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By Scott Bowles
USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES - Coming into work, Bill Neil occasionally gets the sense he's clocking in at the NSA.

Security is always present at the offices of Buddha Jones, a video-editing company in Hollywood. Employees sign confidentiality agreements. His work computer is not connected to the Internet for fear of leaks.

"The place is locked down," Neil says. "It's a little likeFort Knox."

This treasure, though, is movie trailers, whose value approaches that of precious metal as studios drop as much as $1 million per 2 1/2-minute coming attraction.

"I always loved the idea of making little movies," says Neil, a 20-year veteran who specializes in horror trailers but who cut a recent promo for Martin Scorsese'sThe Wolf of Wall Street."There's so much more to it than that. There's market-testing, studio notes. I guess it really is like a little movie."

Little movies that audiences are downing like popcorn. YouTube surfers viewed 1 billion movie trailers through the first three quarters of last year, according toTrailerpop, a tech firm that has launched a trivia app and social media platform using trailers. The YouTube figure is five times the number of trailers watched during the same period in 2008.

The ads have earned their own Hollywood ceremony in theGolden Trailer Awards, which boasts juries that have includedJon Favreau,Joss WhedonandIvan Reitman. How do you know a movie will be big in summer? Its trailer appears during theSuper Bowl(last year's were for monster hitsIron Man 3andFast & Furious 6).

Trailer viewers make up "the fastest-growing community of movie fans," says Trailerpop founder Jon Vlassopulos, who negotiated rights with studios to more than 22,000 trailers, some dating to the 1930s. (USA TODAY has teamed with Trailerpop on the trivia game for the USA TODAY iPad app. Players answer trivia questions about a movie while its trailer plays, earning points to challenge friends and redeem for movie-related prizes.).

Vlassopulos says he got the idea for the app because smooth movie downloads remain unrealized, particularly on smartphones and tablets."We wanted a community built around the trailers,'' he says. "What better thing to watch on a lunch break than a beautifully produced trailer? It's gorgeous digital video."

There was nothing digital about the first trailer, created for a Broadway screen a century ago.Nils Granlundof theMarcus Loewtheater chain produced a promotional film for the musicalThe Pleasure Seekersin 1913 featuring "moving pictures of the rehearsals and other incidents connected with the production," reported theNebraska Daily Star.

Today, editors such as Neil receive raw footage on flash drives months before a movie's release with a simple order: Take hours of film and condense it to a cohesive 150 seconds. Oh, and don't blow the ending."They'll test a trailer and if you give too much information away, we'll re-edit it," Neil says. "The worst thing you can do is ruin the movie."

That used to be nearly impossible, notes film historianLeonard Maltin. Trailers from the 1960s to the 1980s often consisted simply of random images or snippets of dialogue, giving only a sense of the film.Alfred Hitchcockonce famously walked audiences through the house of 1960'sPsycho, promising moviegoers chills.

"Cecil B. DeMilleand Hitchcock were the trailer masters," Maltin says. "They weren't afraid to showcase their style and wit, without saying much about the story. And they were nearly as big as their movies, so they could get away with it."

But by the 1980s, money and market-testing changed the tenor of trailers. "Studios were investing too much money to take a chance on something daring, which is why so many trailers today look alike,'' Maltin says.

And market research indicated that "people want to know more of the story," adds Neil. "They want to know what they're getting before they plant $10 or $15 a ticket."

Neil concedes the occasional criticism that coming attractions can reveal too much, oversell the product or, occasionally, be better than the movie. But he says those results are never intended.

"When I approach a trailer, I like to find whatever is unique in the movie and communicate that," says Neil, whose recent trailers includeFlightandThe Conjuring.

"It's great to have a trailer look great, but you don't want to make it better than the movie," he says. "Nobody wants to promise something the movie can't live up to. You don't want to be a snake-oil salesman."

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