Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What makes a great trailer?

AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

This week’s question comes from reader Elna McIntosh:

Recently, I watched Nightcrawler, which I loved, and was somehow inspired to immediately re-watch the first teaser trailer for it, which I had remembered as being great. Seeing it again, it was. It really communicated the tone and atmosphere of the movie, without giving away crucial details. What do you think makes a great trailer, and which trailer would you consider an embodiment of that element?


Alex McCown

As a huge fan of Hal Douglas, Don LaFontaine, and the movie trailer voice-over in general, I do mourn the days—which don’t seem to be returning anytime soon—when a perfect timbre would tell you what you were in for. So instead, I want to stump for trailers that don’t give you anything except footage from the film. No intertitles, no hand-holding, just a smartly assembled montage that conveys everything to get you excited for a film without a single, “Don was a guy unlucky in love,” in 80-point font, or whatever. By that measure, Cloverfield has one hell of a trailer. Consisting of a few well-edited shots from the film’s first 10 minutes, it brilliantly sells its found-footage monster movie conceit without feeling the need to explain everything. J.J. Abrams rightly gets a lot of shit for his over-reliance on the puzzle box conceit, but for a trailer, it’s a killer hook when done right.


Cameron Scheetz

Trailers for sci-fi movies and films with fantastical elements always have the added pressure of acclimating audiences to the altered rules of their world, while still hinting at the plots and characters driving the narrative. This can be a lot to juggle, as some trailers prove, eschewing any sort of explanation for whizzbang effects and the dramatic “BRAAAAHM,” all too common in post-Inception cinema. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (literally) approaches this head-on by having Tom Wilkinson’s Dr. Mierzwiak speak directly to the camera in a faux commercial for Lacuna Inc., introducing the film’s fictional memory-erasing procedure. It’s a cheeky bit of exposition that hooks the viewer and then launches them straight into a bouncy montage of some of Michel Gondry’s more striking visuals, accompanied by Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” (which is always welcome in my book). While I appreciate the art of a tasteful teaser, sometimes I just want to be told exactly what the hell is going on.


Sam Barsanti

My answer happens to be the opposite of Cameron’s: I like a trailer that doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on, but teases some of a movie’s coolest or most interesting moments without context. I’m talking about stuff like the Hulkbuster reveal in one of the Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailers. Why is Iron Man fighting the Hulk? We have no idea, but it looks great. The best example of this, though, comes from a different superhero movie, and it’s a trailer that actually doesn’t show anything but a familiar logo: the initial teaser for The Dark Knight. It’s very simple but very powerful, and it’s all because it spoils one of the movie’s greatest lines: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” In less than a minute it establishes the tone of the movie and Heath Ledger’s Joker, all without a glimpse of the cape and cowl or a purple suit.


Katie Rife

I’m a huge fan of those vintage exploitation trailer compilations—42nd Street Forever forever—largely out of respect for the old-fashioned art of carny hucksterism, whose inelegant bluntness is downright refreshing compared to the more insidious machinations of viral marketing. Like all advertising, it’s all icing and no cake. But at least these guys are up front about it. Ergo, my favorite trailer of all time: A fake TV news spot advertising the drive-in double feature of I Dismember Mama and The Blood-Spattered Bride. The trailer has little to nothing to do with either of the films, an inept proto-slasher (the former) and a sleazy Spanish vampire movie (the latter). Instead, the trailer takes the form of a fake news broadcast, as an “anchor” describes the mayhem at a local theater after a local man was driven insane by the double feature in question. It’s a beautiful symphony of Noo Yawk accents, early ’70s fashions, and corny character work. And did I mention the upchuck cup available to patrons who get sick from all the violence on screen? That’s some tasty icing.


Zack Handlen

I’m big on mood. By now, most trailers have established such routine beats that they tend to wash over me in a wave: “Oh, here’s the hero, there’s some conflict, there’s the big triumphant song, there’s the haunting/mysterious/inspiring closer.” So I prefer my trailers to give me something that pulls me in without relying on obvious tricks, like playing rousing music over scenes of someone doing something exciting (it works on me, but I resent it). I didn’t see the trailer for the original Alien in theaters, but it does an amazing job of selling exactly what the movie feels like without ever falling back on plot summary or cliché. I especially like the way the trailer shows brief clips from the movie out of sequence, constructing a new narrative from them that conveys just how fucking terrifying Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is without offering any reassuring story beats or obvious protagonists. It’s just a nightmare, pure and simple.


Becca James

Unlike Zach, I’m all for the obvious tricks of trailers, especially the “big triumphant song” part, which is why I’m never late to a movie. This does make it difficult to pin down a favorite trailer, though, as I’m equally excited by most of them. I do have an especial fondness for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette trailer, and a lot of that is owed to its inclusion of New Order’s Ceremony. Follow up that memorable bass line with a heartstring tugging voice-over of Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) saying, “Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness,” and I’m instantly transported back to 2006, a time when trailer clichés were gaining traction with me, a recently licensed driver ready to hit the theaters without much in the way of critical discernment.


Joshua Alston

The trailer for Todd Field’s Little Children remains one of my all-time favorites because of how well it uses unorthodox sound design to its advantage. Not much actually happens in the trailer, though it’s clear Patrick Wilson’s character is having an affair with Kate Winslet’s and there’s at least one scene involving a child’s craft project. Paired with music, it wouldn’t be effective at all. But the ominous sound of a speeding freight train creates incredible tension, especially coupled with the innocuous image of Wilson’s character and his son racing toy trains toward an inevitable collision. The trailer sells a dramatic conflict that it barely offers glimpses of, a trick most trailers attempt but very few actually pull off.


Erik Adams

This is an odd thing to ask of something with audio and moving pictures, but I love a trailer that makes me read. Onscreen text that isn’t a title or a credit is a rarity in contemporary full-length trailers; these days, you’re more likely to see it in teasers, where a tell-more-than-you’re-showing strategy pays off. Riffing on the screaming headlines of vintage Hollywood advertisements, Pablo Ferro reduced the hard sell to its basic components in trailers for Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, stringing brief flashes of single words into explanations and illustrations, juxtapositions and obfuscations. His Strangelove triumph is especially impressive considering the number of punchlines it reveals, from Major Kong’s fateful ride to General Ripper’s obsession with “precious bodily fluids.” Ferro probably figured that moviegoers were too busy puzzling out the chopped-up ad copy to notice.


Will Harris

You almost never see this sort of trailer in theaters anymore (although you’ll sometimes see films doing them for YouTube now as part of an online marketing campaign), but I love trailers that are their own entity. By that, I mean that they don’t actually feature footage from the film but instead involve someone—either an unseen narrator or, more likely, someone from the cast of the film—trying to sell you on seeing it all by themselves. To my mind, no one does this better than Albert Brooks, and of the occasions that he’s used this tactic, my favorite is definitely Real Life: You may not have any real idea what the film is about by the time the trailer is over, but you know that Brooks is hilarious, and you know that he directed, co-wrote, and co-stars in the film, which is going to be enough for most people to say, “All right, I’m sold.” And isn’t that what a good trailer’s supposed to do?


Mike Vago

This is specific to franchise movies, but I’m a sucker for repurposing old dialogue. Who among you didn’t get chills when you heard Luke Skywalker solemnly intone “The Force is strong in my family…” over footage from The Force Awakens? (And it should have been the first sign of trouble that the trailer for The Phantom Menace started with anything other than Alec Guinness recalling,For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times… before the Empire.”) Likewise, while the film itself didn’t live up to expectations, who could help but be excited by the trailer for Superman Returns, with Marlon Brando speaking from beyond the grave as Jor-El (also speaking from beyond the grave), as we got our first glimpses of Superman on a movie screen in nearly 20 years. The archival voice-over serves two purposes. For one, it allows the filmmakers to show off visuals from the new film without revealing any new dialogue, generating excitement without giving away a shred of plot. It also sends a message to the audience: You know those original movies you loved? This new movie hasn’t forgotten about why you loved them.


William Hughes

A great trailer isn’t just an ad for a movie; it’s its own beautiful short film. Like any good short, then, the key to building a successful trailer is pacing, which is what makes the preview for Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2009 film A Serious Man so God damned good. Underscored by the bass drum beat of cosmic plaything Larry Gopnik slamming into a chalkboard over and over again, the trailer deploys a series of rapid, rhythmic cuts to rush viewers through its world of mid-’60s Jewish unease. Scenes repeat, cars slam into each other, and rabbi’s “Bah!” as the relentless pounding drives the tension to a point of almost complete unbearableness. Then, just as a film-assisted panic attack sets in, the mounting collage of anxiety abruptly falls away, and the trailer delivers its quiet, laconic punchline. The audience has half a second to let the contrast fizzle through their minds, then Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” comes blaring out, speeding the whole thing to its surprisingly triumphant end.


Caroline Siede

Trailers rely on clichés even more so than the films they promote; after all, they have to condense a lot of information into a very short window. But set those clichés to a surprising music choice and the whole thing suddenly feels fresh. “Hooked On A Feeling” instantly set the Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer apart from every other superhero preview in recent memory. And that choral cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” gave The Social Network trailer both gravitas and a certain cool je ne sais quoi. It even goes so far as to make the film’s horribly cheesy tagline—“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”—feel like a thoughtful commentary on an epic battle of wills.


Jesse Hassenger

Piggybacking on Caroline’s answer, I’m especially fond of trailers that are able to use their short running time and lack of storytelling objectives to experiment with things we don’t often see in mainstream movies, like several minutes on end dominated by music rather than dialogue, as in the original trailer for Kill Bill (released prior to the decision to split the movie in two). Obviously plenty of movies—Quentin Tarantino’s included—make great, extended use of music, and obviously I’m not especially pining for a Tarantino movie without his distinctive dialogue writing. But for a couple of minutes, the Kill Bill trailer feels as much like pure cinema as any of the individual and brilliant sequences in the movie itself, especially for the way it’s really cut to the music—again, something movies can do outside of trailers, but rarely for such a sustained period. Trailers like this are another reason I feel disappointed when they explain a movie beat by beat; not only does it drain some sense of surprise out of the actual moviegoing experience, but it means the filmmakers (or advertisers or whoever) are ditching the opportunity to create something more distinctive and cinematic that can, at its best, be as beautiful as the movie itself.


LaToya Ferguson

As much as I love a good trailer that packs so much in you can’t help but wonder what’s left in the movie (Wolf Of Wall Street and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation come to mind as recent examples), sometimes all you really need is a good teaser for a hook. 1998’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but its teaser trailer is definitely the scariest (and best) thing about it and possibly both movies. I Know What You Did Last Summer was a fun ’90s teen slasher film (the type you’ll watch if it’s on TNT and nothing else is on) that paled in comparison to Scream, but teaser trailer for its sequel somehow managed to elevate the material and actually argue why a sequel could or should even exist. A major part of that is that, it’s basically what the sequel probably should have been—a movie factoring in Julie’s (Jennifer Love Hewitt) PTSD—and what it completely ended up not being. A teaser trailer that actually does its job and gets you psyched to see a movie (especially one you wouldn’t be excited for otherwise) isn’t as simple as one would think (the laziest ones are the teaser trailers for Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, go figure), but this one gets it, even if the actual movie doesn’t.


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