Remember the most riveting shot in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? The camera appears to ride an arrow as it flies from Kevin Costner’s bow smack into a tree. Remember its send-up in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights last summer? An arrow flies in the face of physics, swerving around trees and rocks before splitting a tree in half. You may recall these shots even if you never saw the films: They were both created by the makers of the movies’ trailers (a.k.a. previews of coming attractions), and the Thieves shot only made it into the movie because audiences loved it so much. Such are the bonuses of the trailer trade, where a 150-second project can cost $750,000. And if you’re shocked to learn that trailers promote movies by showing footage that’s not from the movie, well, that’s only the half of it. We went to the handful of specialists who produce most Hollywood trailers and learned the slippery rules they live by: *LET THE STARS SHINE. Big surprise-name brands sell. It’s the principle at work in A Perfect World’s trailer, which relies on public familiarity with Kevin Costner’s voice, Clint Eastwood’s name, and little else. Star power was on canny display in the trailer for Carlito’s Way, too, Al Pacino’s first film since his Oscar win for Scent of a Woman. Neither Universal nor Bregman/Baer marketing exec Charles Glenn felt any obligation to tell the Carlito’s story, opting instead to roll sound bites from Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, and The Godfather over footage of Pacino in sunglasses. Says Glenn: ”We wanted people to hear those lines and say, ‘Oh, my God. That was him.”’ *No stars? Go for the gut. It worked for The Joy Luck Club’s preview, a barrage of taut mother-daughter scenes, and it’s the strategy for Heaven and Earth. Oliver Stone’s next big statement about Vietnam has no marquee names to carry it, so the movie’s heroine narrates the trailer in voice-over, giving a valedictory on her epic struggles, victories, and defeats. The speech, recorded expressly for the purpose, goes on at megatrailer length-over three minutes.
*Use all the best jokes. The insiders admit it, off the record: A few honest laughs are all a film needs to make a nice dishonest trailer. At Columbia’s insistence, Groundhog Day’s preview played up Bill Murray’s gags, even though doing so peeved director Harold Ramis, who wanted space for the romance that drives the plot. ”We may have lost some people who would have liked the movie,” says Ramis, ”but there was no way Columbia was going to miss the target audience-young males looking for comedy.”
*Choose your sex appeal. Don’t try to sell a ”woman’s movie” to men, or vice versa. Savoy Pictures nixed the original Bronx Tale trailer because it favored father-son bonding, a decidedly emotional sell, over the mobster angle. ”They wanted to go for a more male audience, so we beefed it up,” says Giaronomo Productions’ Ron Auerbach. MGM, conversely, wanted to lock in women for 1991’s Thelma & Louise, so Intralink’s Anthony Goldschmidt revised his trailer by cutting such plot basics as why the two friends were on the lam, in favor of shots that emphasized their relationship.