“No motion picture has ever offered more entertainment!” In the early days of movie advertising, trailers announced virtually every upcoming feature with shameless hyperbole. Now (to co-opt the most overused word in trailer-speak), one docu exposes the artistry behind the advertising: Michael J. Shapiro’s “Coming Attractions: The History of the Movie Trailer” packages a talking-heads overview with dozens of the most original and exciting trailers ever made. Unresolved legal clearances may limit pic to educational uses (pic preemed last week at UCLA), but popular demand could warrant further exposure.
Though many have tried to present a chronological history of trailers, “Coming Attractions” offers the most comprehensive survey of the form to date. From the early P.T. Barnum-style propaganda pieces to the bone-rattling, effects-heavy previews of today, doc reveals not only a staggering array of sales tactics, but also a fascinating overview of how exhibition and attendance practices have changed through the years.
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Divided into two parts, “Coming Attractions” devotes its first hour to the classical era of movie advertising, using an unfortunate dry academic approach. Things pick up in the second half as a new wave of marketing minds obliterate the National Screen Service’s long-stagnant monopoly, with many of the survivors providing firsthand accounts of the revolution.
Strategy shifted radically in 1955, when designer Saul Bass suggested the notion of key art, in which a single emblematic image (such as his trademark visual treatment for “The Man With the Golden Arm”) could brand an entire campaign. Eight years later, Stanley Kubrick hired commercial director Pablo Ferro to cut his “Dr. Strangelove” trailer, bringing the Madison Avenue aesthetic to prestige projects.
But the true innovator of movie trailers — and the raison d’etre for this retrospective — was Andrew Kuehn, a visionary who created the dynamic style still found in trailers today: rapid cuts, active graphics and new voices (it was Kuehn who gave the young James Earl Jones a job narrating his landmark “Night of the Iguana” trailer).
Doc touches on many of the industry’s current concerns — testing, double-vending and the Internet — and even addresses the fundamental question of whether trailers ever accurately represent a picture. One small but significant oversight is the degree to which Kuehn and his contemporaries’ avant-garde structure and pacing changed not only the marketing business, but also Hollywood storytelling in much the same way that MTV and music-videos shook things up in the ’80s.
Narrated by Robert Osborne, presentation emphasizes educational value over entertainment, making minimal attempt to approximate the energy of its subject. Still, exceptional coverage and well-chosen examples should send auds scrambling back to their DVDs, where trailers are at long last being preserved and archived, with a newfound respect.