AWFJ Opinion Poll: All About Movie Trailers

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Of some 10-billion videos watched on line annually, movie trailers rank #3, after news and user-created video. With such easy and instant access to them, these increasingly popular cinematic morsels are being devoured by moviegoers–and served up with serious consideration by the industry that sometimes spends sums equivalent to a third world country’s annual budget to concoct them.

Timed to coincide with the Ninth Annual Golden Trailer Awards’ ceremony on May 8, AWFJ releases the results of our “All About Trailers Opinion Poll,” surveying AWJF members for their takes on the aesthetics, ethics and impact of trailers: Do we consider trailers to be an art expression or marketing ploy? Can clever trailers catapult indie films into the mainstream? Should theaters charge studios to screen trailers? Would we miss trailers if they were withdrawn?

As evidence of the increasing popularity of movie trailers, the Ninth Annual Golden Trailer Awards ceremonies, which take place live in LA on May 8, will be broadcast May 26–on network TV for the first time, reaching 96 percent of American households.

The awards show, created by sisters Evelyn Brady-Watters and Monica Brady, is based on nominations made by the public, with winners in categories ranging from Best Action, Best Romance, Best Horror and other standards to quirkier “Golden Fleece (best trailer for a bad movie) and “Trashiest,” determined by a panel of nine expert judges. USA Today’s Claudia Puig, an AWFJ member, is the sole female on the panel this year.

Timed to the May 8th event, AWFJ makes movie trailers the subject of an opinion poll, with members answering a dozen questions related to the entertainment value, influence and effectiveness of movie trailers.

Quite coincidentally, in responding to the survey, AWFJ member Sara Voorhees questioned the use of the term ‘trailer‘ for what is clearly the ‘preview‘ of a film.

“I’d be grateful,” writes Voorhees, “if anyone could explain for the masses (and for me) when the earth-shattering linguistic decision was made to change the name of these things from ‘previews’ to ‘trailers.‘ I’m never satisfied with the answer I come up with when I’m asked that question.”

We haven’t come up with a certifiable explanation, but the Brady ladies–the ultimate go-to source for information pertaining to these brief but very influential cinematic expressions, whatever you wish to call them–inform us that originally these ‘coming attractions’ were dubbed ‘trailers’ (waaaaaaay back during the 20s or earlier) because they were shown after the main attraction. ‘Trailers’ actually became ‘previews’ when theater owners switched their programming to show them before the main attraction–because audiences weren’t staying to see them after ‘The End’ appeared on the screen. (Now, doesn’t that ever resonate with critics and others who want to watch credits, but find the view blocked by audience members stampeding for the exit and their next fix of whatever?)

It’s interesting to note, too, that Voorhees’ concerns about terminology aren’t singular. In introducing their event to network TV, the Bradys have had to make a titular adjustment to the show. While the live presentation and awards themselves are still called “The Golden Trailers,“ the broadcast on MyNetworkTV is titled “The Movie Preview Awards“–presumably because execs are concerned viewers may be baffled by that tricky ’trailers’ terminology.

But, we digress.

The results of AWFJ’s opinion poll regarding movie trailers–yes, that’s how we know them and that’s what we call them– follow. If, after reading the survey, you wish to comment on the results or any of the questions, please do so via the comment box.

.–Jennifer Merin, President. Alliance of Women Film Journalists

QUESTION: Do you enjoy trailers, think they’re an important part of the movie theater experience and would you miss them if they were gone?

The majority of AWFJ members ‘love’ trailers (and love is the term they use to describe their feelings) and think they‘re integral to the movie theater experience.

Susan Wloszczyna puts it this way: “Anyone who claims to love films must possess some interest in movie trailers–when done well and honestly, they’re like great foreplay, an irresistible tease to what hopefully will be an affair to remember.”

Sara Voorhees notes, “Just as appetizers are necessary before a meal, trailers prime the pump, letting body and soul know a new experience is coming, so you’re ready and alert, emotionally prepared for it.“

“They’re sometimes better than the movie,” comments Anne Thompson. “As a film pro, I check them out to see what’s coming, figure out what I want to see, gauge my own reaction and that of the audience around me.”

Joanna Langfield remarks that trailers help her ‘prep’ for a film and that she gets “a kick our of the reactions I hear from fellow moviegoers. Are they excited, turned off, or is there an altogether terrifying lack of reaction? It’s like market research without having to do the work yourself!”

More specifically, Wloszczyna says “I could instantly tell that “Hitch” would be a smash just by the way I kept hearing people in the audience say out loud ‘I like Will Smith’.”

Maitland McDonough enjoys trailers because they’re “reminders what’s on the horizon. Kim Voynar gets to the theater early to of watch them–even if she‘s already seen them online. Erin Trahan says trailers “help you settle into the cinematic experience.“ Brandy McDonnell says, “I enjoy well-made trailers and miss them if they’re not shown–at press screenings, for instance.”

On a more personal note, Carol Cling confides a sentimental attachment to her childhood trailer experiences, when she “used to embarrass the hell out of my easily-embarrassed sister every time our family went to the movies—during the late, great double-feature days—and I applauded when the previews came on. I’d miss them terribly if they were no longer screened. However, I wouldn’t miss them as much now as I used to, because trailers these days often give away the whole movie.

QUESTION: Do most trailers give away too much of the movie and does that make you (and/or audiences) less inclined to want to see that movie?

The majority of AWFJ members join Cling in thinking that trailers reveal too much plot. But there‘re differing opinions about whether that’s an audience deterrent.

Thompson says, “I hate the way trailers give everything away. Unfortunately, studios always cite conclusive evidence that the more you show, the more it gets people to come and see the movie. For me, less is more.”

Lexi Feinberg agrees: “If it’s a murder mystery, you don’t want to see the unmasked menace holding the gun. If it’s a love story, you don’t want to see the heartbroken guy sobbing on a bar stool. Let’s leave something to the imagination!”

According to Voorhees, “Occasionally a trailer gives us the best and the rest is useless–in which case it’s our duty to inform the public that if they’re seen the trailer, they’ve seen the movie. But, personally, I’m never less inclined to see a movie when the trailer has too much information–because I always hope that there’s more coming.”

McDonagh suggests that ‘although trailers contain spoilers, the average person doesn’t pay really close attention to them.”

Langfield says giving away too much is a particular pet peeve of hers. “The fact that audiences seem to know they’ve probably seen the best of the picture in the trailer doesn’t seem to bother most ticket buyers. But, as a critic, it drives me crazy–because it makes our job of trying not to give too much away practically futile. We’re told by moviegoers–and the studios–not to present too much plot in reviews, but watch a commercial or a trailer and you’ve seen practically the whole movie anyway! On air, I’m constantly apologizing for revealing plot points by saying, ‘Oh, what the heck, I’m not giving anything away you haven’t already seen in the ads‘.”

McDonnell says, “Trailers that give away too much make me not want to see the movie and irritated when I do.” Cling states she avoids watching trailers for movies she has to review, but Marcy Dermansky has another solution: “When trailers give away the film’s best parts, ruin the best jokes, or tell the plot from beginning to end, it’s important to cover your eyes,” she says.

QUESTION: Should movie theaters charge studios/distributors for screening trailers?

Acknowledging that trailers are ‘advertisements for movies,’ the majority of AWFJ members think theaters should charge for screening trailers.

Voynar points out that “studios benefit from having trailers shown because they generate excitement and makes audience members say, “Man, I have to see that!”

MaryAnn Johanson questions why theaters should give studios free advertising, when “the studios are already getting obscene percentages of the ticket sales.”

Cling concurs: “It might seem foolish for theaters to charge for advertising product — movies — that makes their business possible, but studios screw movie theaters in so many ways so often that I don’t blame the theaters for trying to make a buck wherever they can. (However, I draw the line at $5 popcorn.)”

Dissenting, Feinberg says “the more people who go to the movies based on enticing trailers, the more revenue movie theaters get. So showing trailers is a win-win situation for all. There should be no charge.”

Thompson, seeing both sides, suggests, “The studios need the movie theaters and the movie theaters need the studios. They both need trailers to sell their products. They should work this out.”

QUESTION: Which trailers stand out in your mind as exceptionally good and exceptionally bad?

In the good category, multiple members mention the upcoming “Iron Man,“ “Pineapple Express” and “Indy 4” (“It gives just enough of the flavor of the movie and assures everyone that Ford is indeed going to act his age, but with his usual waggish finesse,“ comments Wloszczyna), along with most memorable “No Country For Old Men,” “Ratatouille” and the Harry Potter trailers which, per Voynar, “don‘t show too much, but generate excitement and a great fan base.”

The exceptionally bad mentions list includes “Made of Honor,” “Love Guru,“ “Evan Almighty,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and the upcoming “Sex and the City.” Voynar especially takes exception to the “13” (“Tzameti”) trailer, “which gave away the entire plot of the film, which would have really pissed me off if I hadn’t seen it already. Horrible, horrible, trailer. Also, “The Golden Compass” trailer, which showed scenes that couldn’t possibly have been (and were not) from the first film.”

QUESTION: How do trailers influence your expectations about a movie and what elements (plot points, characters, cinematography, special effects, soundtrack, casting) do you most notice and consider most compelling?

Most AWFJ members think storytelling is the most engaging element in trailers and are most troubled when bits shown in trailers aren’t in the final cuts.

“If the story isn’t intriguing, not much else matters. Movies are visual storytelling, and trailers are storytelling in extreme short form,“ says Susan Granger.

Voorhees indicates she notices storyline first and then, “Overall, I notice other elements equally to the degree that I’ll notice them in the movie itself. But, after seeing the movie, I often notice the trailer has scenes–or lines–that were ultimately cut.”

Johanson, who wants to know who’s in a film and be given a general idea of genre and story, says, “I tend to ignore the music, at least as a cue to what the film will be like, because usually it’s not the music that will be in the finished film.”

McDonagh assesses “the overall look–whether it’s cheap or glossy, or cliché. Is it the muddy grey-green palette the studios now use for horror films, or something I haven’t seen before? Excessive CGI effects or practical stunts and effects? And I always notice who’s in a movie.”

Voynar says she wants to feel excitement and “to see sharp editing that shows enough to grab my interest without giving away too much plot. I want to be dazzled. I don’t care so much about celebrity names, I care whether the movie looks good.”

Cling likes “trailers that give you a taste of the movie‘s atmosphere and theme without telling you everything that’s going on. I’m always impressed by a notable cast, but overall I like trailers that suggest rather than slam you over the head. But, they’re an endangered species.”

Mihal Gartenberg’s preferences depend on the movie. “If it’s a thinking person’s movie, the plot shown within the trailer is important. If it’s a popcorn flick, I’m interested in the characters,” she says.

QUESTION: Do you think trailers are a unique art form or a marketing ploy?

AWFJ members are divided on this one, with reactions ranging from Wloszczyna’s “They’re an art–sometimes better than the movie itself” to Eleanor Ringel’s “Younger folks seem to consider them worth reviewing. I see pure marketing” and Dermansky’s “I don’t think they’re an art form. It’s marketing. I love the Roman Coppola movie “CQ,” about the film editor who is assigned to make the trailer, and when the director has to drop out after a car accident, the editor gets promoted to direct the film.”

The majority of AWFJ members concur, however, that trailers mix art and commerce.

“They exist as a means to woo money out of our wallets, but sometimes they deserve kudos for being so incredibly well done,“ comments Feinberg, while Cling observes, “They can be an art form, but are mostly crude marketing come-ons,“ and Trahan opines, “They’re absolutely their own art form, and one with value–but generally the market value eclipses the artistic value.“

Langfield expands the notion of movies’ marketing from trailers to features, commenting that “many movies are shaped as marketing tools onto themselves, and it’s often hard to tell the difference between the art and the salesmanship. When I’m more aware that “Iron Man” uses Verizon Wireless, downs Burger Kings and zips around in Audis than I am of the plot, I’ve really got to wonder….”

Voynar, who considers trailers art form, reminds us that making them requires “taking key points from the films, editing them together sharply, the right music. The use of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” in the trailer is brilliant. But, if it’s done wrong, it ruins the whole thing. Bad marketing can kill a good film.”

QUESTION: Are different skills required for editing a good trailer?

Most AWFJ members think editing trailers requires special skills. Thelma Adams points out that “you‘re telling a story in a different way. The trailer tends to be a little movie in itself. It’s the difference between a haiku and a novel.”

Wloszczyna comments that a talent for brevity is beneficial, while Karen Martin points out that “you have to edit a trailer to be a one to two-minute film, which is difficult to do if you’re the filmmaker who made the entire film. A more detached point of view is needed.”

Trahan suggests trailer editors have “different objectives,“ Granger thinks they “need experience in niche movie advertising” and

Cling notes that “editors who cut trailers should be clever marketers as well as storytellers. But, these days, it’s a lost art—the sales dominate the storytelling.”

According to Gartenberg, “It’s the same skill set needed to make a pitch at a studio meeting.”

QUESTION: Do trailers differ from commercials? If so, how?

Most AWFJ members think the differences between trailers and commercials are minimal–a matter of degrees and circumstances.

Laura Emerick: “A commercial is a blatant ad, a trailer is usually an enticement.”

Ringel: “You can walk out of the room during a commercial. Unless it’s in a movie theater.”

Trahan: “One is designed to be seen in a dark theater on a big screen, the other is designed to grab your attention between TV shows, sports programs and the news.”

Langfield: “They‘ve got to pay big bucks for air time for commercials, so commercials are shorter.”

McDonagh: “Trailers are long commercials, 100% driven by the need to sell you the end product.”

Feinberg: “Trailers sell an experience; commercials sell a product. For me, experience always trumps product.”

QUESTION: Are trailers are gender specific in targeting prospective audiences? If so, what’s an example of a gender specific trailer?

According to most AWFJ members, trailers are gender specific.

Granger cites “27 Dresses,” saying, “If that’s not gender specific, I don’t know what the term means” and Ringel comments, “dewy-eyed ones are for women; blood-splattered ones for boys 14-24.”

According to McDonagh, “The issue of gender specificity is driven by the product: The “Iron Man” trailer is geared to men because the basic audience for comic book/superhero movies is men. It’s full of explosions and flying suit scenes because the movie is full of them, and it gives significant time to Robert Downey Jr. because if the men who are the movie’s prime audience don’t buy him as Tony Stark, they won’t come. That said, I think Robert Downey Jr. is what brought a lot of women in–”Iron Man” didn’t make $104 million opening weekend on men alone.”

Voynar suggests that “Trailers generally target whom the studio perceives as the target market for the film. Action and superhero films have gender-specific trailers–lots of special effects, action sequences, stuff blowing up, the obligatory shot of the “hot” girl. Rom-coms target women, focusing more on slogans like, “When two people aren’t looking for love, they find it in the most unexpected places …” etc. I think trailers targeted at women generally have more talking and relationship emphasis, whereas trailers targeted at men focus on action.”

Johanson comments that “Trailers are created with stereotypical gender expectations in mind–women want romance, men want action, and so on. There’re stereotypical expectations about age, too–ideas about what older and younger moviegoers want. Almost all trailers are clearly designed to appeal to those stereotypes.

Gartenberg points out that trailers targeted ethnicity as well as gender and age “because movies are geared towards specific audiences and trailers represent them.“

QUESTION: Could trailers do a better job of bringing women into movie theaters?

The majority of AWFJ members think trailers could (and should) do a better job of bringing women into the theaters–with some caveats.

According to Voorhees, “Studies show there’s a big gender difference in the reception of programming for girls and boys and for adult women and men. Programs and previews targeted for girls and women are (predictably) ignored by boys and men–but the reverse isn’t true. Girls and women are as interested in male-targeted programming as are men.”

Comparing two action superhero trailers, Voynar notes that “’As a movie, “Iron Man“ has many elements that could appeal to women, but the trailer barely shows the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. On the other hand, the “Spidey“ trailers emphasize the Peter Parker-MJ relationship angle as well as the cool action.”

But McDonnell cites the “Iron Man” trailer as successfully appealing to women “by highlighting Gywneth Paltrow’s role (as Pepper Potts), which wasn’t the usual superhero damsel in distress role.”

Speaking more generally, Johanson points out that since “a trailer should accurately represent the film it’s introducing, if women aren’t going to movies as often as men, the problem is with the movies, not the trailers. Creating a trailer that appeals to women to introduce a movie that won’t is only deceptive advertising.”

McDonagh agrees, stating, “The problem, to the degree that there is a problem, originates with the product, not the pitch.”

QUESTION: Can clever trailers can help level the playing field for small budget indie films competing with big budget studio movies?

Most AWFJ members agree that trailers can help–but are not a quick fix for getting indies widely seen.

Voynar cites “Juno“ and “Little Miss Sunshine“ as examples of indies that “turned into much bigger films than the studios imagined in their wildest dreams, and excellent trailers really helped sell the films to mainstream audiences.“

“But,” says Voynar, “Indie film trailers might make a bigger difference if they were shown more frequently in big theaters before the mainstream films, instead of before other indie films in arthouse theaters.”

For Johanson, the focal point is–again–not the trailers, but the movies–and distribution. “No matter how clever trailers are, certain indies won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. It would be deceptive for trailers to misrepresent films in order to attract viewers. But even clever trailers that genuinely represent films with mainstream appeal won’t help if those films are only playing in two theaters–one in NYC and the other in LA.”

Adams asks, “How can low budget indies can get the reach to make clever trailers effective?” Echoing Adams’ concern about reach, Dermansky suggests that indie filmmakers use their “kick ass trailers to do some viral Internet marketing.”

On another note, Trahan mentions that indie filmmakers “use clever trailers to attract and secure funding before they make deals during one-on-one meetings in festival settings–or trailers can be used to generate interest and develop advance audiences online.”

Gartenberg is more skeptical: “Trailers don’t level the playing field because more than trailers are needed to bring audiences into the theaters. That’s why studios with marketing budgets for billboards and other forms of advertising or promotions continue to have the upper hand.“

QUESTION: Should trailers of other films be included on DVDs and should you be able to fast forward through them?

The majority of AWFJ members find no fault with the presence of trailers on DVDs, but say unanimously and emphatically that they should be able to fast forward through them.

“I always skip them. I hit menu right away and watch the movie,” says Adams.

McDonagh says, “I enjoy vintage trailers for the film I’m seeing, but want them confined to the special features area. I skip trailers for other films on virtually all DVDs. Disney is one of the exceptions–they don’t allow you to fast forward, and I hate them for it.”

Cling acknowledges that “trailers on DVDs sometimes call my attention to something I wouldn’t otherwise consider. I enjoy seeing how older movies were sold. (I especially love those old golden-age previews; they’re hyperbolic and hilarious, but they’re charming just the same.) But, I’m grateful that, on my DVD player at least, I can hit “Next” and skip whatever promos I don’t want to see.

That concludes AWFJ’s opinion poll about movie trailers. We’d like to know your opinion, too. So, again, if you’d like to leave a comment, please do so via the comment box below.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).