The art of the trailer

The art of the trailer

By: Thomas Sweet

There’s a somewhat cyclical aspect to visiting the cinema. We go to watch the film, but before the main feature starts, there are the trailers. Studios have a few minutes to excite us with footage of upcoming releases, hoping to get the audience to pay attention and excitedly whisper, ‘We have to see that!’ to each other. Then when release day rolls around, another fresh batch of trailers tries to do the same thing all over again…and the cycle continues.

It used to be that you could market films based on genre and star power. In the days of the classic Hollywood studio system, actors were rigidly typecast – you knew what you were getting as soon as the trailer started rolling. In decades since, audience expectations have changed as film genres have evolved and film marketing has advanced. It’s gotten to the point where we have trailers for the trailer of some movies, as with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But what actually makes a good trailer?

One of the crucial things is the balance between building hype and keeping surprises for release. It’s important to communicate what’s going to be in the film, but also not to spoil big twists and not just showing a three minute highlight reel of the whole plot. Since people are going to see the trailer repeatedly in the cinemas, on television and on YouTube, it can be a good idea to take steps to keep things fresh.

A catchy song can help, getting an audio earworm in the audience’s head alongside the flashy visuals. Other trailers differentiate themselves from the final product in small ways. Some films use different takes in the trailer than the finished film – hearing a line delivered in a different tone is a small change, but can make a scene you’ve heard repeatedly seem fresh again. Some trailers include footage from entire scenes that don’t appear in the final cut, which leads more often to disappointment than excitement. Other films which don’t fit into easy pigeonholes are sometimes given misleading trailers in an attempt to market them to a mainstream audience via creative re-editing, to force shots into an entirely new context.

One of the best trailers of recent years was for 10 Cloverfield Lane, which expertly balanced surprise and exposition in its marketing. It starts with a jukebox playing ‘I Think We're Alone Now’ by Tommy James and the Shondells – a well-known and upbeat pop song. After the production logos, we see our cast – John Goodman (A-lister!), Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr. (indie favourites!). They do mundane things for a bit, but something seems….off. The technology they use is outdated, the lighting is a bit too harsh, and wherever they are has no windows. Then the song slows down as the imagery gets increasingly sinister. Then, a sudden outburst of violence and the reveal that they’re in a bunker! But why?

A title card tells us that this is produced by J.J Abrams, but what is it? Mary Elizabeth WInstead’s character looks out the bunker door’s window at something, reacting with surprise and horror. John Goodman’s character’s states ‘Something’s coming’ in voiceover, as the title is finally revealed to the audience: 10 Cloverfield Lane. Immediately questions start to rush through the audience’s mind – who are these people? Why are they in a bunker? What’s outside the bunker? How does this connect to Cloverfield? (Answer: not very much). Because of a well done trailer, what could have been an overlooked gem found an audience.

Marketing a new property is hard, but how do you market a franchise film – films which often win or lose entirely on how much hype they can drum up from fans hungry for more? The trailer for the original Star Wars is rather odd, making it seem like a downbeat, gritty film more suited to a horror film than the fun and imaginative adventure the film actually is. Thirty years later, when the trailer for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released, online video streaming was much more primitive than today, which caused the bizarre phenomenon of people buying cinema tickets just to see the trailer, then leaving without watching the feature (the trailer was attached to the Bruce Willis thriller The Siege, which is a rather good film which they should have probably stayed to watch).

With the negative fan reception for the prequel trilogy, fan expectation during the production of The Force Awakens was mixed, until the teaser trailer was released one year before release. The teaser is made up of a few rapidly cut images to give the audience a taste of what this new chapter has to offer. The images are all of familiar iconography from the earlier films, designed to invoke nostalgia for the original trilogy, but with a new twist.

An unknown man wears Stormtrooper armour in the desert. A droid rolls around. Storm Troopers stare menacingly at the camera. A woman rides a hover bike. TIE fighters skim across a lake. A hooded figure powers up a Sith lightsabre – but with a crossguard. The Millennium Falcon soars as the Star Wars theme plays. The title card appears as the audience goes wild. This teaser was released a year before the film and successfully stoked conversation about the film in a positive direction, and away from comparisons with the prequel trilogy by invoking imagery from the original films.

Yet a good trailer doesn’t always translate into box office success. The best trailer of 2017 was for Blade Runner 2049, but that underperformed at the box office, despite being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. The trailer manages to give a feel for the tone and mood, without giving any plot details away. All the trailer tells the audience is: yes, this is a sequel to Blade Runner. A proper sequel! And it looks and sounds gorgeous! Harrison Ford is back! And Ryan Gosling is in it! And so is Jared Leto! But despite being an amazing trailer for an amazing film, it didn’t set the box office on fire. 

Despite all the advances in technology, the trailer has remained the best way to advertise film. In the age of YouTube and Internet streaming, they’ve arguably become more important than ever: in late 2017, the trailer for Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War was watched more than 200 million times in a single day, breaking all previous trailer viewing records.

So what makes a good trailer? The answer: balance. Building excitement while keeping some of the film’s cards close to its chest for later. A good trailer should give a feel for the tone and mood of a film, and give a hint of the plot. 

If a trailer leaves them wanting more, then it’s done the job. Film as a medium and as a business has changed so much over the past few decades, but the trailer is still what gets people in through the door.