What Makes a Great Trailer?


asteroid city

When you visit the cinema, there’s always been a certain joy to be had in seeing the trailers for upcoming films (ignoring those who purposefully turn up 10 minutes late). It’s a chance to catch a glimpse of the next big blockbuster and make a mental note of when you’ll be back.

However, in recent years, doesn’t it feel like a lot of movie trailers aren’t up to snuff? Perhaps those turning up 10 minutes late know something. Whether they’re too loud, too confusing, too long, or potentially just ruin the whole plot (this is happening far too much), some movie trailers seem to have lost their way. We’re here to show that with a bit of understanding and knowledge, it’s still possible to make a great trailer for the ages.

The importance of a great trailer?

Studios invest millions of dollars into the marketing and promotion of films in the hope that they’ll sell enough tickets and merchandise to turn a profit. So, before anything else, a trailer is a marketing tool. There’s perhaps no other marketing tool used to promote a film that is as influential as the trailer. If it leaves you wanting more and makes you think, “Yeah, I’ll buy a ticket for that,” it’s a great trailer. It’s just like any other piece of advertising, selling a product.

With that in mind, let’s get into the do’s and don’ts.

Show as little plot as possible

This is the number one problem with a lot of trailers in recent years. For two to three minutes, the trailer seems to act as a “mini-movie,” giving away all the important plot points and leaving you feeling as if you got the whole story already. It defeats the purpose of a trailer because rather than thinking “I can’t wait to see that and find out more,” you’re left wondering, “Why would I go and see that when I already know the whole plot?”

A trailer that felt very guilty about doing this was Spiderman Homecoming (2017). It just felt like an overall summary of the movie, revealing all of the plot points that should’ve been kept hidden to surprise the audience.

The decision to do this is a perplexing one. Can you imagine if the trailer for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) featured Darth Vader delivering the iconic line “No, I am your father”? If you’re making a trailer for a comedy film, don’t give away all of your best jokes. If it’s a sequel, don’t freely reveal huge plot points that the audience didn’t know at the end of the first film. If it’s a horror film, don’t reveal the monster! Why would anyone want to watch your film if you’ve left nothing to the imagination and created no mystery about the story?

Instead, you want to do just enough to tease an audience and leave them wanting more — that urge to fill in all of the blank spaces and explore the world that’s been created. You want to have your audience asking questions such as, “Who is that?”. . . “How does this work out?”. . . “What does that mean?”

The trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) did an excellent job at this. It’s full of suspense and mystery, none of the plot is given away and we’re left with plenty of questions we want answered.

Show off your best visuals

While you don’t want to reveal the whole plot and ruin the film before release, it’s okay to show off the visuals if you can do so in a sensitive way that won’t give the game away. Ultimately, movies are a visual medium, and you can entice an audience into watching them by showing off some of your best work in the trailer.

This technique can work particularly well if your trailer is for an action film that features huge set pieces and cutting-edge special effects. It’s not a secret that the best way to experience these moments is on the big screen — that’s a major selling point for your film, so don’t be afraid to show it. Rather than revealing the whole action sequence and all the big moments, you can just offer a glimpse or a taste that leaves the audience wanting more — that’s always the goal here.

Check out the trailer for Pacific Rim (2013). It’s big, brash, and bold. This is a film about giant human-controlled robots fighting giant monsters and boy, do we know about it. We’re given plenty of little teasers of the great special effects and action on display, making us keen to see the whole film on the biggest screen possible.

Market your talent

The other main reason an audience might be enticed to come and watch your film is that they’re a fan of a certain actor or director who’s been working on it. Identify your star talent on screen and make them front and center of the trailer, showing off the depth and range of their performance in your film. Even if a “big name” isn’t the main character in the story, just showing their face can be enough — the stamp of approval that makes someone think “Yep, I’ll buy a ticket to see that.” Just look at the trailer for Asteroid City (2023). It’s stacked full of great actors!

Similarly, suppose the film has been produced or directed by a well-known name in the industry (Steven Spielberg, for example). In that case, you might want to feature graphics and text such as “from legendary director Steven Spielberg.” In the case of Wes Anderson, people know immediately because of his unique style, but usually, don’t assume people know the director without telling them.

Another way to do this is to highlight their previous work. For example, in the trailer for The Creator (2023), we’re told that this movie is from the director of Rogue One (2016). I didn’t know that beforehand, but I loved Rogue One, and now, I’m more inclined to go check this out.

When to use graphics and voiceovers

You only have one or two minutes to entice an audience into watching your film, so every second counts. Using graphics and voiceovers in your trailer can help deliver extra vital information, as well as help to aid the story the trailer is trying to tell.

Of course, there are some very overused, tired clichés with this. Hollywood certainly went through a moment where it felt like every trailer used that “voiceover guy” to deliver the cheesy line “in a world…”

His name is Don Lafontaine. While he’s awesome at his job, trailers have evolved and moved on from that style nowadays. Here’s a mashup of Don’s trailers, along with a few other iconic voices who worked the “VO trailer guy” circuit:

What could set your trailer apart and work quite well is to use the voiceover from one of your characters in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio does a great job in this recent trailer for Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). The “Can you find the wolves in this picture?” speaks directly to us, inviting us into this world and this story.

Notice the simple but effective use of graphic text, too. It gives us the following important details:

How to use sound effects

Just like the film itself, music and sound effects can play a massive role in elevating your trailers. One of the most iconic, praised trailers is for the original Alien (1979). There’s no dialogue or music, just the use of terrifying sound effects, conveying the ominous, scary vibe of this iconic sci-fi horror.

Sound effects can go a long way in crafting the atmosphere and tone of a trailer. In what may be a homage to the Alien trailer, the teaser for Godzilla (2014) is equally intense, using simple but-terrifying risers that deliver us into this unsettling world before hearing that iconic roar at the end.

Notice how that trailer also utilizes sound effects that seem to dictate the cut. Various drones, otherwise known as “braaams” in the business set the pace of the trailer and reveal new scenes. This sound effect is now very common in the world of movie trailers, but it was originally used in Inception (2010).

And just to prove it really is being used everywhere, here’s a mashup…

Music matters

If your film is scored by someone as great as Hans Zimmer, then chances are you’d want to make use of that epic soundtrack in your trailer. On the other hand, some trailer editors go in another direction, picking out an iconic song that’s already well-known and either laying it directly over the trailer or remixing it. In The Creator (2023) trailer we hear a remixed version of “Dream On” by Aerosmith throughout.

For the John Wick: Chapter 4 (2022) trailer, we’re treated to a very different version of Westlife’s “Seasons In The Sun”. If you listen to the original, there’s no way you’d ever dream of using it for a trailer advertising the heavy-action-thriller world of John Wick.

And yet, this cinematic remix works seamlessly…

Just like sound effects, music can be used as a tool to craft the tone and atmosphere of a trailer, delivering further information to the audience about what type of film this is going to be.

What’s a bumper?

Last but not least, a relatively new phenomenon has happened in trailers in recent years. It’s a trailer… for the trailer. Known as a “bumper,” these 5–10 second flashes happen immediately at the start of the video, showing what’s going to happen in the trailer before the full trailer then plays.

Why on earth would editors cut their trailers like this? In the highly-competitive world of social media, where it’s becoming increasingly hard to hold people’s attention, the bumper is a way to grab someone’s attention and convince them that it’s worth watching the whole 2-minute trailer.

Here are a few examples:

Wrapping up

So, that’s everything you need to know about how to make a great trailer. It’s a fine balance between showing off your best moments and top talent while ensuring the plot remains a mystery and entices your audience, leaving them asking questions and wanting more.

It’s not an easy task, but with an understanding of how to market your talent, master sound effects, perfect music choice, and know when and where to use your graphics and voiceovers (if at all), you can craft something truly memorable, and a whole lot better than some of the trailers currently out there.

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