Wayne Drake got into the trailer business like a lot of people — by accident.
Fresh out of college and living in New York in the mid-90s, Drake was trying to make it as a writer. He was mostly just freezing and starving, as he puts it, until an old friend called looking for help with a trailer.
“She said 'I need a good comedy writer.' I said, 'I don’t know anything about trailers,'" said Drake. "She said move back to Hollywood and I’ll teach you.”
Drake's been making trailers ever since. He says his story is a common one in the trailer-making industry.
“There’s a lot of editors who wanted edit movies. Or writers like me who wanted to write movies. So it’s a good fall back that I don’t think anybody planned," said Drake.
Drake's now the head writer for the Cimmaron Group, an agency that specializes in the production of movie trailers. On any given day the company could be editing up to ten different trailers, like the one for the upcoming Billy Crystal movie "Parental Guidance," and Ang Lee’s "Life of PI" or the Gerard Butler surf flick "Chasing Mavericks."
When he started at Cimmaron Group, a popular movie might have two or three different trailers. Now you can expect any one movie to have several.
“Your domestic trailer, your domestic teaser. Your trailer number two and number three. Your international trailer. You know, up to maybe three versions of that. Your Comicon trailer that gets released online," said Drake.
All together you could be looking at a dozen or more different versions.
It's A Competitive World
When a Hollywood studio needs a trailer it asks a few different production houses to submit ideas on spec.
Drake says sometimes studios even combine work from different producers, making a sort of "Frakentrailer," but if one company lands an entire campaign, it could spell millions of dollars.
All of this work keeps people like editor Van Harrell very busy. Harrell's sitting in front of a massive screen where he’s digitally splicing together clips for an upcoming action movie trailer.
“So this is a two-minute piece and there are all my edits," said Harrell. "There is probably, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred edits there and it’s only two minutes long.”
Harrell usually works off of dailies — raw, unedited versions of the film. Sometimes he gets hours of tape with no music and few special effects, so it’s his job to pluck out the best parts and condense them into three minutes of excellence.
Usually that means finding the biggest bangs, hottest kisses or most intense moments of drama.
But that approach can get old.
“I get tried of the bum bum bum bump! But that’s just really what a trailer is. I get tired of seeing that," said Harrell." When you see things that stand out to you in the trailer world it’s because it doesn’t do that. It cuts against that grain.”
A good example is 2011’s "Battle: Los Angeles." It’s a generic alien invasion pop-corn flick, but the trailer was different. Instead of three minutes of explosions and witty one-liners, it featured dramatic scenes of UFOs scored to a calm and eerie song.
Critics panned the movie, but the trailer was a hit, inspiring a slew of similar treatments for other films.
Text and Titles
Trailer houses are responsible for more than just editing together the best moments of a film into a cohesive 3-minute piece.
Take Cimarron Group art director Clayton Glenn. It's his job is to make the text and titles of a trailer.
Name any genre and Glenn can tell you which font to use. For instance, working on a comedy? You'd need, “Very plain sans serif heavy-faced fonts over a light background," said Glenn.
Or how about an action flick? “Action would probably be metallic," said Glenn.
And one of those late season Oscar contenders? “They all go gold," said Glenn.
The color gold and a font called Trajan Pro could equal Oscar success if that's what you're going for.
“It is coined ‘the movie font’. That is probably used more than any other font in the movie industry right now," said Glenn.
The trailer business is full of standard practices like this. After all, when you only have a few minutes to sell a movie that may have cost a tens of millions dollars to make, you often stick with tried and true ways of wooing the audience.
Drake says despite all the repetitive tricks, at its heart, this is an industry full of creative people.
“It’s like from this side you know it’s smoke and mirrors sometimes," said Drake. “I still love going online and looking at other people’s trailers and thinking, wow, that’s pretty cool. There is still a lot of people doing pretty cool stuff.”