen with one of his favorite filmmakers.

“I was always a tremendous Terrence Malick fan and that was a dream-come-true project,” he says, “but the challenge was what not to use. You’re presented there with 2 1/2 hours of the most gorgeous, impressive, haunting, evocative imagery — how do you not, kind of, screw it up?”

Plus, he adds laughing, “You also kind of want to make Terrence Malick happy.”

In the end, the result was a combination of Woollen’s artistic ethos, and the reason trailers exist: “You weave it all together in a compelling way, where you might not even understand everything that’s happening,” he says. “But you come away thinking, ‘Oh, I need to go see that.’ ”

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