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Top 10 Elements of a Good Movie Trailer

Updated on January 1, 2010

Movie trailers, their secret weapons, and why we fall for them (almost every time!)

This list details the top ten elements of a good movie trailer. This is by no means the top ten elements of a good movie - that would only require two elements: beautiful people and vampires. The movie trailer stands alone as its own work of art. It defines, in about two minutes or less (especially for TV spots), a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie itself, but makes us believe that it does. It then goes on to hypnotize us via subliminal messages, imagery, and eardrum-shattering sound into never asking for our money back. Ever. Brilliant!

Photo courtesy of Travelin' Librarian

I've organized this list starting with Movie Trailer Element #10 and counting down to #1. Also included throughout the list are actual trailers to demonstrate my point (whatever the hell that is.)

Welcome, sucka!

Welcome, sucka!
Welcome, sucka!

Types of trailers

The different forms of "hypnosis"

Before we get into this top ten list, realize that there are different types of what we call "trailers" (also known as "coming attractions" or "previews.") They include (but are not limited to <-- my lawyer made me type that) the following main categories:

  • Theatrical - those that play in a theater and are only made for punctual people
  • TV Spots - these play on TV (during commercial breaks) and are intended to prevent you from ever going to the bathroom
  • Consumer - these are usually at the beginning of DVDs and sometimes upset you by preventing you from fast-forwarding past them
  • In-store - these are created for the impulse buyer and usually play near the DVDs that you had no idea you were about to buy

Within these four categories, there are sub categories such as teasers (Theatrical/TV Spots), critics (TV spots), branding (Consumer/In-store), home entertainment (TV Spots,) and many more. However, in general (and for your sanity), these are all considered trailers and will be referred to as such in this list.

Movie trailers are for punctual people

Movie trailers are for punctual people
Movie trailers are for punctual people

Movie Trailer Element #10

The opening sound

The initial sound FX is designed to immediately grab your attention. It's the "aural setup," if you will, and will instantly let you know if you'll be hangin' with your friends or going on a date to see this one. Here's a quick guide:

  • Drum hit = bring your friends
  • Bell/light hit = bring your date
  • Crescendo/rising hit = bring your pillow

Sound FX set the mood

Sound FX set the mood
Sound FX set the mood

"Cop Out" Movie Trailer - Sometimes the opening sound can be deceiving

Movie Trailer Element #9

The music (that's not in the movie)

This element is sometimes used to trick you into buying the soundtrack. It's a long standing inside-joke among movie marketing people. Before iTunes, the trailer editors (and their evil producers) used to stand by the entrance of a record shop and laugh at everyone that walked out with the Footloose soundtrack. This ritual has since evolved and carried over to the annual Golden Trailer Awards where everyone in attendance wears a Kevin Bacon t-shirt under their buttoned down tie-less outfits.

Trailer music almost 100% not in the movie

Trailer music almost 100% not in the movie
Trailer music almost 100% not in the movie

Movie Trailer Element #8

The quick cut

When a movie is boring, you either make a long-ass trailer or cut as many scenes as you can into 2 minutes or less; Or both. When used in combination with the next Movie Trailer Element, the epileptic cut, it can be as effective as pre-Guiliani Times Square in almost instantly making you whip out your wallet for some excitement.

Sometimes it's all a blur

Sometimes it's all a blur
Sometimes it's all a blur

"Vantage Point" Movie Trailer - The quick cut assassinates the storyline

Movie Trailer Element #7

The epileptic cut

Some movie trailers should come with a medical warning. What if I wanted to see the entire trip the Statue of Liberty's head takes as it crashes down the street, huh? Well? Using this type of cut on a trailer for a movie that already has me upchucking my lunch is just plain cruel! Combine that with a static effect and you have something borderline criminal yet, somehow, awesome! This Movie Trailer Element has seen increased popularity among editors. I suspect, part of it has to do with having absolutely nothing to fill up 2.5 minutes with and so editors sporadically add momentary moments of black as a filler. Bravo!

Can't see a thing? Good!

Can't see a thing? Good!
Can't see a thing? Good!

"Cloverfield" Movie Trailer - An almost criminal use of the epileptic cut

Movie Trailer Element #6

The mute

This technique makes you wonder if you have serious earwax build up. Similar to the epileptic cut, but using sound instead; No sound; Nothing; Mute. The effect, oddly enough, is that it gives the impression of loudness and therefore by removing the sound altogether the impact is greater. Similar to a very attractive date with no personality.

So bright it's deafening!

So bright it's deafening!
So bright it's deafening!

Movie Trailer Element #5

The motion graphics

Although I'm not a big fan of reading in the theater (see Movie Trailer Element #4), I do appreciate the incredible design of some of these motion graphics and titles. Letters that fly, blow up, light up the screen, and even transform are all the rage these days and with good reason; We love them! Thanks to online chatting we've forgotten how to write and spell. But thanks to Adobe After Effects, who needs to when you can give superpowers to what was once a boring alphabet? Booyah!

Makes Powerpoint look stupid

Makes Powerpoint look stupid
Makes Powerpoint look stupid

"National Treasure 2" Movie Trailer - Motion graphics goodness

Movie Trailer Element #4

The voiceover

There has recently been a trend in movie trailers, especially theatrical trailers, to use what are known as "cards" instead of a narrator. All I have to say is that if I wanted to read, I'd go to a library. I want to be told a story. I want to feel as if I have some semblance of what the trailer is about. I want to be held. Oh... sorry... 'don't know where that came from. Anyway, the point is that aside from my need for affection, I desperately want to know what the heck the movie is about. A voiceover can help. Whether it's the voice-of-God or those current wimpy little girly-girl surfer dude voices that are all over these romantic comedy trailers, I just want to be told a story. Thanks.

Future movie-going sucker

Future movie-going sucker
Future movie-going sucker

"War of the Worlds" Movie Trailer 1 - Makes me read

"War of the Worlds" Movie Trailer 2 - Tells me a story

Don't EVER do this

Don't EVER do this
Don't EVER do this

Movie Trailer Element #3

The sex change

If the theatrical version of your trailer featuring your leading man, fails to convince audiences (or focus groups) of his leading-man-ness, then focus on the girl for the TV spots. Boom! Instant movie trailer sex change! In the words of the late Sammy Davis Junior, "Shaboing-boing!"

"Good Luck Chuck" Trailer 1 - Pre sex change

"Good Luck Chuck" Trailer 2 - Post sex change

Movie Trailer Element #2

The story that's not in the story

Lost in translation couldn't be more true. When you want to play to a demographic, play up the story within the story (i.e., stereotypes.) And if that story within that story doesn't exist, then play up the characters that would've played in that story had that story existed within the story. Got it? This movie trailer thing is cake.

Romantic comedy or murder mystery?

Romantic comedy or murder mystery?
Romantic comedy or murder mystery?

"Sweeney Todd" Movie Trailer - What? No singing?

Movie Trailer Element #1

The story that is the story

The reason this is #1 is because it's pretty hard to make a bad trailer out of a very good movie*. I'm kidding. It's actually pretty damn easy as long as you use focus groups, tons of research, and get as many people as possible involved in the creative process. But other than that, it's pretty hard. Just tell the story. Golden Trailer here I come!

* For the record, the opposite - making a good trailer for a bad movie - is actually quite easy. So easy, in fact, that it's done every day in Hollywood and is the preferred approach for movie marketing.

Super trailer!

Super trailer!
Super trailer!

Have any favorite trailers? Love/hate trailers? 'Been disappointed by a movie who's trailer you loved? Let me know your thoughts.

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    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Very nice lens!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 7 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      an interesting and informative lens. i enjoyed it. 5*

    • anthonyvo profile image
      Author

      anthonyvo 7 years ago

      @mbgphoto: Thank you! I'm proud of my first lens. It's a pleasure to share what I know and entertain people at the same time.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 7 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Very interesting lens! Love those trailer! 5* and blessed.