Movie Trailers Now Have DVD-Style Commentary Tracks. What’s Going On?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 27 2012 2:00 PM

Hollywood Advertising Enters Its Rococo Phase

If you follow the news of upcoming movies closely, you’ll have noticed that the art of advance advertising as it is practiced in Hollywood has become inreasingly baroque.

Once upon a time (starting in 1913, to be specific), a theatrical trailer was made to advertise a film that would shortly arrive in the place where one saw the trailer. This process became slightly more complicated over the next 80 years.

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But the era of Internet fanboys has brought on a staggered rollout that begins with photos from the set, then official posters (sometimes a series, released over a few days or weeks), then “sneak peeks” (i.e., very short clips from the movie itself), followed by a teaser trailer, followed by a full trailer, followed by another trailer (or, if the film is racy, by a “red band” trailer), followed by TV spots, followed by longer clips from the actual movie (as much as the first five minutes), followed, finally, by the movie itself. (Let me know in the comments if I missed any of the usual steps.)

Enabling all of this is the blurring of the distinction between editorial coverage and sheer publicity. In what possible world is the third or fourth series of set photographs newsworthy? In the world of the fanboy (or fangirl, as the case may be).

And so out of that world has emerged a new creature: the trailer with commentary. An attempt to trace its murky origins took me to IGN, the videogame-centric entertainment site, which, in 2009, launched Rewind Theater, a recurring segment devoted to “the fan’s perspective” on new trailers (they started with X-Men Origins: Wolverine) by pausing and going back over their favorite moments in movie and videogame trailers for six or seven minutes.

These are not purebred examples of the new species, mind you, since the commentary in this variation does not come from the people who made the movie. (There are amateur versions as well, featuring varying degrees of irreverence.) But then, in 2010, a mutation: The ad wizards marketing MacGruber put out a red-band trailer that features commentary from star Will Forte. This odd duck does not appear to have reproduced, but it did portend more successful mutations to come.

Enter IFC: In August of last year, they launched the Call-in Commentary, in which a film’s director is reached by phone and talks over the trailer for his movie. The best entry so far is probably the one for Shame, in which Steve McQueen talks as fast as he can in order both to describe the movie (“this is the sex—one of the parts with the sex”) and give the backstory for each actor he cast, even in the smaller parts, all in under two minutes.

Around the same time another one-off appeared: The Hunger Games “sneak peek” with director commentary. And in December, this version cross-pollinated with the IGN original, producing a monstrous beast: the 17-minute director’s commentary done by Peter Berg for the upcoming movie-based-on-a-board-game-and-mysteriously-involving-alien invaders Battleship. Try not to look away.

When you’re done, turn your eyes to what may be the first truly mature trailer with commentary spotted in the wild (that is, on YouTube):

“OK, well, this is New York City,” begins the commentary by the always game Elizabeth Banks. “That’s the Roosevelt Hotel,” she continues. “That’s the real place where we shot it.” Riveting stuff. It goes on:

And then this is Sam Worthington, who’s real manly and sexy. That’s him opening his legs. Yep, and that’s the real ledge! That’s what it looked like. And those are real cars!

Here Banks becomes reflective, pausing to consider what she would do if she were to spot a man on a ledge. Probably she would watch for a while, she decides. Then she gives us a brief summary of the plot (interrupted, rather endearingly, at one point, with the interjection, “That’s me,” when Banks herself shows up in the trailer).

Banks, a funny and talented performer who is familiar with the indignities involved in Hollywood advertising, turns the exercise into something far more amusing than the actual trailer, taking her digressive narrative to some surprising places (“Can we talk about how Ed Harris has aged just like a great bottle of wine into a super—just a swanky-looking older man that I would still like to tap?”).

Here at Brow Beat, of course, we love trailers; hence our recurring feature Trailer Critic. It is, perhaps, a quixotic series: As Winston Wheeler Dixon has chronicled, the history of film trailers is, in many ways, a history of decline, with artful, ambiguous enticements giving way to cookie-cutter commercials that give away entire plots. But the best trailers do still manage to advertise with flair, and we have held out hope that someone would come along and advance the art.

Could the trailer with commentary be an artistic, and not just a commercial, advance? Perhaps. I await the next step expectantly, feeling a bit like Elizabeth Banks watching the trailer of the movie she’s in:

So what’s gonna happen, you know? You just don’t know. Is he gonna get in off the ledge? Is he gonna go over? Is the helicopter gonna blow him off? Oh, is that girl ever gonna put clothes back on?

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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