-Albert Brooks may have created the first dada trailer for a major motion picture.
Brooks was faced with the task of promoting his current film "Real Life," which defies traditional narrative description, in two or three minutes of film. It ends, for example, with Brooks' donning a clown suit and setting fire to a suburban ranch house as the strains of the theme song from "Gone With the Wind" play in the background. It is what is called in the trade a non-linear movie.
Brooks rose to the occasion. First, he filmed the trailer in Three-D, knowing full well that there hasn't been a pair of Three-D glasses in a theater since the halcyon days of Dwight Eisenhower. Audiences are then forced to watch it with that nostalgic, blue-red Three-D blur outlining everything on the screen.
He then throws a cup of water at the camera and follows that up with a series of Kung-Fu moves at the lens as he discusses his film.
Finally, he brings out a gentleman named Randy Brown who operates two paddle balls simultaneously. Brown, we are told, is the world champion at paddle ball. We then see a silent list of credits for the feature, and the trailer ends.
Then there is the striking 30-second trailer that Stephen Frankfurt made for "Alien," the current science fiction box-office smash. Led by pounding background music, the audience is taken through a quick series of space shots to a closeup of a glistening, white egg, which suddenly begins to crack open. As yellow light first escapes from the egg, we read in stark letters at the bottom of the screen: "In space, no one can hear you scream." The trailer ends.
These two trailers would have been unheard of when "previews of coming attractions" were dominated by words like "colossal" and "stupendous," which appeared chiseled in granite on the screen. In those days there was no such thing as live shooting to advertise the movie as Brooks did. Nor was there any of the suggestive power that Frankfurt used.
From the early '20s, when it was founded, until its folding in the mid-'60s, a company called National Screen Service made almost all the trailers for all of the major studios. It maintained at least one employe on each of the studio lots to make sure that two or three minutes of feature film footage was routinely and unimaginatively copied into a trailer - so named because it originally followed the feature - for a few hundred dollars in a matter of days.
"Every trailer looked the same" remembers Merv Bloch, one of the small circle of men who left trailer work with the major studios for independence and revolutionized the business. "It was all the same cutting style, the same announcer. We'd put together the same car chases, the same fist fights and love stories."
Today, Bloch is one of the most sought-after trailer makers in the business, as are Andy Kuehn, who runs Kaleidoscope Films, the largest trailer maker in the country, and Ed Apfel of Eleuthryra Filma. Jeff Knew was regarded by many as the classiest of them all until he went into feature work last year.
All of these men worked on trailers for the major studios in conjunction with National Screen. They recognized the need for more creativity in trailers, and they saw the opportunity to improve the product and make a lot of money at the same time. They hoped, too, that the move just might lead to feature films of their own some day.
"It was all done from the inside," Bloch explained. "Instead of rising vertically, we all just took off."
Trailers now cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 and take months instead of days to produce. Both the costs and the time involved become difficult to estimate because trailers are now part of a promotion package that involves the use of television, radio and newspapers as well. This kind of package can take a year to complete and cost millions.
Today, a trailer maker will come up with a "concept" to sell a given movie. A script will be hammered out, massive amounts of editing will take place, and repeated bickering will probably occur with the feature film director or distributor. Ideally, a tight, evocative entity anywhere will emerge from this process to take an audience by storm.
"Less is more in trailers" explained Jeff Jacobs, a distributor with New Yorker Films who is well acquainted with the trailer industry. "They allow you a freedom to play with images out of context in the story - a series of quick, powerful moments to zap the audience. It's a lot less tied to linear plot forms."
Bloch and others deserted the studio assembly lines in the mid '60s, as the era of studio monoliths was ending. As a result, National Screen Service stopped making trailers altogether in the late '60s. It had been driven out of business.
"We became noncompetitive with the small guys with no overhead who opened up in California and New York," explained Murray Wolfson of National Screen."We hadn't realized the value of trailers as the single most important piece of advertising in the movie world."
To its credit, National Screen successfully moved after the upheaval to the trailer rental market, where it operates comfortably today.
The trailer game now has a thoroughly new set of rules. It has become as creative as the people making them, which was not always the case.
Frankfurt made the trailer for "Rosemary's Baby" in 1969 that is considered a classic by many today. In it, he depends largely on the sihouette of a baby carriage against a stark background to create c chilling effect.
Eleuthyra Films was heralded for its innovative use of still photography in the remarkable "Godfather" trailer. Kuehn's trailer for "Jaws," which begins with the sharks at the bottom of the ocean and builds with John Williams' now famous music is unforgettable. Knew's "Midnight Cowboy" trailer remains a landmark in superb editing and pacing.
Living shooting has been introduced to trailers in the last decade as well. Such an exercise would have been considered a waste of money in the days on Samuel Goldwyn. Jeff Kuehn, who made most of Woody Allen's pictures until last year (and whose brother did the trailer for "Manhattan") used to interview Allen in lieu of depending exclusively on feature footage.
In the "Sleeper" trailer, Kuehn remembered, the audiences sees Allen slumped over an editing machine, exhausted from working on his zoology thesis. Will there be any sex in this picture? Kuehn asked Allen. No. Cut to sex scene. Will there be any violence? Kuehn asks. No. Cut to violence.
We now have the likes of Albert Brooks taking us further from the traditional trailer and closer to total dependence on live footage. Stephen Spielberg is spending a relative fortune for a flashy live sequence in the trailer for his new film, "1941." Kaleidoscope spent over $45,000 to do the live trailer for Neil Simon's "California Suite" in which we see a number if suitcases with the stars' names on them arriving at Los Angeles hotel.
If the trailer business has loosened up since the mid '60s, it has also grown schizophrenic. Where it once was considered purely a tentacle of the film world, it is recognized today as a potent arm of advertising as well. National Screen Service lost its grip to people who better understood the potential of the product. That loss inevitably led to sophisticated marketing specialists from the dispassionate world of Madison Avenue, a continent away from the old studio fiefdoms.
Frankfurt epitomizes the appearance of high-powered marketing in trailer production. Formerly president of the pretigious Young and Rubicam advertising agency, he turned to films as a way of expanding his market. He left Young and Rubicon, founded his own agency which was later bought by Kenyon and Eckhardt and at 46 is riding a crest of trailers that includes "Alien" and "Superman." He currently is working on the trailer for Robert Redford's new film, "The Electric Cowboy" and for "Dracula."
"I'm not a movie person," he explained recently. "I turned down the presidency of Columbia Pictures last year because I love ads."
Frankfurt is the man who brought us "The Excedrin Headache." He views a trailer as simply another, albeit crucial, part of the "totality" of the promotion package of a film. Today, he is balancing his trailer production with Chrysler and Coca Cola advertising accounts. "You can't separate the trailer from TV spots, radio spots, and the newspaper ads," he said.
Frankfurt remains unique among trailer makers because of his advertising background. The rest of the leaders in the industry came to trailers out of their love of movies and limited job opportunities in the film industry. But scratch most of them, and you'll find a would-be feature maker.
"I'd much prefer to be in features than trailers," Bloch admitted. "It's more rewarding, there's more creative challenge."
Bloch tried a feature film some years ago called "The Telephone Book." Basically, I lost about $600,000 for my investors," he said.
"But I'm happy to be in the film business," he continued. "I enjoy what I'm doing. "I'm making a very good living, and actually I'm developing a number of things in the future area right now.
"Features are the big leagues as far as I'm concerned," added Larry Price, who made trailers for a number of years before turning to television commercials in his quest toward features. "I admit I'm a snob about it. I always felt that trailers were second-rate. You're working with somebody else's sweat and labor."
Jeff Knew did last year what a number of trailer makers have thought about doing; he threw it all away for a shot at a feature. Six months away from its opening, he's understandably scared to death.
"No one, to my knowledge, has gone on to become a successful feature maker," he said recently in New York. "It's much easier to make a lot of money churning out trailers than to commit yourself to a year and maybe fail."
"I admire what Jeff did," said Price. "He left a safe harbour for the open seas."
Knew left United Artists in the late '60s to form his own company called Utopia, and for the next decade was at the very top of his trade. Redford asked him to do the trailers for "Three Days of the Condor," and "All the Presidents Men," after being impressed with his work on "Jeremiah Johnson" and "The Candidate." Knew did most of Woody Allen's movies. His trailer of "Midnight Cowboy" is considered among the best every made. He made "well into six figures a year."
"I knew that I was the best gardener in the business," he said. "But I knew that I would never be fit to live in the big house as long as I did trailers."
Michael Spolan, on the other hand, has no desire to make features. Having worked for Knew for a number of years, he branched out his own when Knew closed his business. He has recently completed the trailers for George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" and "News Front," and his solo career is beginning to blossom.
"I really enjoy doing them," he explains. "It's like constantly going to the movies and then pulling them apart. The romance may dimish, but the magic never does - at least not for me. Besides, it's tough to say no when the work is good."
Kuehn echoed the same sentiments about rejecting work. With 54 employes making trailers for him, Kaleidoscope made $4.5 million last year in trailers alone.
"It's an art form all by itself," said Hy Smith, vice president of publicity and advertising at United Artists. "Hell, it's easy to make a point when you've got an hour and a half."
"It's too derivative to be an art form," countered Price. "I know that there's a whole line about the creativity in it, but I still feel I'm playing with somebody else's work."
Some critics, whom one might expect to have detailed opinions on the suject, are generally silent, largely because they usually attend special screenings of new films and rarely see trailers at all.
Movie audiences, though, are seeing more of them further and further in advance of the releases. Frankfurt's "Superman" trailer appears to hold the current record in advance screenings. Fully one year and a quarter before the feature opened, audiences saw the names of the film stars come screeming out of space, followed by an explosion, out of which emerges the same as Superman's symbol, and a final announcement: "Superman. The Movie."
Paramount released in January the trailer for "Players," the new Ali McGraw film which opens this month. Since Christmas, there have been three different versions of the trailer for "Moonraker," the latest James Bond film, according to Kuehn.
Shortened versions of trailers are now ubiquitous on television, where the potential returns far exceeds that of the captive theater audience. As Kuehn said, the television market was never considered during the old days of the National Screens hegemony.
"It was with 'Jaws' and 'The Exorcist' that we really started to see big time use of TV spots," he said. "But I think that it was "Billy Jack" that first showed the way with saturation spots in targeted areas."
If TV has increased the exposure of the trailers, it has made even more crucial the need to keep trailers suitable for all audiences. "Distributors want a "gee," trailer that can go anywhere." Spolan explained. "It's going to turn people off if you show something R rated with "Mary Poppins."
Frankfurt's "Emmanuelle" trailer was a case in point, a classic example of soft suggestion. It could play in any movie house because there was nothing to see except a series of written statements on the screen about the controversy surrounding the sex in the film and a long, gauzy look at the face of a beautiful woman.
Trailers can differ slightly, however for foreign distribution."Take 'semi-Tough,'" Spolan said. "The trailer for that was made as a football story for domestic distribution. But football means nothing to the Japanese, so it was billed as a love story for overseas."
It's not hard to develop a love affair with trailers. Ron Haver, director of film programs at the Los Angles County Museum of Art, knew this when he ran a 3 1/2-hour trailer festival two years ago. He turned away about 600 people at the door after filling a theater with an equal number of trailer aficionados. At least two other trailer festivals have been held in the Los Angeles area in the past three years with considerable success.
It is initially easy to get nostalgic about the times when trailers were made by people who formed their lives around film, long before the cold-blooded judgements of Madison Avenue entered the picture.
But like most nostalga, that sentiment doesn't hold up well under scrutiny. By and large, trailers in the good old days couldn't touch in quality the ones being made today. The assembly-line trailers appear touching and campy now, and that perhaps more than anything else is why film buffs will flock to see them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Those same trailer aficionados probably flock to many of the old revivals festivals as well.
The trailer industry has simply gotten more honest about its product. It's a potent advertising vehicle that requires a tremendous amount of narrowly challenged talent. If the number of movies being made is declining, the price of trailers is rising. Business is good. Trailers are good, too.
Ed Apfel tried some time ago to explain to an elderly professor how he makes his product. After absorbing a fair amount of explanation, the professor finally saw the light and exclaimed, "Ah, I see. It's compression. That's how diamonds are made."
If that's not the most accurate way of describing how trailers are made, it is at least the most flattering," Apfel concluded. CAPTION: Pictures 1, 2 and 3, Excerpts from trailer for "Alien" by Stephen Frankfurt