How a Movie Trailer Is Made: Behind-the-Scenes of ‘Dark Knight Rises,’ ‘Great Gatsby,’ and More

Photograph: Marvel; Warner Bros. Pictures(3)

When Matt Brubaker, President of the Theatrical and Theatrical Home Entertainment divisions of Trailer Park, talks cutting today’s movie trailers it’s obvious he’s as passionate about his work as any Hollywood director or producer. He hears the cries of the fan community, but he knows if he sticks to his guns, he and his team can deliver a micro-sized work of art that will drive them in droves to the box office.

“Once people find out what you do, they ask, ‘why do you show all the best scenes in the trailer?'” says Brubaker. “And it’s because our job is to get people interested in the movie, to go to the theater. Whatever the best combination of story, humor, graphics, music, or whatever that gets you to the theater, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Trailer Park describes itself as “the world’s leading entertainment marketing and content agency” and they have the résumé to back it up, having cut trailers for Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, and Pacific Rim, designed posters for The Hobbit and Prometheus, and even constructed interactive websites for Wreck-It Ralph and Breaking Bad. Brubaker leads the theatrical side of the company, working with movie studios to develop trailers, TV commercials, and viral videos for the biggest, baddest blockbusters in town. With a body of work that speaks to their abilities, Trailer Park is assigned projects straight from the studios, given a creative brief with broad stroke ideas to inspire their work.

Often studios collaborate with filmmakers to make distinctive campaigns. Most notably, Warner Bros’ innovative campaigns with visionary director Christopher Nolan. For the The Dark Knight Rises trailer. Trailer Park was given the task to make a trailer that “was anything but traditional.” “Sound is a key component to the way we hang a trailer — the way we structure it, the way we sell it,” says Brubaker. “[For Rises], it was almost more of an opposite. We went very quiet. It had a lot of emotion to it, but it had an understated simplicity to it that let the movie stand on its own.”

“Sometimes, the process can last a year or more. Sometimes it lasts a week,” says Brubaker. Trailer Park’s road to the perfect trailer requires editing, re-editing, studio notes, complete overhauls, tiny tinkering, and painstaking work to find the right tone to hook audiences. But every time, the journey to the perfect trailer begins with an unlikely source: a script. “I know you don’t think of writing scripts for trailers, but it’s more about the feel and idea. Even if we don’t have narration or copy, it’s more about what the idea of the trailer is. The direction.”

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After a few months of deliberation, the Trailer Park team will take a stab at piecing together footage. Brubaker and his team parse together ideas from an “assembly cut,” or rough first cut, of the feature film. With piracy an ever-increasing issue, even in the industry, they may not even see that much. “Studios who will omit certain — we call them the ‘black holes’ — for security purposes take out sections of the movie,” says Brubaker. “There are also filmmakers who don’t want to give the entire movie, they’ll give you sections out of order.”

Brubaker explains that studios, much like the filmmakers they employ, have particular tastes for how they want to package their product. Some want the same return every time, utilizing a scientific trailer formula based on test audiences, previous research, and their own sensibilities. The choices are a mixed bag between the juggernauts of Hollywood, but familiarity is key. “Some studios like raunchy humor, some like safe humor. Some like pop music, some like big score. There are several clients within each studio, and they each have different tastes and for different types of sells.”

Hollywood knows the importance of trailers has grown in the past two decades. They know people obsess over every detail when a trailer is released online. They even add to the hype — Brubaker chuckles when the idea of “trailers for trailers” comes up. “The smoke and mirrors of how we made trailers are gone,” says Brubaker.”Filmmakers are keenly aware of how trailers are scrutinized. The reactions to when a trailer launches — studios are very aware and reactive to [whether or not] their message [is] getting through or people [are] liking it.”

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The weight a trailer carries has impacted every step of the creative process. According to Brubaker, a movie doesn’t even need to exist when Trailer Park is called upon to whip up its first trailer. “There is a new trend where we’re actually working on movies before they’re even greenlit. Something called a rip-o-matic, which is we’re making trailers to help the producers and studio executives to sell the movies for the greenlight,” says Brubaker. Before the head honchos of a movie studio will fork over millions of dollars to make a movie, they want to know if it will make for a great trailer. Using footage and sounds from other movies, Trailer Park is able to design a conceptual teaser that evokes a mood. “It shows how important the trailers and marketing of a movie are, envisioning how this could be boiled down in two-and-a-half minutes.”

NEXT: Adding An Edge and Dealing With Perfectionism…

While most of a trailer’s style is born from broad studies and market research, there is wiggle room for innovation and actual artistry. Brubaker admits that in the age of the Internet, it’s often the riskier trailers, ones that are “not exactly made for middle America, but they give a cool edge to a campaign,” that garner the greatest response.

“Look at the teaser for [Nolan’s] Superman trailer. You don’t know it’s Superman until the very end. It’s done so subtly, and for such a big movie.” Brubaker suggests that if Man of Steel didn’t have the backing of a veteran like Nolan, Warner Bros. may not have taken this route. But he suspects it will pay off in the end. “If it was anyone else, they would question it. ‘We’re spending a huge amount of money to reboot Superman for the umpteenth time, and you’re just going to show a slight indication at the very end that it’s Superman?’ It doesn’t show the special effects that you normally would, it doesn’t show the story you normally would… It’s a breath of fresh air.”

In some cases, Trailer Park cuts versions of the trailers that go against the requests of the studios — and these are often the versions chosen in the end. Taking a cue from director Baz Luhrmann’s musical influence, Brubaker and his team decided to steer the trailer for The Great Gatsby in a new direction, being so enthused by the footage they were given. Still, it was risky. “Using a U2 song covered by Jack White — things that should not go together. Going against period deco Gatsby, which worked in my opinion, gave it an edge and a sensibility [that] the studio and Baz [were] looking for.” The result is what Brubaker describes as “lightning in a bottle.”

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Brubaker is frank when he describes the level of perfectionism needed to cut trailers in 2013 (“Fans — especially fanboys — will scrutinize. They’re just cruel to the filmmakers in terms of how a movie will look”). But he also lights up when basking in the imagination required to pull it all off. Trailer Park, like any typical Hollywood-ready production house, packs editors who specialize in cutting action flicks, romantic comedies, and prestige dramas. Playing loose with the specializations is a key to their success. When Brubaker assigns a rom-com cutter to take a summer blockbuster trailer, “they are so driven to prove they can cut action, that they surprise me.” It works both ways. “There are a couple of great action cutters, who are men, who cut the most emotional, sappy trailers.”

Studio demands even have Trailer Park getting their hands dirty in the production side. “We did the Anchorman 2 teaser — that was a special shoot teaser that was written by the filmmakers,” says Brubaker. “They wanted an announcement piece to let their fans know this was coming. At that time, the script wasn’t finished.” The company managed to assemble the trailer from shoot to completion in one week. For Pacific Rim, Trailer Park once again innovated a sound, a bellowing buzz to match the giant robot warriors conjured up by director Guillermo del Toro. The studio and del Toro were so happy with the results, the sound is now an integral part of the film’s final sound design.

Reflecting on his early days in the trailer business — when Don Lafontaine would boom “IN A WORLD…,” Brubaker fondly recalls when audiences actually had to go to the theater to see the latest “previews.” Now, trailers are their own beasts — an even bigger challenge than just delivering a product. “You don’t see that many movies a year, but you can see a lot of movie trailers. They’re being seen as mini-movies,” says Brubaker. “It drives us to make better work. Our job is to get people to the theaters to see the movie. With a more educated and advanced audience, we need to make better and better product to motivate them to go to the theater.”

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

[Photo Credit: Warner Bros., Marvel]

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