Movie Trailers Are Like Book Covers

Movie Trailers Are Like Book Covers

I was in Maryland last week, in various cities. Saturday, I was in Easton to watch a movie in the Chesapeake Film Festival. It was a movie, believe it or not, about movie trailers, called Coming Attractions. And no, I never saw a trailer for it. It was really more a documentary than a movie, but it detailed how movie trailers came to be and how they came to be called trailers, though they do anything but trail after a movie nowadays. It was fascinating, and afterwards, two veterans of the movie trailer industry got up on the stage and answered questions from the audience.

The more I watched and listened, the more I came to realize that movie trailers are like book covers, and I started viewing these two movie trailer veterans as kindred spirits. One of them was Michael Shapiro, the man who put the movie together. He’d been around a while and had a lot to say about the history of the art form. The other was Kira Burt, who is still very much in the heart of the industry and has a long future in the business besides. It was especially when Kira talked that I saw all the parallels between her chosen art form and mine, her chosen career and mine.

From her account I learned that movie trailer houses can get anything from mere scraps to the whole movie footage, depending on the clients and the movie itself. Sometimes they have a lot to work with, and sometimes they have to make things up out of thin air. It made me think of the sort of elements I get for a book cover assignment; sometimes I get just the blurb, and sometimes I get the whole book. Sometimes the client provides the stock photos I should put together, and sometimes the client asks for something that doesn’t exist at all.

Kira talked about how sometimes their clients will want to market the movie a certain way, even though there wasn’t much in the movie to support it. One of the trailers she worked on was for Bewitched, where the magic in the movie itself is subtle, with little or no special effects, but for the DVD trailer, because of their client’s wishes, they got a special effects studio to add magical sparkles so that audiences would know that the movie was about magic. Go figure.

It reminded me of all the times people asked me for a sexier cover, something with more flesh, even if a book wasn’t all that particularly sexy compared to the other books in its genre, just so readers would know that this erotically titled book surrounded by a number of erotic romance titles was itself an erotic romance. Go figure.

Then she talked about versions and frustrations, during which I was sorely tempted to throw my hands up in the air with a fervor of empathy and cry out “Amen!”

There was a night, she said, that she was working late on a trailer for the second volume of Kill Bill. She had tried everything and just couldn’t make the trailer work, and she was angry and frustrated because it was due to be shown to the client the next day and she just wanted to go home. Her boss gave her a new concept to work with, and she said, “Screw it.” She did one version based on the new concept and went home. Turned out her boss loved it. The client loved it. And that’s the version that went to print — the first one. One version? Unheard of in the industry. But it made her very, very happy.

As a contrast to that, she also talked about a big deal of a movie trailer for a huge Steven Spielberg film, and the top editing guy at the movie trailer house got to work on it. Still, because it was for a Spielberg movie, everyone who was in any way involved in the project had to have their say — just so they can brag to their families and friends and say, “Yeah, I had a hand in that.” Even if it’s just some studio executive with absolutely no drop of creative talent in his expensively suited body. So the movie trailer went through 27 — yes, twenty-friggin’-seven — versions. Also unheard of, according to Kira. I winced when she said the number. I knew the pain.

Because it’s Spielberg, he got to have a final say in the trailer, and when they showed him the version that they finally deemed worthy, he said, “Let me see the first version.” They did, and Spielberg, being the total mench that he is, said, “That one. That’s the one that I want. The first version.” Because Spielberg understands exactly how creativity works and because he understands the bullshit that non-creative types like to pull, my already huge respect for him went up another ten notches after hearing that story. Steven Spielberg is the man!

And here is why I relate so well to these stories. Sometimes I have book covers that are approved in one go, and sometimes I have book covers that go through so many versions that I want to kick and scream and cry and slap the world silly for all the hell it puts me through, where I start to hate the book cover I’m working on and couldn’t care less any more WHAT it looked like; all I’m doing is making whatever changes are asked of me, even if I think the changes are completely random, idiotic, and detrimental to the entire look and feel of the cover. 27 versions? I’d go stark, raving mad.

The question and answer session ended before I got to ask one of my own questions, but I got to have lunch later that day with Michael Shapiro and four others, so I took the opportunity then to ask him, “What’s the typical number of versions a movie trailer goes through?”

His answer: 8-10.

Still too many versions, in my eyes. It’s usually 1-3 versions per book cover at most of my e-publishers, but as I’m doing more print covers and working more with bigger publishers, I find the number of versions climbing higher and higher, closer to 3-10, as though the bigger the publisher, the more people involved in the process, and the more versions as a result. People just have to have their say, I guess, and never mind that ALL those chefs in the kitchen might be putting in way too much salt in the same pot as a result. I now sometimes imagine a Nora Roberts type looking through galley proofs and the cover flat and picking the first version out of 27, but somehow I don’t see that happening. People just need to tweak things, sometimes for the good and sometimes just to tweak things, until all the life in a project has completely bled out.

It pleases me to know that I’m not alone, among other cover artists or among creative types in general, movie trailer editors included. But if I ever end up having to do that many versions of a book cover, I think I will start charging movie trailer prices for my work, and since — according to Kira and Michael — those prices range anywhere between ten grand and one million, that might just work out OK for me in the end.

But I sure wish Steven Spielberg had the final say on MY work.

Share this post:

2 thoughts on “Movie Trailers Are Like Book Covers

  1. That’s very interesting, G!
    Yeah, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to charge clients the $ amount of the the time you spent on the completed work?
    I’m glad you finally had posted something new.

  2. That was an interesting post. I had never really thought about book titles and movie trailers but there are obvious parallels. Good stuff.

    Sounds like you had a fun trip. What else did you do that was fun?

    How about your hair? I haven’t asked in a while. How long is it now? Down to your lower calves if I remember. Or is it longer now?

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.