What makes a good trailer?

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If you watch a lot of movie trailers, you begin to understand that there’s a formula that goes into what studios and editors seem to think a movie trailer should look like. There’s a great deal of satire and parody work done which pokes fun at how generic movie trailers are. Here’s a video by Red Letter Media, and a video by Auralnauts, and a video by Cracked which highlights how generic these trailers are and how ubiquitous the formula is. Screen Junkies has one of the most popular series on YouTube, Honest Trailers, which is entirely devoted to satirizing movies and their trailers.

What a trailer should do, obviously, is pique the audience’s interest by giving a general look at the story. The issues we’re having now is that all the trailers are beginning to look and feel the same. As any of the above videos can show, there’s usually a loud blaring noise (referred to often as “The Inception Bwhaa” or “Inception Bong” after the movie that made it popular) and a 3D graphic of the title. Or establishing shots of a city, and vague voiceover by one of the characters that tries to summarize the entire plot with fractions of dialogue from the movie.

Something that’s been a bit of a pandemic is that most trailers try to stuff so much information to the point where they convey too much information and begin to show something that would have come as a surprise to the audience in the context it was meant for. Putting too much in the trailer robs the movie of its shock value.

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Every trailer feels as though it needs to end with its biggest, most exciting shot or some crucial reveal. Sometimes this is done well, like for Captain America: Civil War which teased Spiderman’s role in the film, or the most recent season of Game of Thrones‘ second trailer which showed a dragon flying into battle over the Dothraki army. Sometimes this is done in the name of fanservice, like in the second trailer for Star Wars: Rogue One which gave us a split-second look at Darth Vader as though they just wanted to say “LOOK! He’s in the movie!” But nobody seems to do the big reveal more overzealously than the DC Extended Universe. Batman V. Superman or Justice League are prime examples of oversharing. The final trailer for BvS revealed Doomsday, a character that didn’t appear until the last half-hour of the film and would have best been kept secret.

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The trailer for Justice League has to deal with the fallout of pretending a character from Batman V. Superman is dead but still trying to interest audiences – it ends with Alfred the Butler saying to an off-screen character “He said you’d come, now let’s hope you’re not too late.” Well, obviously this is supposed to be the character who died in the last movie and is referenced several times in this trailer. That being said, I do find myself genuinely surprised that they didn’t show a shot of this character, but what’s the point? It’s extremely apparent he’s coming back anyway.

I suppose that the key idea here is to have a reveal in the trailer that gets people talking about the trailer. But shouldn’t the reveal get people talking about the movie itself? Wouldn’t keeping it secret longer make it more exciting?

Okay, so that’s the formula. But what’s a creative trailer feel like? For that, let’s take a look at the first teaser trailer for The Revenant. 

This was the first trailer I saw – or, at least as far as I can remember – that really blew me away on a level that was deeper than content. I was immediately sold; I had to see this movie. I didn’t know what it was about, but I didn’t have to. And sure, the content is there – the audience is shown the intense action sequences and sweeping camera movements that made this movie the phenomenal piece of work that it is. But what really makes this trailer so phenomenal is the pulse of breath in the background. The distressed breathing really sets the pace for the trailer and builds tension throughout. It’s an interesting contrast to the go-to for every trailer of having a character voiceover of a specific speech from the movie trying to convey what the entire movie is about. Having the panting breath instead of a voiceover tells the audience everything they’d need to know about what the tone and sensation of the movie would be. It gives a perilous, almost claustrophobic, feeling akin to the kind of perpetual near-death that DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass character experiences for almost the entire movie.

This trailer doesn’t tell you more than you need to know about the story. In fact, it barely tells anything about the story, because it doesn’t have to. Granted, The Revenant is just a fairly straightforward revenge story in a cold-weather frontier setting, but I guarantee that a lesser movie would have resorted to a voiceover of DiCaprio saying something like “They killed mah boy, and then they left me for dead…” interspersed with footage of the bear attack and Tom Hardy burying him, followed up with Glass saying “And I won’t rest until I’ve had my revenge” as they show him galloping forward on a horse.

Now that’s what a creative uber-dramatic teaser trailer looks like. For an example of a creative of a comedy trailer, let’s examine the first teaser for The Room The Disaster Artist.

Writing about this might feel a little preemptive because The Disaster Artist isn’t out quite yet, but I have a feeling that this movie will probably be very good. If you’re unfamiliar, The Disaster Artist is a movie about the making of The Room. Written by, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau, The Room is often said to be one of the worst films ever made.

Okay, so let’s break it down. What makes this trailer so great? It relies partially on the iconography of the subject matter – James Franco as Tommy Wiseau delivers one of The Rooms‘s most memorable and most poorly delivered lines. It’s a funny montage that leverages one of The Room‘s best known lines to create a humorous moment and even gives some insight on the behind-the-scenes process into what made The Room so bad and what will make The Disaster Artist so funny. You can’t always perfectly tell from a trailer if the movie will be good or bad, but I think this pretty clearly indicates that the movie will be pretty good.

Now, perhaps you disagree with the claim I’ve just made – a trailer can’t always perfectly indicate if a movie will be good or bad. And maybe that’s not perfectly true, I encourage you to take a look at this Man of Steel trailer.

I realize that at the top of this post I blasted trailers for this movie’s sequels Batman v. Superman and Justice League, but this trailer is a piece of art. It genuinely gets me excited to watch a movie I know I didn’t enjoy the first time I saw it, and probably won’t enjoy after multiple viewings. But this trailer follows the formula just as much as it has to. It shows all the best things of the movie and conceals the bad.

Subverting the formula, it doesn’t rely on a money-shot reveal – though to be fair, there wasn’t anything quite like that in the movie. The closest thing we have to that is the Hans Zimmer score delightfully swelling as Superman takes flight.

The issue with this trailer is that although it has no ostensible flaws, it doesn’t quite sell you the right movie. The trailer pitches a story about an alien who lives among humans and learns to lead by example and provides a shining light and hero for all humanity. It’s inspirational, it’s glorious, and it is not the movie viewers were shown. That might have been their goal, but something in the process just didn’t click, and a different movie was made. It wasn’t inspirational, there was a disproportionate amount of time spent on the Krypton sequences, a certain character dies for no conceivable reason, the movie lacks closure, the villain’s plan was a little nonsensical, the machines the villain used were absurd, the color scheme was so visually boring it was unbearable, and all in all, it’s just not very good.

But these are the kind of flaws the trailer can hide. An especially well-made trailer can make an iffy movie seem like a delightful one. Zimmer’s score accompanying Superman’s first flight made for a spectacular enough trailer to the point where I was sold, then and there, to go see this movie. I give much credit to the team that edited this trailer for convincing me it would be something great.

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And that’s just an introduction to everything right and wrong about trailers. Obviously, this isn’t comprehensive, I just hope I’ve done everything necessary to highlight a few of my favorite trailers, and in doing so, made a point about a few things to do in order to properly advertise a film. I just feel like if you first met someone and they shared more than was normal, it would be weird – why should we expect any less from our movies? At some point, I hope Hollywood will realize that a good, subtle, first impression is crucial.

6 thoughts on “What makes a good trailer?

  1. Because I use this article to heavily criticize three of the movies in the DC Extended Universe (one which *isnt even out yet*), I want to reiterate the fact that I absolutely loved Wonder Woman. It’s a genuine shame that it took this long to get a female-led superhero movie, but how fortunate we were that it was Wonder Woman.

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  2. Wow you are one enormous trailer encyclopedia 🙂 And you have the EYE… are you working in Hollywood??? If not what are you waiting for?? I always new that there are trailers that I like and I don’t like but now you have answered my question why 🙂 Keep writing it’s amazing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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