Five Staples of Cool Movie Trailers

Whether you realize it or not, there are very specific wrinkles that make certain movie trailers stand out above the rest.

Every Friday, I’m compiling a list of five things that meet one criterion. “What is that criterion,” you ask? Well, it’s going to change every week and you’re just going to have to try and keep up.

This week…

Five Staples of Cool Movie Trailers

I love movie trailers. I think most people underestimate the creativity involved with crafting them and, as such, don’t pay these miniature cinematic commercials as much attention as they deserve; there should be Academy Awards for trailers. I am completely serious.

Conversely, most people fail to realize that there is such a thing as a bad trailer. Even when promoting a good movie, trailers can fail miserably. A few good examples:

  • any trailer in which a narrator reads along with words on the screen
  • any trailer where the words on the screen are completely unnecessary, as the information conveyed in those words is painfully obvious to anyone with eyeballs
  • any trailer where massive story points are given away for no reason
  • any trailer that combines any of the three examples listed above

Thus, I would like to make it clear that there are characteristics of a trailer that, while they may not necessarily guarantee a good final product, are undoubtedly present in most every enjoyable film trailer I've ever witnessed in my lifetime (hyperbole may have contributed to that statement). Five of these characteristics are listed below.

5. A montage of “hero shots” featuring every principal character in the film, complete with actor credits.

This whirlwind of famous faces usually appears just after the story is laid out with one definitive line of dialogue (example: “we have no choice – we must drill to the center of the Earth!”) and is accompanied by a change of pace, on the soundtrack. The best trailers manage to find a moment for each actor wherein they turn dramatically towards/away from the camera completely in rhythm with the music.

Show me how it’s done:

One of the trailers for Sin City is positively overflowing with hero shots (starting at around the 1-minute mark) and may stand forever as the right way to pull this off. State of Play is another recent film that carried this out pretty well (just after the 2-minute mark, here).

4. When the trailer contains scenes or moments that are not part of the feature film.

It’s difficult to assess just how little is revealed in a trailer until after you’ve seen the feature film, weeks or months later. However, whether the trailer is basically a tiny short film that introduces audiences to characters with completely original material OR if you later discover that the trailer contained scenes/moments that largely just didn’t make their way into the movie you paid to see… you feel like the movie was better for it, as you went into the theater unknowingly aware of the fact that you have seen less of the movie you just paid to see. It’s complicated. But it’s good.

I should point out, though, that it can sometimes be annoying when iconic or cool moments are presented in a trailer, only to then be removed from the final cut and sentenced to the “deleted scenes” section on a future DVD release (in May, io9 ran down a good list of these sorts of omissions from recent, big-budget movies).

Show me how it’s done:

In addition to being great at everything else, Pixar is exceedingly fantastic at going out of their way to make all promotional material unique – one of their best “this is just for trailer purposes” efforts being the first teaser for The Incredibles.

3. A line of powerful dialogue over black screen.

This gimmick is particularly common amongst action, superhero, or war films – basically any flick that aims to astound with visuals. You see, when the movie is loaded with so much eye candy, nothing drives home a goosebump-inducing declaration better than (ironically) the sudden elimination of all that impressive visual stimuli with a hard cut to a black screen. I wish I could recreate this, in my life, by making people close their eyes when I say something profound.

Show me how it’s done:

Recent years gave us both Watchmen and Revenge of the Sith, the trailers for which fantastically embodied the momentary notion of “this line is so momentous, no visual presentation can match the power of its purely aural stimulation.”

2. When little to nothing about the movie’s plot is revealed.

This is a particularly noteworthy concept in the year 2009, when so very many movie trailers blatantly give away important plot details for no real reason.

(Tangent: I don’t want to place trailer-spoiler blame on those involved in the film or its promotional material, entirely – this trend could very well be a reactionary measure due to the fact that today’s audiences are generally pretty dumb and want things spelled out for them, even if it means eliminating surprise. Whatever.)

Anyway, when trailers choose to keep us in the dark, they also are generally far more interesting. No expository dialogue? Awesome. No real information at all? Perfect. No voiceover? Fantastic. Whet my appetite and I can promise you that I, at the least, won’t instantly hate your movie.

Show me how it’s done:

Cloverfield is probably the Muhammad Ali of this category, as not only was the trailer a clusterbomb of “ok, what in the hell is going on?” but the movie itself wasn’t even named in the trailer and precisely nothing else was known about the production, at the time the trailer premiered (people weren’t even aware of the trailer’s existence before they saw it).

The teaser trailer for Garden State is another noteworthy model of “just buy a ticket and figure it out yourself,” as it is essentially an aesthetically pleasing music video aimed at the target demographic that spoils nothing.

It’s prudent to also again praise the aforementioned Revenge of the Sith teaser, at this point, as it managed to encompass #2, 3, and 4 on this list in a 90-second reel. In addition to employing “words-over-black screen” and half of its footage coming from other movies (crazy), the first glimpse at Episode III explained very little about the movie’s details, as there’s only five words of dialogue spoken amidst all the cool visuals. Good work, Mr. Lucas.

1. A voiceover that leads into the title.

This treat is almost nowhere to be found, anymore. I can’t understand the reasoning behind this unfortunate development, however, as a voiceover that leads into the film’s title is way too much fun. Plus, it’s not like voiceovers, as a whole, are out of style – they’re as prevalent and obvious as ever. Oh well. Thankfully, we'll always have YouTube and the trailers of voiceover past because when the voiceover is specific and poetic enough to unfold itself into a haunting vocalization of the film’s title… that’s when you know you’re watching a cool trailer.

Show me how it’s done:

The original Jaws trailer has TWO (!) examples that are both positively righteous:

  • “It is as if God created the Devil and gave him… Jaws.
  • “None of man’s fantasies of evil can compare with the reality… of Jaws.

The crown jewel of everything mentioned on this list, however, is the first trailer for Jurassic Park. It contains trailer-exclusive footage, it spoils none of the movie’s moments (providing only the backstory for the science involved), and the voiceover leads into the title. Also, dinosaurs. Boom. Perfect. On top of all of that, the trailer ends with the promise “this summer, director Steven Spielberg will take you there” which — let’s just be honest – is arguably the greatest thing a human being can be told.

Justin Brown

Justin Brown is an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook