That’s quite a wage, especially when you break it down to an hourly rate. Over a long career, LaFontaine voiced more than 5,000 trailers and hundreds of thousands of commercial spots. But top voice-over artists frequently work out of their homes and record the spots, which usually run about two minutes, in no more than five takes. It’s one thing to pay Tom Cruise $25 million per movie; he makes perhaps one movie a year, to which he brings his built-in fan base. But no guy asks a date if she’d like to go see the new Don LaFontaine trailer.
Nonetheless, trailers have grown into a nearly $100 million industry, whose companies continue to give work to a coterie of well-paid veterans, rather than bidding jobs out to the legions of starving actors haunting the streets of L.A. And if you look at the economics of the movie industry, this behavior starts to make sense.
Don LaFontaine’s 40-year career began as the old Hollywood studio system breathed its last. The forces that killed the studio cartel also smashed the monopoly of the National Screen Service, which had produced virtually every movie trailer for more than 40 years. In its wake, independent firms began competing for the lucrative business, gradually supplanting those stilted spots you see on Turner Classic Movies, where Bob Hope appears on the screen to tell you how great his next picture is.
Over the years, changes in the movie business conspired to make trailers and television ads more and more important. First TV, then VHS, and finally DVD reduced the number of times people went to see a movie in a theater. As a small child, I saw Star Wars something like 17 times on its first run. But I’m hard-pressed to name a single movie I’ve seen twice in theaters since graduating from college.
Star Wars grossed $1.5 million the first weekend it opened, in late May of 1977, and peaked at $7.7 million the first weekend of September. By early December, it was still earning more than a million a week. These days, it would already have been out on DVD by then.
Because of piracy and a highly competitive DVD market, films no longer have much time to build an audience. They need to roar out of the gate, rake in piles of money for a few weeks, and then retire to finish out the modern movie life cycle of international releases, cable premieres, and DVD box sets. So the ads and trailers need to drive novelty-hungry teenagers, the movie industry’s ripest target audience, out to the theaters in droves. Heavy investment in top-notch promotion may be why people like me call trailers their favorite part of the movies. Even when studios don’t make a profit at the domestic box office—as happens all too frequently—big box office helps to sell the movie in foreign markets.
When a studio spends tens of millions of dollars producing a film, and further tens of millions advertising it, cheaping out on a voice-over makes no sense. You could pay a Don LaFontaine successor $300,000 a spot and still eat up just a tiny percentage of the film’s overall budget. A bad voice-over would cost you far more than you could hope to save. When you have only one chance to get it right, you tend to open up your wallet and pray. So one-shot deals are very, very expensive—a logic that prevails with weddings, funerals, and college diplomas.