REMEMBER when movie previews were splashed with the banners ``Colossal,'' ``Stupendous,'' and ``Spine-Chilling''? Back in the 1950s, these were still common, but today they are used only rarely - as campy references to the past, as in the preview designed for Mel Brooks's 1987 film, ``Spaceballs,'' which promised to be ``The Screen's Greatest Adventure!'' More often, today's trailers display the more subtle approaches dictated by careful market research and audience demographics.
``Today, people are much more sophisticated about the content of movies,'' says Joe Dante, a Hollywood director who made trailers in the 1970s. That sophistication, he and others say, makes for shorter, quieter, better-written narration, rapid editing cuts from frame to frame, and flashy graphics and optics.
``Overall, we try to be more clever and original each time ... to make each trailer stand out,'' says Jon Bloom, whose trailers have won six Clio awards (the advertising world's Oscars), as well as an award from the Hollywood Reporter trade paper for the ``Throw Momma From the Train'' trailer.
Jack Atlas, who got his start making trailers for MGM in 1951 and later formed his own company, says the dividing line between the old and new Hollywood approach was a 1960s trailer for Fellini's ``La Dolce Vita.'' The techniques included using stills and stop frames from the movie over arresting music.
The old-style Hollywood trailers often ran for five minutes. Today's average is 90 seconds. Audiences have become accustomed to shorter promos because of TV commercials, says Mr. Dante.
The other big change is closer scrutiny on the part of producers. ``In the old days, [the studios] kind of let the trailer slip,'' says Joe Fuglsby, who made trailers for MGM for 19 years, beginning in 1953. ``Studio executives would hardly ever look at them, and producers and directors didn't have anything to say about them.''
Mr. Fuglsby describes an informal process of ``pulling out the scenes we liked most and stringing them together.''
Today that's changed. The trailer has become a carefully tailored tool for building an audience, and it's no longer ignored by the producer.
Mini-trailers designed especially for specific commercial spots allow a single film to be publicized as a ``romance,'' ``action/adventure,'' ``epic,'' and ``comedy'' in different places. The first category is used in daytime TV soap operas to attract women, the second amid sports or wildlife programming to attract men.``Epic'' aspects are exploited in commercials pegged to family fare, and comedy is emphasized against late-night talk shows.
Interviews with ``focus groups'' put together by marketing specialists and with potential filmgoers also help trailer-makers determine which aspects of their come-ons prompt people to buy movie tickets and which don't.
``We frequently find that a comedic moment that worked in the context of the movie might fall flat in a trailer,'' says a spokesperson at the Disney Studios, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity.
Marketing interviews are undertaken after preview showings all across the US, with a keen eye to reaching quotas in each age group.
``It's very scientific, professional, and businesslike,'' she said.
In the old days, each studio had its own trailer department. Today MGM and Universal are the only ones with trailermaking on their own lots. The others use businesses whose exclusive product is the preview.
Though one estimate suggests the number of trailermakers has grown from about a dozen in the '40s to over 100 today, Bloom says only about 15 are used by the top studios.
These include Cimarron, Kaleidoscope, Flamingo Films, Aspect-Ratio, and Sky-Fire Productions in the Hollywood area and the Kanew Company in New York.
``The demand for new and different trailers continues to soar,'' says Cimarron's Chris Arnold, who has been making trailers for 15 years. He left the industry's largest company, Kaleidoscope, three years ago and says the company he formed is now just as large.
The average 90-second trailer costs between $60,000 and $100,000. Some 3,000 copies are printed on average, about 5,000 for larger films. Rush orders can be produced in two days. More sophisticated packages of TV, radio, and regional theater spots, such as Bloom's recent package for ``The Empire Strikes Back,'' can take well over a year.
Today ``trailers are rated fourth - behind TV, newspapers, and radio - for producing audience awareness,'' says Bloom.
A fifth medium is home video. Some studios are including trailers on pre-recorded cassettes of other movies: When Paramount released ``Beverly Hills Cop II'' on video in 1987, it included a preview for ``Big Top Pee-wee.''