Movie trailers lack female narrators

Void left by 'Voice of God' could open field to women

Don LaFontaine, the so-called “Voice of God” who held a virtual monopoly over the narration of bigtime movie trailers until his death Sept. 1, had a clear idea of who his successor should be — God’s voice, he said, should belong to a woman.

“I think women are vastly underrepresented in this area,” LaFontaine told me in 2006. “You’d think that for films directly aimed at women, chick flicks, the logical choice would be for a woman to narrate the trailer. But studios hold focus groups and the people in them, women included, seem to prefer the male voice.”

Two years later, little has changed. Movie trailers remain largely unaffected by feminism’s march, with growly baritones like those of Andy Geller and Ashton Smith seeming the likely replacements for LaFontaine’s wizened authority. Women, who make up a small fraction of the trailer voice talent pool (William Morris reps three female trailer voices compared with 33 males, according to its website), remain almost exclusively confined to TV, radio and DVD trailer spots. The reason isn’t so much gender equality, apparently, as it is resistance to change among the moviegoing public — male and female.

“Audiences, including females, are so used to hearing a male voice that when they hear a female voice they think something is wrong,” says Mike Southerly, senior VP creative advertising at 20th Century Fox. He, like many interviewed for this article, is in favor of hearing more female voices in movie theaters. But he says it’s “always a fight” trying to get a female voice approved for a trailer, even for more female-friendly TV spots.

“The public is finicky, and it takes them a while to trust voices they aren’t used to hearing,” says Southerly. “And the voice they were used to for many years was Don’s.”

On the rare occasion that trailer houses suggest using a female voice, studios often nix the idea. “A female voice might take away from the content of the trailer,” says producer Christine Peters (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”). “If the industry does transition to more frequently using female voiceovers, I imagine it will take the audience awhile to get used to it.”

A notable exception to the rule was the trailer for Jerry Bruckheimer’s high-octane “Gone in Sixty Seconds” (2000). Voiced by the sultry-toned Melissa Disney (widely regarded as the most successful female voice artist working today), the trailer is cited as the one example of where a feminine intonation actually worked.

“The few movies that women have worked on tend to be the high-testosterone movies,” notes Jason Marks of Jason Marks Talent Management, who specializes in representing trailer and promo voiceover artists. Marks thinks action movies, not chick flicks or romantic comedies, present more fertile ground for his female talent.

Even though the odds seem against them, voice actresses are optimistically chipping away at the glass ceiling. Debi Mae West, whose voice has been heard on NBC, Starz and AMC, recalls that after Disney’s “Sixty Seconds” work, she found herself being invited to “scratch” more trailers. Scratching is industry lingo for when trailer houses invite voiceover artists to voice a spec trailer, which is then submitted to the studio. The winning submission is then “finished” by the trailer house.

The competitive nature of pitching means trailer houses are often pressured to present safe, salable options, which means female voices are risky. “There might be three other trailer houses trying to get the same job, so often it’s a matter of staying within the comfort zone,” says West. “But people are starting to realize that women can really sell the sexiness of a film. Women are a lot softer and less showy, and trailers seem to be moving in that more conversational, less in-your-face read anyway.”

And even if women still aren’t actually getting the bigtime jobs (LaFontaine was said to earn $10 million per year), “scratching, at the very least, means you’re on the radar,” says voice actress Sylvia Villagran, whose voice is regularly heard on MTV, NBC and Mundos. “Of course, the ideal would be to go from scratching to finishing — but I guess it’s one step at a time.”