A funny Thing Happened at the Cinema the Other Day

A couple of months back; I noticed something as I waited for the main feature to begin. It struck me as interesting then, but I thought no more about it. Then, I noticed it a few more times, looked into it and I started seeing a pattern. Hmmm … I said.

Most movie trailers follow a pattern, like an informal formula. It’s subtle, there are minor variations from time to time; but for the most part it’s predictable. Depending on the film’s genre, its trailer might focus on something slightly different. But by and large, a trailer can be split into five parts and this is what you’re likely to see:

1. the credits: this could cover anything – the studio, the director, the lead actors, or the scriptwriter. Credits often bookend the trailer.
2. the situation: a quick sequence that sets up what the film is about. Depending on the genre – adventure, historic, real-life, sci-fi, fantasy – this is done either from the protagonist’s perspective or from a broader setting. Some are voiced-over.
3. the conflict – the seemingly insurmountable challenge that ‘only one man’ can overcome. This is the most action-packed sequence of the trailer – visually and in audio – requiring a lot of viewer attention. You’re most likely to hear “Failure is not an option”, or “Let’s do this”, or “I didn’t sign up for this shit” during this part. Beginning to sound familiar?
4. the resolution – the all’s well and back to normal part of the trailer. Either the problem’s been solved, the issue resolved, or (increasingly these days) the characters get on with life after the event.
5. the closing – the one line or thought or visual with which the film will be referred to in the future.

In execution terms, most trailers average 160 seconds in length. Some trailers have a voice-over. Editing and pace picks up, reaches a crescendo and then plateaus. Main characters are presented in a single dimension, so viewers can more easily differentiate the good guy from the bad guy. Lots of dramatic music, throughout.

This formula probably works for movie trailers, and I can almost see a Current Best Approach or Best Practice document somewhere that goes into details.

Perhaps sensitised by looking into trailers, I started noticing a pattern in most TV commercials too. There are expressions of individuality and creativity, true enough. But under all that is the rigid skeleton of a pattern – a predictable sequence. There are four distinct parts: (a) the situation – the opening sequence where the problem the brand will solve is introduced, (b) the brand – the main part where the viewer sees the brand and what it does. This part is often accompanied by an impressive demo. Then (c) the resolution – life after the problem is solved, followed by (d) the pack shot – the TVC equivalent of the credits.

For decades, TVCs for some brands have followed a pattern. Nowadays it is evident in most commercials, even in testimonials! I find this disturbing as I’m not sure a predictable pattern in a TVC is doing much good to the brand.

Movie trailers are part of the warm-up for the main feature, and audiences can watch them on-line as well. Accompanied by refreshments, audiences are primed to be enticed by a trailer into watching a specific movie. More often than not several trailers vie for attention before the main feature. Movie trailers are the TVC equivalent for a film. I understand and accept that. However there are two significant differences between movie trailers and brand TVCs.

First, movies are made for general audiences; brands exist to satisfy very specific audiences. So while trailers can adopt a route that will satisfy the most common needs in a general audience, brand communications have to work harder and satisfy very specific needs in a selected audience. Predictable patterns provide no evidence of focus on a selected audience, and are unlikely to help much.

Second, movie trailers are geared towards getting a single purchase from its audience. TVCs for brands are after more than that, and single purchase is not enough. The difference boils down to single engagement vs. multiple engagement or on-going loyalty. I believe this requires more than a formulaic, predictable communications piece. No matter how clever it might be.

Before we say connection and engagement imply social media, let’s recognise that a brand’s audience must first want to engage with it in social media. Mere presence in social media does not guarantee engagement. And this desire for engagement begins when the brand first introduces itself to its audience.

Which will better convince you to engage deeply with a brand: a formulaic, can’t go wrong communications; or one that demonstrates a willingness and desire to establish a relationship?


  1. Hi Sam,
    I really enjoy reading your posts. I loved the story of Joe, though it wasn’t a happy outcome. I guess that happened to a whole bunch of people.
    The comparison between trailers and TVCs is great, never thought of them this way.
    To answer your last question with a question: how about a formulaic TVC which does establish a relationship?

    • Andras,
      Thanks for writing in with your opinions, and I’m happy you like my posts. In my view, formulaic implies steady/safe/predictable, etc. I’m not sure how this can establish a relationship, though I accept that by providing continuity it could probably sustain an existing relationship. Cheers.


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