Laugh-out-loud. Edge-of-your-seat. Heart-warming. Even news-worthy. We still call them movies and TV shows for now, but more and more of the content I sell can be experienced on any screen. That’s why movie studios and TV networks are starting to call themselves “content platforms.” It’s a pretty dry term, but definitions in the Age of Netflix and YouTube are very much in flux.
My official job title is freelance copywriter, and I’ve worked on hundreds of advertising campaigns for different kinds of “content.” (See why I call them “experiences”?) There’s a whole industry of entertainment branding and promotion companies competing to capture your attention. So every time you see a trailer or ad, you’re seeing the “winner” of many creative battles, for better or worse.
This is one of mine. A single line that made it through the marketing bureaucracy gauntlet to lead the campaign for Jumper, a sci-fi movie put out by 20th Century Fox a few years ago. It has an aspirational, almost dream-like quality that fits well with the movie’s concept, but it’s also a spin on a cliché (“anything is possible”), so it has some built-in potential to stay with you. This is the kind of gold I pan for. Something that sticks, because it speaks to you on an emotional level. But make no mistake, it all starts from a very rational place.
By the time I come on board, a marketing team inside the studio/network/content platform has already made some key choices about how to brand their property.
How are we positioning it? That is, how do set this apart from the other entertainment options in the marketplace. Is it the most intense action thriller of the summer? Or an action adventure with a shocking twist? Are the stars big enough to headline the campaign? Or is the story the star? Is the concept so clever and catchy that it sells itself? What themes are we avoiding? Who’s the target audience?
That last one is the key for me. I have to know who I’m speaking to before I know what to say.
For studio movies, the target audience is usually pretty broad. They give me traditional demographic info like “Adults 18-44. Male skew. Fans of ______ genre.” For TV shows, demographics are just the beginning. Audiences are often grouped by shared behaviors and attitudes which they call “psychographics”. Like “Pop Culture Aficionados” or “Adventure Addicts.”
Once I can picture the audience, I can start to experiment with language and concepts, looking for the best new ways to introduce them to this new experience.
The process starts the same for trailers, commercials, print ads, billboards, packaging copy, you name it. Then, the specific needs of the media determine what comes next.
My favorite way to structure a trailer has three parts. I’ve never really given these parts a name, but you’re my target audience now, so I imagine that what I say will have more sticking power if I chose something more clever than 1-2-3. How about...
The Hook. The Jam. The Tease.
The first moments of a trailer are crucial. The movie has to feel new to get your attention, but not too new. We’re trying to grab you, but also ground you in a genre. It’s okay to laugh. It’s the perfect time to scream.
We only have a couple of minutes here, so the trailer needs to form a bond between you and the lead character(s). Fast! That’s why stars and genres are so effective. They’re shortcuts to familiarity. Heuristics. Ten seconds of Tom Cruise doing Tom Cruise things and your mind has enough information to set some emotional expectations. You see Tom Cruise performing a crazy, new stunt and you’re not only promised excitement, but also safety. You and Tom go way back, and the genre of his story goes back even further. So now you’re ready to let down your guard – and that’s when the fun begins.
There’s no faster way to your heart – my heart, every heart – than danger. Someone fascinating is about to face the challenge of a lifetime. A forbidden love. A ruthless villain. You know the drill.
The narrative shorthand that has evolved over tens of thousands of years of storytelling comes in pretty handy when time is so limited. But this is isn’t the first time your mind has been down the path of forbidden love. After The Hook has grabbed your attention, the accountant in your head starts checking off allowable plot points as they roll out. “Okay... Okay... Nope, not buying that.” Uh-oh... we’re in trouble. Quick – blow something up!
To prevent your mind from getting stuck on a detail, trailers include the least amount of information possible. We need just enough for your mind to check the “That’s different, but not too different” box. (Unless of course, you belong to the “Novelty Seeker” psychographic, then strange is job one.)
We may only be a minute into this trailer and you’re already unplugging from your life and plugging into his/hers... and now you’re in a Jam! This is the “How the hell am I ever going to make it out alive?!” box. For this isn’t really a Tom Cruise movie, it’s a you movie. Remember, I’m selling you an experience. And even if the experience doesn’t rise to the operatic level of action movies, the funny/romantic/inspirational life that you’re joining has to be threatened enough to get you emotionally engaged.
The whole point of the trailer is to build you up, then leave you hanging. Will Tom Cruise make it out alive? Will Romeo and Juliet live happily ever after?
I really wish I could tell you... but you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Of course, there’s this big Tease happening on screen now that’s dismissed the accountant in your head and put your heart in charge. You’re seeing brief snippets of all the best scenes in the movie getting faster and faster and more dangerous for Tom. The sheer kinetic energy of the quick cuts is designed to leave you breathless, but if it’s not done right, then it will leave your mind as soon it leaves the screen. The very definition of smoke and mirrors.
Successful trailers leave you with a lingering desire for more, because the experience echoes with your own desires. “I knew it... anywhere is possible!” While the “Shock Hunter” psychographic may want new for new sake, the rest of us are actually looking for entertainment that fits within our own worldview. The job of the trailer is to show how this movie will take you to that corner of your world that you haven’t experienced – without really asking you to risk anything. It’s just play, right?
So, is my job simply to pander to the target audience? Or am I really trying to reflect something meaningful about them back to them?
Are trailers just confirmation bias on cinematic steroids? Or is each attempting to add something new to a larger dialogue between the people who create motion pictures and the people who experience them?
I really wish I could tell you... but you’ll just to see for yourself.