brief histories

We’re Living in the Age of the Movie Trailer Money Shot

It’s January 1996. You’re in a crowded living room, huddled around a TV. It’s Super Bowl XXX — the Dallas Cowboys versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Suddenly, there’s a break in the action. But before you can walk away to grab another beer, this starts playing onscreen:

Shadows fall and the White House explodes. It was the dawn of a new era — that of the movie trailer money shot. 20th Century Fox paid $1.3 million to air the first teaser for Independence Day during the Super Bowl. It was unprecedented — until that point, trailers were not part of the Big Game’s commercial repertoire. Fox knew it was worth it. That summer, Independence Day took in $306 million domestically and became a touchstone in American blockbuster history. It was also a defining moment for Hollywood marketing, proving that a single shot could carry a movie to victory. Fox’s strategy raised the bar: Simply selling story, stars, and imagery was no longer enough. A trailer had to turn a blast of spectacle into the movie’s beating heart. ID4 didn’t make a shot of an exploding White House iconic. It was, and continues to be, a memory implanted by the film’s trailer.

Today, every teaser or trailer has one … or two, or three, or eighteen money shots. Whatever it takes to convince audiences that it’s the biggest movie of the summer. Iron Man’s house blows up and slowly crumbles into the sea! Vin Diesel spring-boards out of a car, over a highway, and on to another car in Fast 6! That giant robot in this weekend’s Pacific Rim uses an oil tanker as a bat and bashes a giant monster in the head! These days, blockbusters aren’t culled for great trailer moments — they’re reverse engineered to deliver them.

Like most Hollywood jargon, the origin of “money shot” is fuzzy. The phrase is believed to have originally been a film production’s literal label for a sequence with a high production cost. Eventually the phrase was made notorious after being appropriated by the porn industry. (We’re all adults here — a “money shot” refers to a scene in which the man in the scene ejaculates in full view.) In his 1977 book The Film Maker’s Guide to Pornography, Stephen Ziplow calls the money shot, “the most important element in the movie and that everything else (if necessary) should be sacrificed at its expense.” That is the same thinking in a PG-13 blockbuster. If a movie ends with an explosive, cathartic conclusion, its minor missteps can be forgiven.

There was little concern for obvious money shots in the decades before Independence Day. Early trailers were the products of a single company: the National Screen Service. From the forties to the end of the seventies, the NSS held exclusive contracts on cutting and distributing studio movie previews. Their trailers emphasized story, actors, and filmmakers. The movies themselves had breathtaking moments, but the trailers didn’t put their eggs in one basket or work to build toward any sort of climax. As a result of the NSS guidelines, everything was a selling point. The trailer for 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines — the highest-grossing live-action movie of that decade — parades its talent, source material, and even shooting locations in an attempt to wow prospective audiences. Between title cards heralding actress Deborah Kerr (“The Lady with the Fire Hair!”) and the brutal landscapes of equatorial Africa, the trailer also allowed the rugged Stewart Granger to do more than a bit of talking.

Blockbusters emerged in the late seventies with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1976) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). The marketing barely changed, though. Making them was risky enough, with the studios investing buckets of money into genre projects, not knowing whether the gambles would pay off. When audiences turned Jaws and Star Wars into the highest-grossing pictures of that decade, the blockbuster was born. By 1977, the NSS had battled monopoly lawsuits and lost much of their business. As a result, cutting trailers became the responsibility of studios — though they did not deviate immediately from the norm. The trailer for Star Wars genuinely seems to have been put together at random — a scene here, a scene there.

The eighties took a similar approach. Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark trailer sprinkled its iconic set pieces into a rousing introduction to the character. James Cameron’s action-oriented Aliens tiptoed up to a money shot with its slow-building reveal of Ripley in the power loader. Then there’s Top Gun. In a 2011 article titled “The Days the Movies Died,” writer Mark Harris reassessed the blockbuster’s evolution and pointed to the Tom Cruise–Tony Scott vehicle — not Star Wars or Jaws — as the starting point for modern tentpole thinking. It was the beginning of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s reign over Hollywood, where movies were product and brains were left at the door. As Harris puts it, the Simpson-Bruckheimer pictures were “rails of celluloid cocaine with only one goal: the transient heightening of sensation.” The original 1986 trailer for Top Gun, though, sells the film’s inherent draw — flying, shooting — by capping off with a scene of rhythm and tension. A chunk of the climactic dogfight plays out with little interruption.

Here is the trailer for the movie’s 2013 IMAX 3-D re-release. What once was a full-length moment gets whittled down to a single money shot.

Glancing attempts aside, there are few predecessors to Independence Day’s orgasmic White House destruction. If the minor actions of a single man can qualify as a money shot — hard to imagine in the current climate — then Harrison Ford’s leap of faith in 1993’s The Fugitive might qualify. Having starred in Star WarsBlade Runner, and three Indiana Jones movies, it was still gasp-provoking to see Ford’s regular Joe character Dr. Richard Kimble jump from the Cheoah Dam.

The Fugitive needed that proto-money shot, as it was competing that summer with Spielberg’s heavily anticipated Jurassic Park — a movie whose first teaser left out any money shots completely.

The films of the early nineties had a glut of moments that would’ve been great trailer fodder. The marketing departments simply hadn’t gotten the memo yet. James Cameron’s True Lies opted for character banter and action teases. Waterworld’s campaign wanted audiences to “ooh” and “aah” at the expansive sets. The trailer for the first nineties Bond, Goldeneye, closed with a brief shot that proved its stunts were bigger than ever before.

But Independence Day’s Super Bowl spectacular was the pivot point, and other studios quickly embraced the trailer kicker — the period at the end of a very pricey sentence. 1996 had two other trailers that popped with bursts of flashy, expensive special effects. After setting up a tornado’s destruction with the shaking door storm cellar, the teaser for Twister dropped us smack into the middle of the whirlwind. Mission: Impossible took a similar tactic, swapping out junk metal for Tom Cruise.

The money shot prevailed through the late nineties. Cameron embraced the technique with the trailer for his love story Titanic, which ends with a dramatic high shot of the doomed ship plunging into the ocean. The Matrix blew minds after introducing fans to bullet time at the tail end of its first trailer. The desire for such moments ran rampantly throughout Hollywood and pushed studios to create material exclusively for trailers. Although it was later pulled owing to the events of September 11, Sony’s first Spider-Man teaser, as dramatic as it is, was all in service of a shot of Spidey swinging above the streets of New York City.

The rise of the Internet changed what a money shot needed to be. Some trailers stepped out of the gates thinking they had a great clincher. 2004’s Troy paraded thousands of ships sailing across the Aegean Sea. That same year’s Van Helsing had a werewolf jumping through a raging fire to attack Hugh Jackman. But the endless replay capability of the web made their lackluster computer graphics more noticeable with every replay. In 2009, Independence Day’s Roland Emmerich delivered another whopper with the teaser to 2012 — one sequence, all money. The advent of online debuts and flash video players especially allowed trailers to be watched and rewatched endlessly. They were picked apart, screen-grabbed, and reactions were instantly blasted across the Internet. Today, every movie site worth its salt engages in the occasional deep dissection of a hot movie trailer.

The studios know they’re under that scrutiny. In Wired’s recent comprehensive look at the making of trailers, Nick Temple (employee of trailer cutting company Wild Card), revealed that the production schedule for this summer’s The Wolverine was tailored so that a pivotal set piece, featuring Wolverine fighting on a train, would be finished for the trailer. (An entire clip of that scene was released early anyway — another means of marketing.) Matt Brubaker of Trailer Park, the team behind trailers for Iron Man 3The Dark Knight, and other blockbusters, admits his company will write scripts nearly a year ahead of the completion date in order to fine tune the end product to a studio’s needs. Going further back in the process, Brubaker will even work with filmmakers to create fake trailers to show the marketability of the project they’re pitching. With so many avenues to get the word out on a film — the trailers, the teaser trailers, the five-second teaser teaser trailers, and whatever is in the can on an in-production movie that can be shown at San Diego Comic-Con — thinking of a money shot is essential. It’s one of the most important parts of a film’s marketing campaign. Five months ago, for example, everyone saw Vin Diesel drive a car through the nose of a flaming cargo plane. And everyone was hooked.

Knowing buzz blossoms from a well-timed explosion, death-defying stunt, or moment of CG mayhem, money shot frequency is at an all-time high. Though the strategy may be losing its appeal with audiences. Responding to an outcry from moviegoers, the National Association of Theater Owners briefly discussed pushing the MPAA to enact new rules limiting trailer length and design. Current mandates restrict studios’ pre-screening trailers to two and a half minutes. But if eight spots play before a movie, that’s twenty minutes of previews and 304 rapidly edited cuts (based on an average of 38 shots per trailer) to soak in. Audiences can’t stomach it and theater owners are coming to their defense to ensure return business. Fighting backlash, the studios find themselves confronting a paradox: Money shots sell movies, but today’s trailers are pummeling ticket buyers to the point of complaint. It’s a balancing act. There’s a risk of giving everything away and a risk of limping out of the gates with an underwhelming spot. Recapturing the thrill of the first Independence Day trailer has become exceptionally difficult, but remains the goal. So every movie trailer has a money shot. Or two, or three, or eighteen, all competing for coveted space in the memory banks.

A Brief History of the Movie Trailer Money Shot