Previews are their end-all

Times Staff Writer

Her name was Tara Lee. She was an actress from New York City, a tall, stunning brunet poured into a turquoise dress, walking through the crowded lobby of the ornate Orpheum Theatre on Broadway in downtown L.A. on Tuesday night. She was desperate for attention.

Lee and her acting/writing partner and director, Burke Heffner, had this idea for a movie about a cross-country rampage by a New York showgirl and a Montana cowboy. But the film would cost more than $4 million, so they settled on making the trailer first as a way of luring investors. Then they rolled the dice on the one film festival built to their specs: the fifth annual, $150-a-ticket Golden Trailer Awards, a love fest for the short attention span.

Forget that studies show most theatergoers burn out after the third trailer and stop paying attention -- even though you're likely to see four or five before the featured presentation starts. Forget the fact that many viewers are upset by the surge in trailers that give away too much information. Golden Trailer Awards founders Evelyn and Monica Brady treat them as a creative art form. "I almost walked out of a movie -- 'Underworld' -- because it didn't have any trailers," Monica says.

The sisters created the awards out of the same plight as Tara Lee. They too were New York filmmakers with only enough dough for a promotional trailer. When they went looking for people to design theirs, they had trouble locating specialists. Once they did, they decided that the cult of trailer-makers deserved its own platform. They threw the first two ceremonies in New York, then moved the festivities to L.A. By this year they were able to attract figures like directors Neil Jordan and Rob Minkoff, actors Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro, Miramax production exec Bob Osher, and film editor Karen Schmeer to join their panel of 14 judges. Corporate sponsors underwrite the show, and the sisters say they are in negotiations to bring it to television.

On Broadway Tuesday night, there was a 30-foot-long red carpet along the sidewalk. A few video crews shot footage of a few judges in front of a ceremonial golden trailer. ("Pablo!" they yelled as editing and animation director Pablo Ferro arrived.) Members of the downtown labor force, heading for their buses home, crossed paths with stylishly dressed creative directors of trailer companies who streamed into the Orpheum.

The host, Tom Green, who alternated between being funny and tasteless, presided over 18 trailer categories, ranging from best comedy (winner: "Elf," New Line Cinema) to best documentary (winner: "Spellbound," Kinetic) to trashiest (winner: "A Miami Tail," Hammer Creative Advertising) to the golden fleece, created to honor the best trailer made from a lousy movie (winner: "Northfork," KO creative). The big winner of the evening was Imaginary Forces/Giaronomo, which was honored in three categories (most original, summer '04 blockbuster and the overall best-of-show) for the trailer to "The Stepford Wives," which opens in June. "Lost in Translation" won for best trailer for an independent film.

Trailers are limited to 2 1/2 minutes under a 1998 agreement between the producers' and theater owners' national associations. But with close to 100 nominees, only 15 to 20 seconds of each trailer were shown to the audience, creating a whirlwind pace that Monica Brady described as a "trailer-within-a-trailer" effect. The honorees, being writers and editors, not actors, did not know how to accept an award flamboyantly. The average thank-you lasted about six seconds and consisted mostly of "Thank you."

Then, late in the program, came the category that allowed Tara Lee and Burke Heffner to enter and got Lee's father, Richard Hergenhan, a Nantucket, Mass., painting contractor, to head here too:

"Best Trailer -- No Movie."

"A regular trailer has to be good enough to get someone to drop 10 bucks," said presenter Jeremy Sisto of "Six Feet Under." "In this category the trailer has to be good enough to get somebody to drop 10 million bucks." They ran a snippet of Lee's film, "Revolver," including a shot of her in another seductive dress, swaying as she walked toward the camera, that drew notable male applause. Sisto opened the envelope. The winner, among a field of three, was "Revolver."

Lee threw up her arms, leaped to her feet, threw her arms up again and headed for the stage to accept her statuette (crowned by a miniature trailer) with Burke. She was jumping, laughing, covering her mouth. "Oh my God!" she said into the mike, and then she told the audience about the night she and Burke were sitting on a fire escape in New York, both broke, both wanting to take a trip somewhere. Lee had never seen Las Vegas, craved it. The movie, she said, was born from that yearning.

She asked her dad (whose long white beard and sunglasses make him a dead ringer for a member of ZZ Top) to stand, and he turned from his seat to face the crowd and bow elaborately.

'"Yesterday," she proclaimed, "I finally got to Las Vegas." They applauded. "I'm in love with all of you!" she shouted, and they applauded. She handed the microphone to Blake.

"That about covers it," he said.

A half hour later, they headed back into the lobby, where strangers walked up to Lee and congratulated her. She was no longer desperate for attention.

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