This past weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie "The Master" broke the record for the highest per-screen box office of any art house in history, bringing in an average of $145,949 on each of its five debut screens. That means that, over the course of the weekend, about 12,000 people crammed themselves into each little theatre. Some of them were surely diehard Anderson fans -- but it's safe to say that many others were drawn to the movie by the siren's call of its several majestic trailers, which have been making the rounds on TV, movie and computer screens for months.
This latter group can thank (or blame) Jeff Elefterion for their decision to attend. As the executive vice president of creative services at The Weinstein Company, he oversees the production of the trailers for each of the movies TWC distributes -- including "The Master."
As soon as Elefterion saw a cut of the movie, months before its release, he realized that its elliptical plot demanded something other than a typical Hollywood trailer. The movie's gorgeous visuals offered the possibility of something dreamy, almost dialogues, that focused on images. Yet Elefterion explained to The Huffington Post that his first priority, when planning a trailer, is always to build a narrative that's legible to an audience in two and a half minutes.
"It's so far from a classical narrative -- but even still, I wanted to tell the story," Elefterion said. "And the most compelling thing to me about that story is the two main characters, Joaquin [Phoenix]'s character and Philip Seymour Hoffman's character. So I really decided to focus and zero-in on that. If you have a really great movie, and you follow the story, you can't go wrong."
In another era, that one main, plot-driven trailer (which was edited by film marketing company The Ant Farm and is embedded above) would have had to carry the movie. But because we live in the miraculous age of Apple Trailers and YouTube, Elefterion was able to greenlight several other short, impressionistic teaser trailers -- cut, unusually, by Anderson himself, along with his editor Leslie Jones -- that were featured on the promotional website for the movie.
It's not exactly a conventional Hollywood marketing strategy -- but the proof of its efficacy can be seen at the box office. And since Elefterion has worked for the Weinstein brothers for a total of 16 years, 11 of them on the trailer beat, he's had plenty of time to abandon any pretense of conventionality.
"By and large, the Weinsteins make movies that the other studios are hesistant to or afraid to," he said. "The films that we make here don't really fit into a mold that's easy for them to sell."
Instead of relying on formulas, then, Elefterion generally approaches a new movie as if he were a viewer. He picks out the scenes or shots that excite him the most, and then tries to string them together into a compelling narrative.
"What I find compelling or intriguing or amusing is something that most people will. Because I'm just a lover of film," he said.
There's a hint of false modesty there -- Elefterion studied film as an undergraduate at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Still, he rarely cuts the trailers himself. Instead, he hires movie advertising companies like Ignition Creative to actually edit the trailer; the amount of guidance he gives them varies from film to film. They submit a version to him, then he sends it back with notes and suggestions for a second edit.
Elefterion and the vendor go through this process until he is satisfied with the trailer, which he then sends to the Weinstein brothers, who make further edits. ("It always gets better after that, because no one's got an eye like they do," Elefterion said.) They then show the trailer to the film's director for final tweaks. Elefterion said that the filmmaker asks for significant changes about half the time.
"There's always amicable debates about how we want to market something and what they think it should be," he said. "Sometimes they win, sometimes we win."
Now that "The Master" has hit theaters, to great success, Elefterion's work on the film is mostly over. But he has a busy fall ahead -- he's now anxiously awaiting the release of "Killing Them Softly," which stars Brad Pitt, and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained." Devising a trailer strategy for these films was more straightforward than designing the one for "The Master," because they're more straightforward films, he said. Elefterion noted that Tarantino's iconic screenwriting makes his movies particularly well-suited for trailers.
Though that's not to say that making the trailers was easy. The big challenge every time is balancing the desire to craft a compelling narrative and the need to avoid giving too much of the plot away. For this one facet, though, Elefterion has something of a formula: stick to the inciting incident.
"The setup is so very important in a trailer because I don't want to give away the payoff; I want to tease the payoff," he said. "Especially in the cases of 'Killing Them Softly' and 'Django,' you'll watch the teaser or the trailer and say, 'Wow, they're setting a lot of this up.' And usually, therein lies the hook. The payoff in these movies is usually even more fantastic -- but I want to leave them wanting more."
But no amount of tricks or experience can prevent every hiccup. For example, footage used in a trailer doesn't always make it into the movie.
"Most trailers have to be created before the final cut of a feature is finished. So I'm not even sure what's going to make the cutting room floor and what's not," Elefterion explained.
This phenemonon is especially prominent in the campaign for "The Master," and an unusually large portion of the footage in the trailer didn't make it into the movie shown in theaters. Anderson even told The Huffington Post that he sometimes uses deleted material intentionally in his trailers, to showcase footage that would otherwise be lost in the ether. But Elefterion described that as an exception.
"Usually, 90 percent of what's in a trailer is usually in the film," he said. "Because if it's good enough to be in the trailer, it's good enough to be in the film."