I love movie trailers. Love ’em. These days, I don’t find myself going to the theater all that often, and I’ve replaced a lot of my pop culture consumption time with television (the list of shows I really want to check out is getting a little frightening, and includes, shamefully, both True Detective AND Orphan Black.) But I still watch a lot of movie trailers. Partly because it’s easy, partly because it’s a very low time investment, and partly because there’s something incredibly artful about the good ones.
You see, a movie trailer is actually a pretty tough needle to thread when you really think about it. You’re trying to entice an audience into seeing something 2 hours long by showing them something 2 minutes long. And that audience is comprised of people whose knowledge of the movie ranges from “know literally nothing about it” to “have written fanfiction based on the book it’s based on.” Not only that, but you have to convince people that there’s something interesting there while withholding enough plot and/or character detail so as not to ruin the movie. (A lot of trailers seem to have given up on this last part.)
So what really goes into a great trailer? What makes a great one so effective? Can we break down the elements of a great trailer into separate parts or ideas? Let’s find out.
Know your audience, apathy = death, and set the right tone
Here’s a trailer for one of the best sci-fi comedies of all time, a movie with a basically perfect cast, chock-full of homages to the cultural touchstone Star Trek and clever references to classic sci-fi tropes: Galaxy Quest. And yet, the trailer is possibly the most generic, bland, off-putting piece of tripe I’ve ever seen. How could it go so wrong? Practically every moment in Galaxy Quest is a gem, how is it even possible to whiff this badly?
1. Terrible music. The music sets the tone, and for a trailer, tone is everything. They picked music that was dated when Back to the Future came out, and whose immediate tone screams “this movie is for children.” Wrong demo target, guys. By a freaking mile.
2. Telling, not showing. You’ve got a voice-over that basically lays out the plot of the movie, which is akin to starting an Olympic fencing duel by punching your opponent in the face. It might get the job done, but it’s hardly an elegant solution.
3. Not giving the jokes room to breathe. Galaxy Quest is chock-full of amazing, hilarious moments, and some of them are slapstick or visual, but the vast majority have to do with comic timing. The scene where they take the ship out of port and scrape the side of the dock is a moment that’s amazing if you see the whole thing, but it falls flat as a 3-second joke in the trailer.
See how much setup that moment needs? The grand scale, the solemn occasion, the gradual realization, the slow, almost imperceptible drift at first…and then the contact, and the horrible scraping noise that goes on for way, way longer than you think it would. It’s a perfect buildup and perfect execution for about 30 reasons, and none of them are ever going to come through in a 2-second clip. Now, if you based the entire trailer around that scene – sped through the “fading, out of work TV stars stumble into sci-fi movie based on their TV show” angle and then just played about 90 seconds of that scene, that might work.
Trailers are about the sizzle, not the steak
…and in the movie world, music is to sizzle as content is to steak. What I mean is, the right song can make or break your trailer. What do these trailers have in common?
They all lean heavily on a single piece of music to create a mood, and boy do they ever create one. For Wolf of Wall Street, it’s excessive, playful, and debauched. For Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it’s dark, edgy, and secretive. For Where The Wild Things Are, it’s wistful, melancholy, and nostalgic.