The secrets of a movie trailer producer
Editor

You may not have heard of David Hughes. But you’ll almost certainly have seen his work

He’s produced movie trailers for modern classics including Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Jurassic Park – and thousands more besides – helping to build anticipation for some of cinema’s biggest releases long before they hit the big screen.

David has been running Synchronicity, his own ‘trailer house’, for 10 years now – and first began working on movie trailers more than 25 years ago.

We asked him to share some secrets of a rather fascinating trade: from sneaky tactics editors employ, to the fresh challenges they face.

Trailer trends are easy to spot (if you know how)

Ever noticed that certain tropes and clichés pop up time and time again in trailers? Just like any other profession, there are fashions that come and go.

“The current vogue seems to be slow female vocal versions of popular hits cut to slow-motion action shots with lots of dips to black,” notes David.

He also points out that some directors, like Ridley Scott, are “canny enough” to film dialogue lines specifically so they can be used in trailers.

“‘Are you seeing this?’ was pretty popular as a dialogue line in films for a while – see Prometheus – and it always sounds good in a trailer.”

Even trailer makers get tired of them

You probably get bored of seeing the same old editing techniques and audio tricks during the previews at your local cinema. And David has his own pet hates.

“Mine would be ‘Are you seeing this?’, and overuse of those fade-to-black/fade-up-from-black – which are supposed to make you feel as though you are witnessing something awesome, but actually replicate the feeling that you’re falling asleep.

“And the Christopher Nolan horn blares from Inception onwards got pretty tiresome pretty quickly, didn’t they?”

There’s a reason the best bits get included in the trailer

When people find out David makes trailers for a living, their first reaction is usually: ‘Why do you always put the best bits in?’

To which the answer, according to David, can only be: “If we put the worst bits in, nobody would go see the film.”

“A trailer is supposed to sell the film; it doesn’t necessarily have to represent it. Car ads don’t show you the underneath of the car, or the inside of the boot, or the spare tyre, or the ball bearings. They show you the sexy stuff.

“We do get a lot of stick for putting the best lines or scenes from comedies in trailers – but when modern comedies often have so few funny lines or scenes, what the hell else are you gonna put in the ad?”

There have been some surprising ‘game-changers’

It’s not always the most iconic or celebrated films that have the best trailers. And sometimes a standard blockbuster, or even a mediocre horror reboot, will produce a piece of movie marketing genius that inspires trailer makers for years to come.

“One of the early game-changers in my career was Cliffhanger,” explains David, “which was the first to use operatic music in a montage of action and not worry if there were what we call ‘flappy mouths’ – people talking with no words coming out – for dramatic effect. It was quickly ripped off by everyone. Myself included.

“The trailer for the Michael Bay-produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre was another game-changer, because it used cuts in a way that hadn’t been used before, and continues to influence horror movie trailers, including our own.”

The modern industry throws up some interesting challenges

Film fans may have wondered how trailer makers are able to put together serviceable previews for big, special-effects laden blockbusters months in advance.

And according to David, the absence of finished footage for movies that make use of extensive post-shoot CGI does make things tricky.

“The first trailers for big special effects films are often unusually talky and full of black and captions.

“The biggest shots tend not to come in until much closer to release, so often you are trying to make a trailer out of the talkiest bits of the film, with none of the expensive shots.”

Spoilers are a no-no – but there is one exception

Although some trailers have come under heavy fire for spoiling their movies in advance, David says that – in his book – spoiling the film in a trailer is “unforgivable”.

“I always make sure to never show more of the film than is necessary to get the audience on the hook. Trailers are not art: they are ads, and if you give away the store in the ad, how can you expect people to buy the product?”

He does state that there is one “famous” exception to that rule though.

“The inclusion of a ‘happy ending’ shot or line in the trailer for a film designed for an older audience, where they may resist going to see a film if they think it will be relentlessly downbeat.

“The case I always quote is the trailer for a Pierce Brosnan film called Evelyn, where even the poster is a spoiler.”

You have to be comfortable not calling the shots

The degree to which the person actually making the trailer has a say in its overall tone and direction varies wildly.

“It depends entirely on the client, and the job. If the client loves the first cut, they generally won’t mess with it just to justify their office parking space (in most cases, that is). Clients can be great collaborators.

“But at the end of the day, the one who pays the piper calls the tune. I’m sure, for instance, that the much-derided Ghostbusters 2016 trailer was not put together by a single editor with a vision, but a committee with a vision for a camel.

“My favourites would probably be the ones that remained the closest to the first cut, and were the least ‘messed with’ by committee – although there has been a growing trend over the years for clients to be more marketing savvy than ever before, and therefore ‘amendments’ are often, these days, ‘improvements'”.

Though David acknowledges that differing views can sometimes create tension, he’s also philosophical about the process.

“We’re a service industry at the end of the day, and our clients keep our lights on.

“If you want to have 100% creative control, make your own film – or better yet, write a novel and self-publish it.”

You can find out more about Synchronicity and their work here.

More:

How the movie trailer has evolved (in a world where cliches are rife)

The cheesy new thing every movie trailer has to have

Main image: Shutterstock