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Lake Bell's New Movie Asks Why More Women Aren't Used to Narrate Movie Trailers

"In a World..." points to one corner of the film industry that still favors men, although some changes are beginning to take place.

When it comes to the actors who provide the voice-over narration for movie trailers, men rule. Actress Lake Bell’s directorial feature debut, In a World…, opening today, dramatizes that fact. Bell plays Carol, a vocal coach who aspires to be a voice-over actress, who has a competitive relationship with her father Sam, played by Fred Melamed, who is a celebrated voice-over actor.

Over breakfast, as the two characters discuss their line of work, Sam announces, “Let’s face it, the industry does not crave a female sound.” Replies Carol, “Dad you’ve made me painfully aware of that my whole life.” Sam retorts, “I’m not being sexist, that’s just the truth.”

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The scene is comedic, but it is based on the reality that there is a real lack of female voice-over actors in movie trailers. 

“There’s more action for females than ever before,” says Cathy Kalmenson, co-president of the Kalmenson & Kalmenson voice-over casting company. “That said, there is still more male action than female action by far. When you’re talking movie trailers (in a world, literally) 99 percent of the work is male.”

Why does that situation exist?

Harvey Kalmenson, who is married to Cathy Kalmenson and co-president of Kalmenson & Kalmenson, says the issue comes down to familiarity. Audiences have been classically conditioned to expect a male voice to narrate trailers — it’s a social construct. “Human beings are creatures of habit — there’s no question about that,” he says. “What’s interesting is 75 percent of who we are is environmental as opposed to what we’re born with.”

Tommy Malatesta, who cuts movie trailers (primarily action and horror) at AV Squad, believes the preference for male voices might come down to differences in sound – male and female voices are each better suited for different genres. “A male narrator seems to bring a more ‘demanding,’ ‘assertive,’ or even a ‘confident’ feel to a piece, over a woman’s voice,” he says. “However, a woman’s voice seems to work with children’s content being that the female voice is soft and comforting.”

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It could also be argued that male voices are more suited for louder trailers (like action movies) because, they can make themselves heard above the din.

Female voices might work well narrating softer trailers, like romantic comedies. But the irony is that instead of turning to women when it decides not to use male voice-over artists, the industry often opts to use no narrator at all. Instead, it often relies on title cards or skips narration altogether.

There may be other, psychological factors in play as well. The website LiveScience has reported that women find deep, male voices most memorable. And a study from the journal NeuroImage claims that men have a more difficult time processing a woman’s voice over a man’s voice.

Bell herself has considered all the possible theories.

“I think one explanation could be that, yes, scientifically or just quite literally, the physicality of how to support a male voice simply resonates better in a context of piercing through a bunch of action sequences — it’s just actually easier to hear and understand a male voice than a female voice,” Bell says. “Or the more controversial conceit is that in the Bible we think of God as the capital HE, and therefore the omniscient voice can only be male.”

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Bell continues, “I didn’t graduate from Yale sigma cum laude in women’s studies, but you know, I am a woman, and therefore it is sort of a feminist issue and a conversation that merits some sort of discussion. This is one of the few environments that males dominate.”

But Bell also thinks the industry could be ready for a change. “In my opinion, it’s an opportunity to be fresh and new,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to hire people, to hire women specifically to do movie trailer voice-overs or be the omniscient voice — why not? And listen, by the way, I hope I get a job out of this (laughs).”

One woman who has begun to break down barriers is actress and voice-over artist Melissa Disney. In 2000, she narrated her first trailer, the action movie Gone in 60 Seconds, which is widely credited as one of the first major movies to employ a female voice. She’s gone on to voice trailers for Bridesmaids, Unstoppable and Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close, among others. She has also done voice-over work for the Academy Awards, Emmys and Billboard Music Awards. 

Don LaFontaine, the dean of voice-over artists, became her mentor before his death in 2008. Disney recalls he would tell her, “Melissa, you’re an incredible actress and there’s just no reason why you shouldn’t be doing movie trailers. He was always saying, you’re fantastic, you’re amazing — just keep doing it.” She even earned the nickname Donna LaFontaine.

LaFontaine, who literally coined the famous phrase “in a world,” believed women could handle the job as well as men, and yet marketing strategists, film studios and audiences have remained resistant to change.

Disney recognizes that resistance, but she is also optimistic. “I think that audiences and studios are evolving right now, just as we as a society are, and we’ve come a long way already,” Disney says. “I’m not surprised that the landscape has changed. I mean, I’ve been a part of that change.”

Could more change be on the way? Quips Bell, “Maybe after this movie.”