Trailers: the call of the mild

Many pic previews starting to look the same

Your average summer tentpole is the product of 10 screenwriters, five producers, two hedge funds and at least two studios.

So it’s only natural that the trailers for those films are handled by five different companies as well. The result: They all look the same.

Most previews begin with the same deep-throated voiceover (“In a world where…”). There’s the same fast-cut action sequence that dissolves in flames. There’s the same three-act structure (yes, most trailers have three acts) that’s the product of focus groups in a dozen different cities.

As one marketing maven puts it: “If you go into an ice-cream store with a large group and everyone has to agree on a flavor, it’s going to be vanilla.”

No trailer, it seems, can escape the corporate group-think that’s homogenizing the marketing campaigns for even the most high-risk films.

Studio marketers aren’t the only ones signing off on a trailer. There are also the producers, production execs, the director, financing entities and at times even agents.

Restrictions from the MPAA and relentless testing further tamp down anything that might be considered edgy or over the top.

Compounding the problem, many trailers are the product of “Frankensteining,” a process in which studios take various elements — the sound editing from one trailer house, the title treatment from another — and cobble them together. Trailer editors resent the process, as it tends to erase the most distinctive marketing hooks.

It’s ironic that the sameness crops up at a time when the trailer biz in theory is providing so many options.

Trailer houses in Hollywood have proliferated over the last decade from a handful to about 50 major and boutique companies. Five of the top trailer houses are the Ant Farm, Intralink, the Cimarron Group, Trailer Park and Aspect Ratio. The swelling ranks of trailer vendors has fueled an ultra-competitive environment in which multiple vendors jockey to win an account.

Some trailer companies even compete internally in order to come up with the very best take to submit to a studio.

Advances in technology mean that virtually anyone who owns Final Cut Pro software can cut a trailer.

Such a Darwinian environment might seem to lend itself to outstanding work by daring marketers and, in some cases, it does: Recall the trippy, kaleidoscopic first trailer for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The preview for “Nacho Libre” is a hilarious ode to Jack Black-style absurdism, though it also follows a predictable, three-act structure. “X-Men: The Last Stand” effectively creates a mood of stylish sophistication that eludes most action pic trailers.

But those are the exceptions. For the most part, trailers look more interchangeable than ever.

Part of the problem is the tyranny of testing. Studios used to be rely on test auds primarily for TV spots in order to better target specific demos. Nowadays virtually every trailer is submitted to extensive screen tests and focus groups. The growth of independent films has created more volume and subsequently there are more companies submitting their trailers to research groups such as NRG and Marketcast.

“Studios have become more scientific about the way they approach trailers,” says Tim Nett, CEO of Trailer Park, a trailer house that handled the campaigns for “Mission: Impossible III” and “Cars.”

“It used to be that if you had five guys at a studio who thought it looked cool, that was fine,” Nett says. “Now it needs to have that and have good test numbers.”

For studios, testing isn’t just a means of determining what audiences a trailer is reaching. It’s also a way of establishing what parts of the trailer work. The trouble comes when studios attempt to strike a chord with a four-quadrant audience for every title. In aiming to please everyone, they risk pleasing none.

“I’m sure there are many executives I work with who would love nothing more than to walk into a meeting and find something new and different, but then they have to test it — and people may not get it,” says Mike Greenfield, co-CEO of the Ant Farm, which did the trailers for “Over the Hedge” and “Nacho Libre.”

“They have to please everyone: The studio’s nervous, the filmmaker’s nervous, so it becomes, ‘Let’s just go with what we know works.’ It’s definitely a Safety First attitude.”

These pressures have been compounded by the fact that trailers are viewed on so many platforms, from wireless devices to the Internet, where trailers are devoured by an aud that far eclipses that sitting in a dark movie theater.

“With all of these alternate delivery systems, you’re not only speaking to a moviegoing audience, but your trailer sends the first shot around the world,” says Terry Curtin, CEO-creative director of Intralink, which created the trailers for “The Da Vinci Code.” “It is an irreversible process. It’s all your toothpaste out of your tube all at once. It’s a critical first imprint.”

From the studio perspective, a trailer’s mission isn’t to break the mold, but to convey a message as effectively as possible.

“At the end of the day, a trailer has to be a great piece of advertising for a movie,” says Warner Bros. domestic marketing prexy Dawn Taubin. “If that means adhering to a convention because that’s what works for a particular movie … you can’t go outside of the box so far as to not sell your movie.”

Fox marketing co-prexy Tony Sella defends the widespread focus-grouping of trailers and says testing is “like proving your hypothesis.”

“When you’re submitting your product to 800 or 1,000 people,” he says, “it gives you some good perspective.”

Although it’s certainly common practice, not all pics get the test treatment. “Sometimes material that’s effective in a theater are things that people don’t recognize — meaning, it doesn’t have a comfort zone, but it’s memorable. That may not test,” says DreamWorks Animation marketing head Terry Press, who says she tests some but not all trailers. “If it doesn’t look like a trailer, smell like a trailer, then people tend to not get it, but that doesn’t make it not memorable.”

However, testing is not always the reason for blah advertising. Universal heavily tested and focus-grouped the trailer for “United 93,” which was selected from a few others based on “the collective judgment that it was the best and most honest,” says Universal marketing prexy Adam Fogelson.

But U got a reality check last month when it released the trailer, only to have it pulled from a Lincoln Center multiplex after complaints from the audience.

The MPAA also waters down the system by issuing separate ratings for films and trailers. Because R-rated, or red band, trailers can only play before R-rated films, the majority of trailers receive a green band, all but ensuring that no trailer will have racy content. And even trailers that do receive an R-rating are rarely played because exhibitors are nervous about complaints.

The Internet, where trailer placement isn’t regulated, is somewhat alleviating this headache for studios.

As an independent studio — and non-MPAA signatory — Lionsgate is able to sidestep the MPAA as well as, to some extent, decisions by masses. Lionsgate’s in-house marketing team, led by Tim Palen, is aggressively hands-on when it comes to trailers. Palen even wrote the TV and trailer copy for “Hostel,” a co-production with Screen Gems.

The disturbing trailers for the film forsake a narrative arc for a series of images of torture devices and terrified-looking victims intercut with words like “torture” and “punish.”

But even Palen admits it’s risky to flout convention.

For the upcoming horror film “The Descent,” he says, “We started the whole campaign thinking, Let’s do the anti-trailer — where there’s no music, no voiceover, only ambient sound — and play on everybody’s fears of claustrophobia and fear of the dark.

“But even as an independent studio, you can quickly gravitate more toward the middle. As a little company, you don’t want a movie to feel small.”

The pic’s finished trailer has its share of gore, but also stresses the chick flick aspect of the film, which is about a group of girlfriends who get trapped in an underground cave. Ample narrative is provided to show how the ladies get into their predicament.

“All those conventions are reminders to an audience that this isn’t an alternative movie,” Palen says. “When something is super-duper alternative, you’re saying this is very, very small. It’s a little bit of a trap.”