When the creative team that produces Honest Trailers, the online series of faux trailers that brutally skewer popular films and TV shows with acerbic wit and movie-nerd-level authority, was working on the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they realized they had a problem. They actually liked the movie.
“We were wrestling in the writers room, being like, ‘Well, this is a good movie. What do we do?,’’” says Andy Signore, VP of original programming at Defy Media, the digital media company that owns Honest Trailers-producer Screen Junkies. “And, literally, Spencer (Gilbert), our lead writer on it, as we were going through the first drafts, said, ‘Well, it’s Honest Trailers, let’s just say it’s kind of good! So we had Jon, our voice-over guy, say: “It’s a good movie! It’s well-directed. What can we say?”
The decision was a major creative leap for a series that has made a name for itself by doing the opposite of sucking up. Frozen, the most popular Honest Trailer to date with over 17 million views, was castigated for being a “feature-length music video for Let it Go, made by “the studio that finally figured out how to make Pixar movies.” (Disney, natch.) Breaking Bad is “the best HBO-style drama that can’t use the F-word or show any boobs. But is so good it got TV snobs to finally shut up about The Wire.”
But the departure also shows how, as a brand, Honest Trailers is not just about slinging snark for the sake of driving traffic. What has distinguished the series and made it hugely popular–the series has been viewed an average of 33 million times over the past six months, up from 24 million over the same period last year–not just with movie geeks, but with filmmakers and other members of the movie industry, is the amount of thought that goes into creating them. There are the clever creative flourishes, such as the decision to sing the entire trailer for Les Miserables. But more importantly, every criticism that’s lobbed is laboriously debated for its credibility and fairness, so that stings never feel gratuitous; they simply feel true.
The biggest testament to this came recently when Joe Russo, co-director of Winter Soldier, admitted in an interview that he had “tried to Honest Trailer proof” the movie.
“What Honest Trailers really is is a litmus test,” Russo said. “How sound is the logic in your film? How ridiculous are the buys that you’re asking the audience to make? So we just comb through the script over and over again and go, ‘how do we shore up this logic?’ It was a very helpful exercise for us.”
Signore and his team, which also includes Gilbert and editor Dan Murrell, go through an almost identical exercise, one that Signore has been perfecting since 2012, when the first Honest Trailer (for Titanic) debuted. All self-professed movie geeks, they watch and re-watch films–which are determined by fan demand–as much as three or four times before one writer pens a first draft. Then the group convenes to pore over the script in a process that’s as hard-core as that of any late-night comedy writers room.
“We’ll read the script together and then challenge: Is that honest? Did they really–is that true? Does it sound like a trailer? Is it funny enough?” says Signore. “Those are the things that we’ll push ourselves in a writers room environment to really button it up, which I think is part of the success. Which then makes it, hopefully, resonate with the broader community.
“We don’t just do one draft and put it out there. We do a draft and then three nerds gather around and huddle.”
Says Keith Richman, President of Defy Media: “It’s a brutal room in the sense that ideas are held to a really high standard. There was some NPR story about The Onion’s headline room, because they write the headline first, and I remember thinking, That must be what it feels like to be in the Honest Trailers’ writers room because it’s very deflating!”
According to Richman, Honest Trailers reflects the business philosophy at Defy, which pushes creators to experiment. “So much of the Internet is Build if Bought,” he says, referring to the process of creating content only after it’s been paid for by a sponsor.
“We came to the conclusion a few years ago that we can’t be in that business because then everything gets watered down. You can’t build your business that way. We knew we had to come up with true voices and innovation. That’s when we really started nailing content, when we made that decision. So with Honest Trailers, there was no tangible business value–we weren’t going to take it to a sponsor–but we said, Go experiment. Go find a voice.”
Sixty-five-plus movies and TV shows later, an Honest Trailer is now produced every week, as opposed to every other week, and has been lengthened to the duration of an actual trailer: four to five minutes. In February, the franchise extended to video game trailers.
For Signore, the hardest part of the job isn’t keeping up with a hectic schedule, it’s staying true to the creative integrity that he and his team have pioneered. Because the movies are picked by fans, there’s no squirming out of a hard review.
“I’m really worried about Guardians of the Galaxy, which the fans are demanding,” he says. “That’s another one where I’m like, ‘It was really fun!’ I can go nit-pick it to death and do that, but we try not to do that. So we’ll have to find a creative way to present the idea of: what was this movie?”