How Would You Edit a Timeless Movie Into a 2-Minute One?

Criterion's "Three Reasons" videos distill iconic films into a trio of defining characteristics.
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For years, Criterion has brought an art-house sensibility to DVD packaging, rereleasing classic films with new covers featuring striking photography and nuanced typography. The cases are so visually alluring that I've filled my shelves with many of them. Of late, though, Criterion has brought its touch to the trailer business with an entertaining and thoughtful series of online promotional teasers that interpret, rather than simply hype, their films—in less than two minutes.

"We feel a great responsibility to represent the film as the director would want it to be represented. It often surprises me which scenes or moments truly carry the essence of a film."

The idea for this new video format was conceived by the graphic designer Bonnie Siegler, formerly a partner of the design studio Number 17 and now the proprietor of 8½. A veteran creator of motion graphics and title sequences for Saturday Night Live, Will and Grace, and The Late, Late Show, she was asked by Criterion owner Peter Becker to direct and produce one weekly quick-cut summary of a Criterion release.

"I called Bonnie and posed her the question what would a 60 to 90 second spot for a Criterion movie look like in the 21st century," he told me. "She said, 'No one asks why any other company is releasing a particular film ... But with Criterion it's different. People do ask why, and that's what separates your brand.'" Now in its 77th week, the online venture, titled "Three Reasons," answers that question.

Every trailer highlights three conceptual, dramatic, or philosophic scenes or issues in the respective films. "Each release has its own story, and we are trying to make every aspect of our editions reflect the story we are trying to tell about the film," Becker says. "Design, editorial, supplemental features, marketing, even social media—ideally it should all be coherent, continuous, and particular. I don't actually think there is a Criterion look as much as a Criterion approach. If you look at our stuff there's actually a huge diversity of design styles, but the underlying sensibility is what makes it all feel of a piece."

The recent episode for Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, a controversial example of cinema verite that takes place during the police attacks on anti-war demonstrators during the Chicago Democratic Convention, lists its reasons as 1) "Chicago, 1968" (lest anyone forget what happened); 2) "The Debate" (around the tactics of police, demonstrators and media); and 3) That it was made "on the stage of history" (much of the footage was shot during the actual event with real police and blood). The episode for Terrence Malick's Badlands, in which Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play cold-blooded outlaws, lists its reasons as 1) "A visionary director emerges" (Malick's debut); 2) "The girl next door" (Spacek's break-out role); 3) "The charismatic killer" (Sheen's character).

Trailers are meant to trigger audience curiosity, but through this format Criterion also asks the viewer to contribute their own reasons as to why each film has resonance today. "A wonderful thing has happened due to the regularity and simplicity of the format," Siegler says. "People have made their own 'Three Reasons' videos for films they love, and best of all, people have made something called 'For Criterion Consideration,' which also follows the same format but is their pitch to Criterion to suggest a film be acquired and released by Criterion."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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