Movie trailers. We see them by the dozens every time we watch a film in a theater. A trailer can provide great entertainment but also serve as an important marketing tool for filmmakers.
We spoke with three editors, all of whom have extensive experience working with movie trailers, to get their perspective on movie trailers today.
We’ll be hearing from:
- Ryan Connolly of Film Riot. If you’ve ever looked for a filmmaking or editing tutorial, there’s a good chance you’ve discovered one of Ryan’s videos. In addition to their YouTube channel, Film Riot also has a terrific blog covering helpful topics ranging from pre-production all the way through post-production.
- Patrick Moreau of Muse Storytelling. They recently launched the official trailer for The Highest of Stakes, which launched to 25 theater screens nationwide before expanding to more markets in its second week, making 116 screens total.
- Chris MacDonald of Film Editing Pro. They have a 46-lesson course called The Art of Trailer Editing, which walks students through every aspect of putting together a trailer, including offering sample footage to work with to create your own trailer.
What aspects of a trailer make one great?
Ryan: The music and the pacing are major factors. I think the music is probably one of the biggest factors in that. The music doesn’t have to actually be a needle drop song; [instead] it could be the use of sound design. The use of sound from the film creates the music for the trailer itself and creates the pacing of how the trailer unfolds.
Pacing is paramount as well. I think the mystery is subconsciously asking a question of some kind, planting a seed in the audience’s mind that has this idea that they need to be answered. [Giving them] some sort of mystery that will pull them to the theaters. Because the ultimate job of a trailer is to get butts in seats or get clicks if it’s something on the Internet.
Patrick: At Muse, we have a thing that we call ‘the who gives a shit? meter’ and that’s about looking at any kind of content across mediums and asking yourself how much it’s really pulling you in, making you ask questions and caring in any way.
The number one aspect of a trailer, for us, would be that you have to get your audience’s ‘who gives a shit meter’ going as far off the charts as you can.
Visuals, SFX, soundtrack, and pacing all play into that—but that is more about characters and conflict, and all of it coming together to make your audience care and want to know more. It sounds simpler than it really is—, but when you get that, you have to motivate them enough to plop down $15, drive to a theater, and give 2 hours of their time. You really need to get that “WGAS” meter going.
Chris: A great trailer is one that tells the film’s story quickly and understandably by using the best ingredients the film has to offer.
With comedy, that means you’re telling the story by weaving together the funniest moments in a way that conveys the plot, typically supported by graphic cards and occasionally narration to tie it all together. Action uses the biggest, most exciting moments. Suspense moves you from scare to scare while explaining the plot.
Trailers of all genres will typically save the biggest, funniest, scariest moment for the end, right before the main title lands. The entire arrangement of these moments is made enjoyable to watch and seamless via the heavy use of music and sound to drive the cut forward at a pace that’s faster than the story would typically be told.
When an editor can include all these great moments in a rhythmic and natural-feeling way, you’ve typically got a great trailer on your hands. It also helps if the movie is good.
What recent trailers stand out to you as great?
Ryan: There are a lot of really awesome, more current trailers. Hereditary is a huge one.
That trailer was really brilliant, and its use of sound and the music that they chose was very brilliant.
I think all of Jordan Peele’s trailers are excellent: Us, Get Out, Nope. All of them really ramp up that mystery to get you to want to know what that is. But also, his selection of music is some of the best out there currently.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was a really great one, really great use of song and really great pacing. It got the tone of the trailer across.
Mad Max: Fury Road, I thought, had such an amazing kinetic energy to it that really told you what you were going to get into with the film without giving away too much. It all translated into the trailer. That worked really well.
Patrick: I have a personal policy of shutting off a trailer the moment I know I want to watch a film. They often tend to give away too much and so I usually only watch 15 to 20 seconds, and it tells me enough about whether or not I want to watch the film.
The trailer for Top Gun: Maverick is one of those examples where it’s not traditionally a film I would see; however, within the first 30 seconds, I was hooked, shut it off, and then went to the theater that week to check it out.
Chris: Oppenheimer Trailer 1 worked particularly well and had the added benefit of a great visual motif to accompany the storytelling and musicality of the piece. We recently deconstructed this trailer and analyzed it a bit on our channel.
Which classic trailers stand out to you?
Ryan: I thought Inception was an absolutely brilliant trailer. Obviously, that shifted things quite a bit when it came to trailers. A lot of people mimicked how Inception sort of went about its marketing.
And then there’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, [whose] use of music drove the whole piece. You get that quick cutting, hammer driving the nail into your skull, which translated perfectly into what the film actually was without giving away a ton.
Going a little further back, speaking of tonally and the use of sound, I think Little Children is a really excellent trailer. It uses sound as music, and it’s maybe tonally one of the most incredible trailers. Its use of sound is really perfect to drive that growing sense of dread and asks so many questions.
The Shining is a brilliant trailer where it’s just one shot of the elevator, and the blood opens up and it’s just text. It asks a litany of questions that are screaming to be answered.
Patrick: I find it fun to go back to classic trailers, such as the one for Rocky, and you can see the principles of story structure and something like The Hero’s Journey at play inside of that three-minute trailer.
They’re very old school in style and don’t play like a modern trailer at all – they kinda look like film scenes mashed together – but as a way of learning about structure, they’re wild to watch.
Chris: I don’t know if it’s been long enough for this to be a classic yet, but the entire campaign of teasers and trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road was a beautiful and well-executed series of cuts that accomplished everything [I’ve mentioned about trailers].
What are your thoughts on how much should be revealed? Are the best trailers just emotional rides with no insight into the story? Or do great trailers give you a little taste?
Ryan: Some of the trailers that I’ve mentioned don’t really give you that much of a taste of the story but more of the tone of the film. Some give a whole lot of story. I’m not a big fan of giving too much away because you’re then detracting from the actual experience.
The marketing team is just trying to get butts in seats and make back the budget of the film, of course. But I think a perfect trailer has little hints at what the film will be about. But more than anything else, I think the most important thing for me with the trailer as far as what to convey to an audience it’s not necessarily about story plot points but conveying what sort of experience [the audience is] going to be in for.
Conveying that is paramount. Above all else is, “What is the thing that’s going to get them to click?” I think it is an exciting trailer that grabs you but also asks questions and plants little mysteries in your mind that you will feel then feel compelled to solve.
Patrick: I believe that the commercial answer is that you do what you have to do to get somebody to watch the film. But we personally don’t subscribe to the clickbait model where you’re less concerned about whether or not the person who checked out your content actually feels like they got value and had a good experience.
We very much try to set up a strong story with a good deal of intrigue while leaving a lot more for the final film so that we are delivering on that experience.
Chris: There are multiple types of trailers. Each has the same goal of presenting the film in a way that will entice a person to see the film, TV show, doc, etc. All seek to generate an emotional response from a viewer en route to that goal, whether the response is laughter, excitement, fear, nostalgia, or just a feeling of “I want to live in the world of that film for 90-120 minutes”.
Shorter promotional pieces like teasers live up to their name and tease just a bit of the plot while focusing mostly on generating emotion. Often, this is a strategic marketing decision as much as it is a logistical one.
Many times, when a teaser is being created and often even released, much of the movie has yet to be filmed. Occasionally, teasers are largely graphical and use little to no actual footage from the film. The majority of trailers, however, focus on telling a shortened version of the story, highlighting the best parts, whether they’re jokes, scares, or action set-pieces.
A common complaint is that “the trailer spoiled the film.” That’s a subjective statement and one I think is rarely true. If a trailer makes a movie/show look appealing to a viewer and doesn’t reveal a critical plot point, like the main character dying, it’s done its job. Watching a film is about the journey and experience. If a 2-minute and 30-second trailer can ruin that entire experience for a viewer, the movie/show probably didn’t have much to offer and wasn’t worth watching in the first place. That viewer should probably just thank the trailer editor for saving them $15 and 2 hours of their time!
You are also a filmmaker and content creator. What storytelling and editorial tricks/techniques can movie trailers teach us to use in our day-to-day work, whether short/feature films, YouTube videos, or branded/commercial content?
Ryan: The main thing is capturing the audience’s attention. Trailers do such a great job at that. They come in fast, gripping you, and then try to keep you there for the entire runtime of the trailer because it’s trying to sell something to you.
But it’s an emotional journey, you know? That’s what’s going to do it the most. Whether I’m writing the script for a feature or I’m making a short film, that’s always an aspect of the thing that I’m thinking of, keeping every possible moment compelling to some degree. Not saying that the moments are screaming at you, and they’re all loud action moments, but even when it’s a quiet moment between two people talking, what are the under-beds of theme and conflict there? Maybe that’s keeping the scene intensely compelling. And I think trailers do that just unbelievably well.
Patrick: From a storytelling perspective, we very much focus on character and conflict, as in how can we show you a character that you love or that you love to hate, but more so that you want to know more about.
And then how can we constantly bring in conflict, which, from a psychological perspective, creates a question in the viewer’s mind? If you can create a character that the audience feels connected to and a bunch of questions they want the answer to, it’s very much how we can motivate somebody to want to watch our film.
I believe the common mistake is that we vastly underestimate how much conflict is required both in a strong trailer and in a strong feature film.
Chris: I find myself drawing on trailer editing techniques constantly while creating content for our training school Film Editing Pro. Obviously, promotional pieces benefit from trailer-style editing, but even YouTube intros, lesson transitions, and the overall pacing of training videos and tutorials draw on the skills of the trailer world. This is a bit of a “meta” example, but this tutorial on How to Cut a Movie Trailer makes heavy use of trailer-style editing to keep the viewer engaged throughout the lesson.
So what makes a trailer great?
The answer is complicated. Every editor we spoke to gave a different answer, but the main thing that connects all of the answers is that a trailer needs to make you feel something and get you excited.
Ryan and Chris both pointed out Mad Max: Fury Road as a trailer to look at for understanding how to tell a story with tone, sound, and music.
The main takeaway is that if your storytelling hooks an audience, they will likely want to see your movie.
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Brian is a director, producer, and editor based in Los Angeles. He runs a boutique production company called Forge and Discover, which works with brands of all sizes in helping to tell their stories. He’s also one of the trainers at filmeditingpro.com, where he teaches various editing techniques and conducts demonstrations.