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The power of the well-crafted film trailer

As the first trailers for this year's summer blockbusters are released online, we take a look back at the history of the film promo.

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean 4.
Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

Summer is coming. That means the weather's warming up, and a plethora of tantalising trailers for this year's blockbuster movies have begun issuing forth from Hollywood studios in all their 2.5 minutes of glory, ready to be endlessly discussed online.

Some - Green Lantern and Pirates of the Caribbean 4 - have gone for the all-guns-blazing, full-throttle approach. A rather lazy promo for The Hangover Part II looks like the producers hope to reel in cinemagoers on the strength of the original alone. The trailer for Captain America: The First Avenger, starring an on-form Chris Evans has attracted plenty of column inches, while Wes Craven's Scream 4 promo has received little attention by comparison.

No matter which way they market themselves to their target audiences, or how they are received by the press, they all have the same goal - turning that multimillion-dollar feature from a potential hit into a glossy cash cow.

Since the first trailer aired almost a century ago, in 1912, an entire industry has been created around what has traditionally been the movie world's most integral selling tool.

Highly respected awards ceremonies have emerged on the film scene, each dedicated to covering all aspects of "the trailer", recognising the best, and in some cases, worst, put together each year. One of the biggest, the Golden Trailer Awards, has been held every year since 1999, and jurors in recent years have included Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. This year's ceremony will be held in June, and nominees will fight it out in categories including Trashiest Trailer, Most Original, and the top prize, Best in Show. Past winners of this award include The Cove, Star Trek and The Dark Knight.

Entire careers have been forged from these mini-movies - from those employed by the 40-plus trailer houses in the US alone, which are responsible for churning them out, all the way through to the familiar baritone voices that have become synonymous with addressing cinema audiences, their narration adding character (cheesy character, but character nonetheless) to the diminutive moneymakers.

If you've been anywhere near a cinema in the past 20-odd years, chances are you'll have heard the voices of two men in particular: Don LaFontaine and Hal Douglas. The former, who died in 2008, aged 68, was responsible for lending his dulcet tones to almost 5,000 film trailers. At one point the official "voice" for Paramount Studios, The Godfather, Fatal Attraction, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, were just some of the Hollywood classics given the LaFontaine once-over. During his 33-year-career, which began when LaFontaine was drafted in to read a radio announcement in 1965 due to a scheduling conflict, the voice actor was responsible for helping to coin several well-known and highly parodied phrases.

Had it not been for old "Thunder Throat" - one of the Minnesota-born actor's nicknames - chances are, plenty of memorable film trailers would have been lost without the opening line: "In a world where ..." Speaking to The New York Times a year before his death, LaFontaine explained that this famous phrase provided the most efficient way to introduce the plot of a film, any film, in such a short span of time.

The octogenarian voice-artist, Hal Douglas, is another whose commanding vocals have become familiar to the moviegoing population.

Earning him voice-overs for the likes of Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, and Men in Black, Douglas also won plenty of brownie points after parodying both himself and LaFontaine in the 2002 trailer for Comedian, a feature-length documentary starring the US funny man Jerry Seinfeld.

Featuring Douglas in a recording studio, the one-and-a-half minute trailer sees the bespectacled actor run through a list of overused phrases, as well as making up several of his own.

Night of the Iguana, the 1964 Oscar-winning film of the Tennessee Williams play, starring Richard Burton, made a star of someone not actually associated with the production. Andrew J Kuehn, who independently produced a trailer for the movie, using James Earl Jones to provide the voice-over, gained so much acclaim for the promo that he would go on to become a leading figure in the movie-trailer industry for several decades.

The memorable promo featured in the Independent Film Channel's 2009 list of the 50 greatest trailers ever, albeit just scraping in at number 50. They gave the number-one spot to the trailer for Ridley Scott's 1979 science-fiction classic Alien, two dialogue-free but intensely atmospheric minutes, culminating in the famous tagline: "In space, no one can hear you scream." Second place went to the trailer for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which was suitably innovative. The six-minute feature shows the portly British director guiding the audience through the Bates Motel, right up to the bathroom, where he draws back the shower curtain to reveal a screaming ingénue.

The third spot on the list went to 2008's Cloverfield, an example of how the trailer can adapt itself to the digital age. Originally released in a viral-marketing campaign with no title attached, the clip became the subject of feverish speculation online.

Others that made the list include Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Big Sleep.

Of course, trailers by their nature are wily, possessing the ability to set the audience up to be disappointed by making a below-average film appear more watchable. See Lady in the Water (in fact, see every M Night Shyamalan film trailer since Signs) for proof.

And if you still doubt the trailer's power, a quick YouTube search will reveal several homemade and very popular re-edited spoof trailers, which show just how far the judicious choice of music and voice-over can alter your perception of a film; imagine Mary Poppins as a chilling horror or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as a romantic comedy (no cascades of blood involved). Coming soon to a cinema near you? Probably not.

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