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“The Last Frontier For Music”: 5 Surprising Facts About How Hollywood Uses Music in Trailers

When the first Suicide Squad trailer debuted 9 months ago, its scenes of clandestine dinner meetings between military figures and colorful prisoners being “assembled into a task force” was set to a haunting rendition of The Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke.” The film’s second trailer was set to a truncated version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and then its third trailer actually timed its each individual moment to reflect the lyrics of “Ballroom Blitz.”

Cool. Got it. They’re doing the Guardians of the Galaxy thing. It’s a movie about a gang of B or C-squad misfits. So, here are trailers which make a point out of introducing each primary character as if in a police lineup, and underneath it all is the uplifting sounds of classic rock. If it ain’t broken, why fix it, right? Even two years after its release, Guardians is still closely associated with its classic rock trailer song (“Hooked on a Feeling”), and Suicide Squad‘ clearly hopes for the same type of association (although, personally I’ll still always think of Waynes World 1 when I hear either “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Ballroom Blitz”).

But who actually picked those songs? I can tell you who it was for Suicide Squad‘s version of “I Started a Joke,” and it definitely wasn’t the film’s director (David Ayer) or anyone from WB. Instead, it was someone named John Hanson. He works for a company called Confidential Music, and they specialize in making music for trailers.

That’s right. There are actually real people in the world who when asked at parties what they do for a living they honestly respond, “I make music for film trailers.” That’s not just some bullshit made-up job only occupied by characters in romantic comedies. In fact, it’s quite the lucrative gig these days.

I learned that and four other things about the business of film trailer creation in a recent piece in Variety. The following is my summation:

1. The Studios Don’t Create Their Own Trailers, But The People Who Do Create the Trailers Don’t Always Make/Select the Music

Directors, unless you’re someone on a Christopher Nolan level, have no control or say over trailers, as was made clear last year when the trailers for Southpaw, Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World gave away so many spoilers that in each case the director stepped forward to essentially say, “Hey, don’t blame me. The studio’s marketing department handles all of that.” Melissa McCarthy struck a similar note when recently discussing the “very confusing” Ghostbusters trailers.

However, it’s not actually as simple as blaming the marketing department because the marketing departments don’t actually create the trailers. They generally farm out trailer creation to specialty companies like Buddha Jonas, Vibe Creative and Trailer Park. However, while those companies select and edit the footage they don’t necessarily select/create the music.

According to Variety, “They turn to either production-music libraries or, increasingly, to boutique music suppliers (e.g., Pitch Hammer Music, The Hit House, Confidential Music) whose primary job is to compose, produce and promote music created specifically for trailers.”

For the following Suicide Squad trailer, Trailer Park edited the footage while Confidential Music provided the music:

2. The Companies Making/Selecting the Music Don’t Always Get to See the Trailer

Do the people supplying the music actually need to see any visuals? The answer used to be yes, but now after one too many instances of footage leaks these specialty boutiques simply create their music based on suggestions and ideas from the companies which hire them.

They’re apparently used to it by now, and create over 100 new tracks a year which can be used to establish very specific moods. For example, if Buddha Jones tells Pitch Hammer Music that they need a 15-second orchestral score that sounds like an action movie, Pitch Hammer can ask, “Do you want ‘percussive action’ or ‘aggressive action’? Because we’ve got both.”

3. Budgets For Music in Trailers Can Go As High As $2 Million

The quoted range for the music budget for a film trailer is as low as $5,000 and as high as $2 million, with those on the high end being the ones which uses songs from top artists like Jay Z or U2. One wonders how much AMC had to dole out for the U2 song in this Walking Dead commercial (I know it’s not actually a film trailer, but it was the first thing I could find on YouTube when searching for “U2 film trailer music”):

Don’t worry, though. Bono probably puts all of that extra income to good use via aid to third world countries.

4. Even When They Use Pre-Existing Music, They Usually Tweak It

On those occasions when trailers use actual old songs instead of new covers, are you crazy to think that they often end up sounding a little different, with perhaps more a little more bass here, louder guitars over there? Nah. That can’t be right. You must just be confused from hearing the songs through big movie theater speakers for the first time.

That’s part of it, but according to The Hit House’s Sally House they do actually tweak the songs, summing up their efforts as: “trailerization – some sweetening, overlay or sound design, (often) to end with a huge sweeping arc at the end.”

So, you decide, does the truncated “Bohemian Rhapsody” in this trailer sound exactly like the album version?

5. The Film’s Actual Composer Rarely Contributes Anything

None of this is the way it used to be. Once upon a time, film trailers simply contained the musical scores from the accompanying film. Now studios start marketing campaigns 9-12 months in advance, at which point the composer, if they’ve even hired one yet, hasn’t even written his score yet. In fact, marrying a score to the finished film is one of the final steps in the filmmaking process, and marketing departments can’t wait that long.

The compromise used to be using a recognizable score from another movie in the trailer, or maybe just throwing Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” over the whole thing and calling it a day. Now they’re outsourcing it to boutique companies to turn trailers into music videos, and the composer rarely has anything to do with it.

There are exceptions, though. Hans Zimmer worked with the trailer companies on all of the Batman movies. John Williams personally scored the teaser trailers for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Michael Giacchino did the same for Ratatouille and Star Trek.

Source: Variety


    1. I’ve published lists on WhatCulture a couple of times, although I don’t know that’s necessarily what you meant by “film blogs.” I guess the answer is that I don’t share my work on film blogs, but I’m always open to it.

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