April 8, 2013 by Ian Goldstein
I miss voice-over narration in movie trailers. The deep, authoritative male voice used to be ubiquitous in cinemas, yet now it’s practically extinct, replaced by text intertitles (see the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, for example) and narration by the characters themselves (see Star Trek Into Darkness). Why has Hollywood recently abandoned one of its signature techniques?
Trailer voice-overs were the norm in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, but not for all of cinematic history. Silent films, of course, used title cards in previews just as in the films themselves (see this 1925 trailer for The Phantom of the Opera). Even after the advent of sound, intertitles remained popular; the 1942 trailer for Casablanca has some narration but mostly uses titles, to take one classic example.
The development of the modern trailer voice-over cannot be discussed without mentioning Don LaFontaine (1940–2008), the master of the genre. LaFontaine voiced over 5,000 previews in the course of his long career, and his bass, gravelly voice is instantly recognizable. Narration in the LaFontaine style could be dramatic for action pictures (“In a world where…”) or lighthearted (“Meet Bob…”) for comedies.
So, where have all the voice-overs gone? Some observers have pointed out that movie studios discriminated against women by exclusively hiring male announcers, but remedying sexism was not the reason for the genre’s demise. Rather, the voice-over became too trite to be taken seriously. Parodies (like this GEICO commercial) became common, and over time the once-sincere voice-over grew to be a parody of itself. One of Hollywood’s trademarks became a victim of overuse, leaving studios with no choice but to turn to more conservative text titles.
Besides causing nostalgia among those who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, the loss of voice-overs raises questions that have yet to be resolved. How have voice artists compensated for the significant income loss they must have suffered? Are trailers now less understandable by children who cannot yet read or illiterate adults? The most compelling question is whether dramatic intertitles will soon become a parody of themselves as well. What will Hollywood turn to at that point? This summer, find out at a theater near you.