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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: How to Train Your Dragon

Trailer music: The sounds that marketed Spock, Spidey and more

April 8, 2012 |  5:00 am

Star Trek, Spider-Man 2 & Avatar

From the orchestra that backs the Starship Enterprise to the choirs that follow Spider-Man swinging through New York City, music for trailers has drawn a larger public spotlight in recent years with the releases of previews becoming higher-profile events.

In Sunday's Calendar section, we explore the fact that much of the music featured in advertising for movies is produced by trailer music libraries. These companies compose music (typically one- to three-minute tracks) for clients at studios and trailer editing houses, who then select pieces from the libraries’ albums to license for use in previews.

Here are the stories of how some of that music attracted fan followings for four of those libraries.

“Star Trek” (Trailer music library: Two Steps From Hell)
The third trailer for J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” set records, as it was viewed more than 1.8 million times during its first 24 hours on apple.com in March 2009. Featuring the track “Freedom Fighters” by Two Steps From Hell, the preview put the Los Angeles-based trailer music library on the map.

In a deviation from most trailers that include multiple cues of music, the majestic yet ethereal track plays throughout the preview. “That gave people some time to latch onto the music,” said Thomas Bergersen, co-founder of Two Steps From Hell.

“Avatar” (Trailer music library: Audiomachine)
Later in 2009, “Avatar” broke “Star Trek’s” record with the teaser trailer for the soon-to-be box office king. It was viewed more than 4 million times during its first day on apple.com. So the rest of its marketing campaign had a lot of early hype to live up to. Twentieth Century Fox hired several trailer editing houses to try their hand at cutting advertising for the film before the studio decided on Culver City-based company Wild Card.

“When we were dealing with something that was as out of the box as 'Avatar,' it's often great to have multiple sets of eyes and different perspectives looking at it because there are many ways to attack it,” said “Avatar” producer Jon Landau. “By going out to a couple different trailer companies, we were able to see how different people looked at the material, which was very helpful.”

The first full-length trailer for “Avatar” featured the tracks “Akkadian Empire” and “Guardians at the Gate,” both by Beverly Hills-based library Audiomachine. Nick Temple, owner of Wild Card, said of the latter track, “While it was still big and felt like it was a huge ride, there was still an emotional sense to it.”

Watch the trailer below, where “Akkadian Empire” begins one minute and six seconds in, followed by “Guardians at the Gate,” which plays through the end. (The first music cue is from the score for Michael Bay’s “The Island.”)

“Spider-Man 2” (Trailer music library: Immediate Music)
In 2004, the marketing for Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” pushed Immediate Music (one of the first trailer music libraries, founded in 1993) into a bigger public spotlight. Their track “Lacrimosa Dominae” plays from 1:50 to the end of the trailer below.

“The last 45 seconds of the trailer, they blasted the music –- there were no sound effects… no dialog, no narration,” said Yoav Goren, president of Immediate. “So it was really one of the first times you could really hear a trailer track on its own. And I think that also spurred people wanting to buy this stuff.”

The track is on one of Immediate’s public release albums, “Trailerhead.”

“How to Train Your Dragon” (Trailer music library: Future World Music)
Future World Music’s rousing and adventure-ready track “Dream Chasers” fueled the second half of the trailer for “How to Train Your Dragon.” The track runs from 1:09 to 1:57 in the video below.

“That was one of the big campaigns that I think really blew the door off for us,” said Future World owner Armen Hambar. “We just couldn’t believe how much of a response we got.”

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– Emily Rome

twitter.com/EmilyNRome

Photo: Trailers for J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," "Spider-Man 2" and "Avatar" have featured music composed by trailer music libraries. Credits: (from left) Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox.


The case for DreamWorks Animation to stop riding the dragon

April 29, 2010 |  7:00 am

Dragonri

DreamWorks Animation's announcement that it will produce and release a "How to Train Your Dragon" sequel within the next three years is either the smartest or the strangest move an animation company has made in a while.

First, the obvious -- the smart part. "Dragon" has been an unmitigated success for the studio, earning at least $20 million in the U.S. in each of its first four weeks of release and pocketing a total of $373 million globally, which puts it nicely in the black even for an expensive CG 3-D production. That's also not bad for a star-less spring cartoon.

And so it makes sense that DreamWorks would try to keep the magic going, especially because the standard formula is that an animated sequel makes between one and a half and two times as much as the original (true for everything from "Shrek" to "Ice Age.")

The studio also needs a new animation franchise after the aforementioned "Shrek,"  which mercifully will be put out of its green misery after nine years and four movies once "Shrek Forever After" comes and goes in a few weeks. Enter the dragon, which offers an entire series of books -- seven more in all -- to serve as the basis for plenty of capers from Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and his friends.

But there's also something unsettling about a sequel. "Dragon" has been a watershed for DreamWorks. It won't be its most lucrative movie by a long shot -- that honor belongs to movies such as "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda," each of which has grossed more than half a billion dollars worldwide.

But it has shown that the Jeffrey Katzenberg company can play with the big boys -- namely, bitter cross-California rivals John Lasseter and Pixar. For the first time possibly in its history, and at least since "Shrek" came out nearly a decade ago in a very different animation landscape, DreamWorks has showed it could produce a well-told story that is not only commercially successful but a critical breakthrough as well, a movie that will remain influential in popular culture and the animation universe for a long time. As the world changes yet again, "Dragon" helps DreamWorks stake out a position as a company that can use 3-D effectively.

All this doesn't immediately change with the announcement of a second "Dragon" movie. But there's a taint. Sequels suggest merchandising (as if underscoring the point, DreamWorks also announced that an online world, television series and arena show were in the works too), commerce and, by definition, a lack of uniqueness. There's a reason the last eight Oscar winners for best animated film have been stand-alone movies, and there's a reason Pixar is so selective about what it keeps going and what it lays to rest.

Yes, it keeps playing with a broader, merchandisey property such as "Toy Story," but wisely stays away from over-milking its elegant character films such as "Wall-E," "Ratatouille" and "Up." A lesser company would make a sequel out of the latter, call it "Down" and have the two main characters explore the ocean floor in a submarine. Pixar, to its great credit, does not. It knows its team can and will pull off the trick again with an entirely new set of characters, and it knows that audiences will come out to see the film whether it has so-called brand-awareness or not.

With animation development costs so high and efforts so labor-intensive, you can't blame DreamWorks for trying to ride the "Dragon" for all its worth. But now that it's finally playing in Pixar's stadium, it seems like the wrong move. Confidence in a franchise communicates a strong message, both to Hollywood and to Wall Street. Confidence that your creative team can come up with good new movies from scratch, though, communicates an even stronger one.

-- Steven Zeitchik

(Follow me on Twitter.)

Photo: A scene from "How to Train Your Dragon." Credit: DreamWorks Animation


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'How to Train Your Dragon,' the animation world's 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'?

April 26, 2010 |  2:43 pm

Dragon
There are many holy grails in Hollywood, but few as pursued as the slow-burn success -- that film that doesn't blow away audiences when it first comes out but hangs on long enough to become a breakout. Like the Holy Grail, the slow-burn is frequently sought (well, by movies that don't blow away filmgoers when they first come out). And like the Holy Grail, some wonder if it even exists.

These kinds of hits certainly occur with far less frequency than they did five or 10 years ago. And these movies rarely hang in for very long. Even the slow-burns burn faster than they used to.

Twelve years ago, for example, saw "There's Something About Mary" muck around between the second and fourth spots on the weekend box-office charts for nearly two months before finally breaking through and hitting No. 1. (The movie went on to gross $176 million, good enough for the third-highest total of the year.) "Avatar" made some strides in this direction; while the movie followed a more traditional trajectory of a solid month at No 1. before falling from the perch, it was able to show week-to-week gains in ticket receipts even several months into its release.

And then, of course, there's the exemplar of the form: "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which actually never hit No. 1 over  its remarkable run in 2002 and 2003. In fact, the film took four months even to expand beyond 750 screens. But  despite a quiet rollout, the movie continued to amp up the decibel level, as, every few weeks, new waves of people seemed to discover it.  By the time its run ended, the film had played in theaters for nearly an entire year -- a century in box-office time -- and had grossed an astonishing $241 million, ahead of blockbusters such as "War of the Worlds" and "The Bourne Ultimatum."

This year's candidate for the slow-burn, "How to Train Your Dragon," isn't likely to hang around for 12 months, or even until August. But there's something "Greek Wedding"-like about it just the same. When it opened last month, the movie debuted at No 1, but with a soft-ish $43 million. Then it fell from the top spot, vacillating between second and third place for the following three weeks. And this week it reclaimed it.

BigfaThere are plenty of distinctions between "Dragon" and the previous slow-burns. The animated tale has hung on, but that hanging on is measured in smaller drops, not renewed momentum -- unlike "Wedding" or "Mary," it hasn't gained audience week-to-week.

And of course both those examples played through the much busier summer period, not the box-office doldrums of the early spring. But it's still a remarkable feat. Most movies, especially animated ones, will never get back to the top spot once they've fallen from it. ("Wall-E," an equally well-reviewed and well-received animated film, fell out of No. 1 and never climbed back; by its fifth week it was in seventh place, grossing less than half of the $15 million "Dragon" did in in its own fifth week.)

So what is it that keeps a movie like this going? Obviously it's about good word-of-mouth, but that's like saying a good restaurant is about tasty dishes. We'd offer that it's about subtle charms, the kind that reveal themselves over time, and get people to see it who never thought they would. "Wall-E," as strong as it was, made its virtues known pretty much right away: a cute robot in outer space. What's not to like?

"Dragon" isn't as immediately inviting. The title tells you nothing (and in fact gives off the faint whiff of an instructional video). And a dragon is hardly a cuddly animal. But as filmgoers discover it, they give the DreamWorks Animation film momentum beyond any point when it reasonably should have.

For the most part, box office is still a combustible firecracker more than a gentle flame. But even in these times, it's nice to see a movie burn slowly. At least until a movie like "Iron Man 2" extinguishes it in a couple of weeks.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photos: "How to Train Your Dragon." Credit: DreamWorks Animation. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." Credit: IFC Films


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Is animation developing a success-quality gap?

March 29, 2010 | 10:06 am

Dra With the $43.3-million opening of "How to Train Your Dragon," the animation category, as it does seemingly every year, continues to outdo itself.

In 2006, four animated movies reached the magic mark of $100 million in domestic box office. In 2007, five films did. Last year, no fewer than eight movies topped that figure. It's starting to feel a little like the latter stages of Wayne Gretzky's 92-goal season: The only record it keeps breaking is its own.

With installments in powerhouse franchises like "Shrek" and "Toy Story" coming this summer, and new additions to the canon such as "Despicable Me," 2010 promises to be another banner year at the box office for the category.

But as animation continues to mature, the success doesn’t apply equally. In fact, it seems to apply unequally. And, from a quality standpoint, it tends to favor the lesser movies.

Sure, Pixar has its annual blockbuster, an "Up" or an "Incredibles" that is also exceedingly well-reviewed. But a look at the larger history shows a notable pattern, one in which audiences tend to more tightly embrace movies that critics tend to push away.

"Shrek 2" and "Shrek the Third,” for instance, are two of the most profitable animated films in the category's history (they sit at No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in all-time domestic box office), even as they drew lukewarm reviews. Critics' favorites like "Coraline" and "Wallace & Gromit?" They’re way down at Nos. 61 and 75. (The latter two each cracked 80% on movie-review site Metacritic, surpassing the middling reception for the two "Shrek" sequels.)

True, some of these lesser-performing films were given different marketing budgets and release patterns.  But you pretty much can't orchestrate a better test case than the one completed this past weekend, when DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" opened on the same weekend as "Monsters vs. Aliens" the year prior. Here were two animated films from the same studio, released on the same weekend exactly one year apart, both in 3-D. And yet, despite drawing far weaker reviews, "Monsters & Aliens" grossed about 30% more. (It is telling that "Dragon" received an 'A' on CinemaScore -- even though not as many moviegoers went to see the film as the studio had hoped, those that did really liked it.)

There's also a whole tier of middling animated films -- "Bee Movie" and "Chicken Little" and "Over the Hedge" -- that seem to have no problem grossing $125 million or more. And even among the Pixar hits, the higher-quality films tend to lag relative to their more mediocre counterparts; "Ratatouille" and "Wall-E," for instance, both didn't fare as well as "Cars."

We shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this gap -- live-action films, after all, have seen audiences' and critics' tastes diverging for years. But animation was supposed to be an exception. It was possible to create great films that also happened to be huge money-earners, the business' stalwarts kept reminding us (and as the landmark best-picture nomination for "Up" this year confirmed).

Turns out it's not that simple. You can create really good animated films but, as a rule, you'll have more success if your films aren't that great. Animation is like everything else, a little less like Gretzky and more like a solid right-wing, fallible and prone to foibles.

-- Steven Zeitchik

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