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Movie trailers can drive people to the theaters or keep them away altogether. (iStockphoto.com)

Movie Trailer Math: Getting 'Butts In The Seats' In Minutes

by NPR Staff
Feb 20, 2013 (Talk of the Nation)

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Before the award presenters open the envelopes on Oscar Sunday, before the actors and producers take a single step on the red carpet, and even before the films hit theaters, the trailers for these films grace the big screen.

These previews have the power to send audiences flocking to theaters or keep them away altogether.

"You really want to get butts in the seats and you want to highlight the best parts of that movie," says Stephen Garrett, the founder of the trailer production company Jump Cut Creative.

He tells NPR's Neal Conan that there's a fine balance between enticing the audience to theaters and spoiling the plot twists.

"That's one thing that always makes me cringe, when I'm in a movie theater and I overhear people after the trailer saying, 'We'll, I won't see that movie because it's given everything away,' " he says.

He points to Silver Linings Playbook as an example of a Best Picture nominee with a trailer that walks that line really well.

"It's hitting story beats, one after the next," he says. "And it kind of gives you a very clear overview of what this movie is like and what to expect when you go see the movie."

He says this trailer also makes it clear that this movie isn't a traditional romantic comedy. The trailer includes the scene where a teenager knocks on the door and asks if he can do an interview for a school project on mental illness.

"And then the door is slammed, and then the music kicks in," Garrett says." That's what you would call a nice little punctuation for the trailer. You start with this kind of cold open, and then you go into the body of the trailer, which is, this is a movie about mental illness but it's going to make you laugh."

Garrett's production company specializes in trailers for foreign, independent and documentary films. He has received 11 awards at the Golden Trailer Awards, an annual show that recognizes excellence in motion picture marketing.

He says generally, different strategies are employed for different genres of film. For a historical drama like Lincoln, the trailer has to draw viewers who may already be somewhat familiar with the plot.

"This is a man who's larger than life. So the treatment is very reverential," he explains. "They're already prompting you with the suggestion, 'This is an important movie. You need to go see this.' "

The most intriguing aspect of the trailer for Garrett is the fact that the voice of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln isn't heard until after the one-minute mark. He thinks that was done intentionally.

"You hear this thin, reedy voice," he says. "If that was the first voice you'd heard or the first one you've seen if you watched the trailer, you might have giggled a little bit."

Garrett says the editors likely asked this question: "How do we introduce him without scaring everybody away, or making them laugh or making them think this is a comedy instead of a historical drama?"

Garrett says there's a lot of pressure on the editors putting these packages together. "There's so much money involved with some of the larger, big studio films, that I think there is an anxiety about people not quite knowing what to expect."

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