Driving force behind movie trailers
Benedict Coulter was rushing to finish the first trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia,” a World War II-era drama starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, in time to get it delivered to theaters with May’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
When he showed his version to the director and the brass at 20th Century Fox, Luhrmann liked it but thought the music could use more oomph.
So Tom Rothman, Fox’s studio chief, suggested Coulter listen to the score from 1989’s “Henry V,” a historical drama he oversaw while at Samuel Goldwyn Films. Coulter quickly found a rousing cue to highlight the epic feel of the film.
“A trailer is always a collaboration between the filmmakers, the studio and the vendor,” Coulter said. “That bit of music was the finishing touch we needed. All of a sudden, the piece looked like it was supposed to look and felt like it was supposed to feel.”
For three decades, Coulter, 54, has teamed with filmmakers and studio executives on some 250 movie trailers and 1,000 television ads. The tall, dapper French native is president of Hollywood-based Trailer Park, among the largest of 30 or so firms that compete to make most of the “coming attractions” shown before the features at the nation’s multiplexes, but he still personally produces or edits about a dozen trailers a year.
Coulter fell into the field when a career in music fizzled. He moved to Los Angeles from Paris in 1976 to play guitar with a blues band called KGB. Coulter got one gig with Chuck Berry at the old Wolf & Rissmiller’s Country Club in Reseda but realized “there were better guitar players than me at the farmers market.”
He became a delivery man at a Sunset Strip liquor store and then a messenger at movie ad agency Kaleidoscope Films, staying 17 years and working up to projectionist, apprentice editor and then editor, starting there in the days when trailers were assembled on a hulking Moviola instead of a sleek Mac computer.
“I stumbled upon a world I didn’t know existed: movie marketing,” he said.
Colleagues remember his cowboy boots, Mustang convertible and youthful swagger, but Coulter recalls being intimidated on his first job of producing and editing a trailer -- for 1980’s not-so-classic “Smokey and the Bandit II.” When he went to Florida to record narration from Jackie Gleason, he pretended to be a sound man to keep the legendary star from scoffing at his youth.
His big break came when on weekends he helped a pal working on Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and ended up staying on that project for a year, making a behind-the-scenes documentary and editing TV ads.
Coulter crafted a number of high-voltage trailers for blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer, including “Top Gun,” “Con Air” and “The Rock.”
“What I learned from him was to grab the audience right away,” Coulter said. “He would say to imagine that you’re getting up before the movie starts and going to buy popcorn. The trailer needs to compel you to freeze, turn around and watch.”
Coulter has an affinity for music, said Ron Moler, who hired him at marketing firm Aspect Ratio in 1994 and now runs competitor Ignition Creative.
“You would go into Benny’s cutting room and it was always very loud with rock ‘n’ roll,” Moler said. “He blew people away with the sound alone.”
Coulter’s style influenced younger editors, Moler said. “Look at what he did with ‘The Rock.’ He just nailed that sucker with amazing, high-energy kind of cutting.”
Coulter said music held together some of his best trailers, including “Beverly Hills Cop,” which bounces along to the Pointer Sisters’ song “Neutron Dance,” and “Fatal Attraction,” with its haunting score.
Another of his favorites was Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” with its unusual mix of material: color and black-and-white footage, a narrative puzzle and John Candy in a dramatic role.
Coulter entices viewers without giving away too much, said film producer Kathleen Kennedy, who worked with him on such Spielberg projects as “Jurassic Park,” “Munich” and “E.T.”
“He’s never inclined to want to reveal everything that’s in a film,” Kennedy said, “but instead he teases the story and characters just enough.”
Filmmakers and studio clients can be demanding, Coulter said. On “Shine a Light,” the Rolling Stones concert film, Coulter said he had to try about 30 versions of the trailer to strike a happy balance. The band wanted as many song snippets as possible, he said, while director Martin Scorsese wanted plenty of behind-the-scenes banter.
On TV spots for “Stepmom,” a 1998 release starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, he was told to avoid a crucial, but downbeat, plot line that would have made the comedy-drama a harder sell, especially around the holidays: one character’s cancer.
Spielberg has long been protective of his footage, Coulter said. To start the “War of the Worlds” trailer in 2005, Coulter persuaded the director to lend him 35 minutes of the unfinished movie for a weekend.
“I slept with that reel under one arm and my newborn daughter under the other,” he said.
For “Australia,” which Fox plans to release in November, Coulter cut separate versions of the trailer to run in front of the adventure sequel “Indiana Jones” and the female-focused “Sex and the City.”
Both start the same: with Kidman’s character asking a child, “Would you like to hear a story?” and then introducing a tale akin to “The Wizard of Oz.” The scene teases the movie’s premise without resorting to a hokey voice-over, Coulter said, switching to a mock narrator tone: “In a world where people don’t walk any more, one child will hop . . .”
The “Indiana Jones” version includes more action shots: cowboys riding thundering horses, military trucks on the move, Kidman and Jackman cracking their whips.
The “Sex and the City” version plays up the relationships and visuals, with softer dissolves from one shot to the next, a close-up of the leading man, and the main characters kissing against a sunset.
The marketing cliche is true, Coulter said: “Women are more interested in intelligent plots. Men just love to see stuff blow up.”
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Behind the scenes
Who: Benedict Coulter
Job: President of film marketing firm Trailer Park
Home: Sherman Oaks
Family: Married with three children
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, 2001, lifetime achievement for contributions to the movie industry; dozens of Key Art and Golden Trailer awards
Hobbies: Golf, snowboarding, sailing, water-skiing
Favorite movies: “The Deer Hunter,” Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart”