Movie trailers are a lot like pitch decks for venture capitalists (VCs). Both must hook their audiences in in a fraction of the time it would take to explain the whole enterprise. They work best when guided by an structural paradigm, such as Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” or Noah Parsons’ elements of successful pitch decks. They also need a mental model that makes it easier to relate to the topic, e.g. “My app is the Uber of pet dentistry,” or “It’s Pulp Fiction meets Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer.”
In honor of the re-launch of the Star Wars franchise, let’s examine the trailer for 1977’s Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope. Does it meet the criteria of a successful pitch?
This trailer came out in the infancy of science fiction films set not on earth, as in War of the Worlds, but in outer space. For this reason, the viewing public didn’t know how to size up an action movie set entirely in space. The trailer, therefore, needed to build a bridge between something familiar and this inherently new thing.
With the context now set, let’s break down the trailer into its key components and imagine each as a part of a VC pitch deck.
The Opening Image (equivalent of a title slide): The trailer opens with a scene of star-filled space, a tiny object approaching in the distance. The narrator says, “Somewhere in space, this all could be happening right now.” That directly contradicts the on-screen super that precedes every installment in the series: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Already, we have a relatively minor but noticeable inconsistency that would stick in the craw of any VC.
About the Creator (equivalent of a founders/executive team slide): we learn that the film comes from George Lucas, director of the well-regarded and successful coming-of-age film, American Graffiti. Proven leadership? Check.
The Set-Up (equivalent of a value proposition slide): At this point, we realize that the trailer’s producers recognized how hard it is to communicate something so entirely new. We can imagine similar struggles at Apple in late 2006 and 2007 as the company got ready to launch the first iPhone. Most start-ups face this problem at one point or another, as well. The trailer’s ineffective solution is also familiar to start-ups: it covers every possible angle.
First, the narrator promises us “an adventure unlike anything on your planet.” That signals its newness, but it’s also a risky approach, as any entrepreneur knows. That’s because of how often “It’s all new!” has been over-promised but under-delivered.
The trailer next describes the movie as being about “A boy, a girl, and a universe.” Too vague and indistinct.
Sensing that the trailer still hasn’t landed on what the film is about, it tries a third approach: “It’s a big, sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance.” The romance bit is a reach, perhaps designed to attract a secondary audience. Sparks don’t really fly until Ep. V.
Still, we’re not really any closer to knowing what the movie is actually about, so the narration tries a fourth vector: “It’s a spectacle light years ahead of its time.” Back to “we’re totally new,” the trailer subordinate its two most bankable stars – Alec Guinness (Obi Wan Kenobi) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo0 – to fleeting action scenes with no dialogue. This is the equivalent of taking your most compelling features and burying them in the appendices.
The groping continues. The narrator says, “It’s an epic of heroes, of villains, and aliens from a thousand worlds.” We can imagine a VC responding, “That sounds like Sci-Fi from the ’50s, yet you keep telling me how new this is. Are you new or derivative?”
Now the trailer has almost ended, and it still hasn’t really said what it is. Here goes its last attempt: “A billion years in the making: Star Wars!” Clever line, but not very useful in describing the movie.
Ultimately, we have to consider this trailer a failure. It never tells us what it’s really about, and it hides its most recognizable actors. It also lacked key elements:
The Problem (equivalent of a market observation or POV): Why is the film’s action and characters necessary?
A Debate (equivalent of an acknowledgement of alternatives in a market and why they are flawed).
The Way to Success (equivalent of your solution statement): What will enable successful delivery on the set-up/value proposition?
Occasionally films and businesses succeed in spite of their trailers or pitch decks, and sometimes the opposite is true. In this case, it’s clear that Star Wars became one of the most beloved and lucrative franchises of all time in spite of its “pitch.”