What Makes a Good Movie Trailer?

We take a look of what mades a good (and ultimately a bad) trailer...

A couple of years ago, BriTANicK.com created a three and a half minute ‘Trailer for Every Academy Award Winning Movie Ever’ (see below), which currently has over a million views on YouTube. The video is a parody and hugely entertaining – from the music to the editing, this is indeed an example of what a lot of movie trailers do to grab the attention of their intended audience. But what makes a really good movie trailer? And what are the difficulties that arise in creating one? Here are three simple rules to follow, when creating a successful movie trailer.

Rule 1: Don’t Give Too Much Away

One major difficulty in creating a good movie trailer is not giving too much of the plot away. While capturing the audiences’ attention is vital, giving away too much of the plot can actually be damaging to viewers’ enjoyment of the movie. Typing ‘movie trailers which give too much away’ into Google results in blog post after blog post, and forum discussion after forum discussion of people listing the names of trailers that basically reveal the entire plot of the film in one go. One particularly strong example is the 2009 Judd Apatow film Funny People with Adam Sandler, Seth Rogan and Leslie Mann. The trailer goes through the events of the film in perfect chronology, detailing the revelation that George (Sandler) is dying, following with the various things he goes through until it is revealed that he has been cured. One of the major plot twists in Funny People, then, is revealed in the trailer. While this might not necessarily stop people going to see the film, it most definitely takes away from the excitement of watching the film knowing absolutely nothing about this twist. I can’t imagine M. Night Shyamalan having included the moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis realises that he is dead in the trailer for the movie. The past decade then, has seen film trailers filled with more and more plot twists and turns, and many people online seem to think this is far from a good thing.

Rule 2: Don’t Be Too Cryptic

In complete opposition to Rule 1, being too cryptic in a film trailer can be just as problematic as being giving too much away. The earliest trailers for this year’s summer blockbuster Super 8 were initially criticized for not giving enough away (see Stuart Heritage’s blog post ‘Is Super 8 Leaving it Too Late?). Not giving enough away in a trailer for a film by a director/producer combination like JJ Abrams and Steven Speilberg can lead to such incessant debate that the film can often end up being a bit of a let-down, and without good reason. A perfectly good film, whose trailer has been misleadingly complicated can end up being less exciting than fans anticipated, simply because the trailer has caused an unprecedented amount of hype. Conversely, a film with a cryptic trailer by a less well known director can end up attracting a far smaller audience than it should, simply because the trailer fails to catch the attention of its intended audience… which leads me to…

Rule 3: Speak to your Intended Audience

While a trailer should avoid giving away too much of the film’s best material, it should most definitely be aimed at the group who will most appreciate the film. Put a little something for everyone in there, to ensure that the film does not appear to be excluding certain groups – if it’s a typically masculine action flick, throw in a couple of moments of a potential romance or an unexpectedly funny moment to ensure that cinemas will not only be filled with 18 to 24 year old male viewers when the movie is released. Saying that, it is important to make sure that a trailer appeals to the demographic who are most likely to enjoy the film. Comedies should withhold the best jokes, but give away enough funny material that comedy film fans will be left wanting more. The same goes for a rom-com – set the couple up well enough in the trailer, without spelling out the hows, whens and whys of the moment they actually get together, and your audience will already be intrigued to find out more about the characters. Most importantly of all, set up the characters well. The trailer can be filled with as much slapstick humour, as many car chases or loving gazes across a ballroom as possible, but without making sure the audience gets enough access to the protagonist, the trailer may fall short of really capturing viewers’ interest. Characterisation is a key element of any film, television programme or book, so allowing the audience to get to know just enough about the character in the trailer to leave them wanting more is always a good idea!

So there you have it, three simple rules to creating a really successful movie trailer. Here are three relatively recent examples of (arguably) well-made film trailers (whether or not the films live up to the trailers is something perhaps worth debating another time) which immediately set up the movies as worth watching…

1. The Village (d. M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

2. Inception (d. Christopher Nolan, 2010)

3. 500 Days of Summer (d. Marc Webb, 2009)

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