Inside the strange, enthusiastic world of YouTube’s fake trailer community

For the last decade, a small group of video editors have spent hours toiling over concept trailers, delighting and duping fans eager to catch a sneak peek of an upcoming film.

Kyle MacNeill

At some point or another, while scrolling through YouTube, it’s likely you’ll come across a new trailer for an upcoming film that you’re desperate to watch. Backed by a bona fide banner, a verified account handle and millions of views, you hammer the touchpad. You watch it. And, well, if the creator has done a good job, that’s all, folks.

Truth is: you’ve been flickrolled.

See, the trailer was totally fake. Perhaps, if you have an eye for the ersatz, keep tabs on the film release calendar or just scroll down to the comments, then you’ll have realised that it was all just one big tease – a fake, fan-made trailer. The culprits? The concept trailer community – a coterie of creatives making unofficial trailers for upcoming (or even non-existent) films and posting them online for everyone to see and, perhaps sometimes, believe.

Pretty much every major commercial film now gets the trickster trailer treatment. YouTube is stuffed with them; right now, there are scores of superhero sequel teasers (with a particular focus on the tangled web of Spider-Man spin-offs) plus a load of Netflix prototypes (including a freshly-inked Squid Game 2). Sure, you’re less likely to find the new A24 mapped out – but it’s playing to a crowd of video game, animation and action fanatics, marvelling at imagined plot twists. They’re also genuinely well-made.

It all began ten years ago with Smasher, a YouTube channel started by freelance video editor Rob Long. “I’ve always had an affinity for modern trailers, so the ability to then create my own and watch people react to something I made will always be an amazing feeling,” he explains. While Long is wary of those jumping on the concept trailer bandwagon for the wrong reasons and those rushing out ideas, he recognises there’s a lot of talent out there.

For a long time, Long was pretty much by himself; soon, though, successors assembled, including Teaser PRO. Started by friends Vladimir and Ivan, it began due to the friends’ shared love of movie trailers while growing up. Recounting a story worthy of a big-screen Bildungsroman, Vladimir remembers making films on the video editor of his first phone – a Nokia 5228 – creating trailer-like montages to entertain his friends, before getting his first computer. Inspired by a GTA 6 parody, the duo went into production.

Take one? A trashy trailer for The Force Awakens. “We created a mask for the main villain, made a costume, and started shooting. However, when we started editing, we realised that what we had filmed was terrible and didn’t look serious at all,” he said. Instead, they decided to splice together existing clips from movies set in space, backed by research of past comics and theory videos – their subs skyrocketed. After that followed a version of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War – to date it’s clocked up 19 million views.

Now, some platforms are using the concept trailer as a content stream rather than their soul output. “I began experimenting with the actual concept trailer aspect around December of 2020,” says Connor, owner of the pop culture platform SLUURP. Starting by stitching together a Lilo and Stitch concept trailer that was well-received, Connor continued with a focus on video game movies. “It’s definitely become more competitive since I first dipped my toes into this world; every day it seems a new concept trailer channel emerges,” he says.

So how do you make a blockbuster fake trailer? “We brainstorm the plot for the future film based on what has already happened in the previous instalment and try to come up with a logical and original continuation of the story,” Vladimir says. Then, you’ve got to source your material. “We study the cast of the future film (if available), review their filmographies, and compile a list of movies or TV shows where suitable footage or lines may be found,” he continues.

For Connor, it’s paramount to choose scenes that aren’t particularly well known, explaining he didn’t pick the iconic Buzz and Woody flying moment for his Toy Story 5 trailer. “In the trailers I personally edit, I have a preference against using highly recognizable scenes or sequences from other films…my goal is always to immerse the audience, making them feel like they’re watching a teaser for an entirely new film,” he says.

Then it’s time to edit. “We need to connect hundreds of unrelated clips from different movies and give them an entirely new meaning, making the video look concise and feel like a coherent work that reflects our original idea of what the movie might look like,” Vladmir says, explaining that they use colour correction and masking to cut out characters, extract lines from other movies to create new dialogues and ensure that the music syncs up.

As expected, there’s a lot of sitting in your abode, alone, on Adobe. “I basically sit at my desk and replay the same two seconds of my editing timeline over and over again until I think it looks and sounds right,” Long says.

The advent of AI is playing a role in this process. While both the Writers Guild of America strike, which has just ended, and the SAG-AFTRA strike, which has just begun, have been used to express concerns surrounding AI, fake trailer creators are experimenting with its endless possibilities. Long, for example, is using it to create thumbs-uppable thumbnails and Vladimir is utilising it to enhance video quality up to 4K, while Connor is using AI to speed up the editing process. “It allows for intricate audio isolation and character extraction, which has been a game-changer,” he says.

Does it threaten their own art form? “I can’t say how things will be down the line, maybe people will be able to just auto-generate trailers entirely?” Long questions. “Given the rapid advancements, I wouldn’t be surprised if the near future sees us transition from concept trailers to full-blown concept films!” Connor says. Already, AI is allowing creators to make trailers for movies that aren’t even based on any sort of existing franchise, as with Genesis, a fake film teaser that caused a stir in the summer created by a product designer on his laptop. “We’ve noticed that some less conscientious creators, who don’t put much effort into their work, were among the first to adopt such services because they allow for the rapid creation of numerous similar videos,” Vladimir says warily. “I believe that AI is an excellent tool that enables incredible things in just a matter of seconds, but it all depends on how and for what purposes it is used.”

This artifice of artificial intelligence, along with the community learning on the job, means that these concept trailers are getting more convincing. Do the creators actually want to fool people? “In the early days, I was admittedly irritated when people would comment “FAKE!” I would genuinely put a lot of effort into creating these concepts. But it doesn’t bother me anymore,” says Connor, who is clear that he’s not aiming to punk viewers.

“Some creators in our niche label their videos as ‘Official Trailer’ or omit the word ‘Concept’, which I find can be misleading. It’s easy to see why viewers might feel deceived,” he continues. Vladimir and Long agree, emphasising the importance of making it clear that it’s not the real thing; though many people still don’t notice. They also all note that, because of the need to use existing clips through YouTube’s fair use policy, it’s hard to make a profit.

Most of these creators, though, aren’t staring wide-eyed at their screen into the wee hours to make big bucks; instead, it’s for the love of it all. In return, eager-eyed viewers get to enjoy one possible universe in their multiverse. “The feedback I cherish most is when viewers comment that they genuinely believed they were watching the real trailer, or they express hope that the official film follows the narrative we’ve crafted,” Connor says. “It’s an indicator that we’ve hit the mark. At the heart of it, our trailers give fans a fun glimpse into what could be,” he continues.

Long is similarly moved. “There are reactions to my videos on YouTube where viewers have actually openly cried, jumped up out of their seats from excitement or just been left with a calm sense of appreciation. Every reaction means so much to me,” he says.

Could it be, perhaps, that alongside the many viewers indulging in fantasy, real-life movie producers are taking notes? Are these trailers a form of trial-and-error for possible plots? “There have been instances where official trailers dropped, and I couldn’t help but side-eye! At times there have been striking similarities to our concept trailers from months or even years prior,” Connor laughs.

“Sometimes, the resemblance is uncanny enough to make me think that perhaps the official editor took a peek at our work. Now, if the next Jurassic World movie has ‘Extinction’ in the title, I’m definitely staking a claim on that inspiration!” he continues. Long, meanwhile, thinks that his viral Friends: The Movie trailer, which gained 100 million views and worldwide media attention in 2018, may have sparked the reunion event; Vladimir similarly claims his viral I Am Legend 2 trailer catalysed Warner Bros to commission the sequel.

Either way, the concept trailer community has made its mark on the movies. While more pretentious cinephiles may see them as a sort of cheap magic trick, these phoney trailers are far from phoned in. Looking back on it all, in his own sepia-tinged flashback, Vladimir remembers Teaser PRO’s original aim: two film-obsessed kids looking to impress their friends and enter the world of entertainment. It’s clear his fantasy has become reality.

“When we started taking this seriously, our dream was to eventually create real movie trailers and take orders from studios,” he says. “I think that by making our trailers, we wanted to touch the world of cinema, even if only a little bit.”

Published 12 Oct 2023

Tags: YouTube

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