I don’t watch many movie trailers these days out of fear of being spoiled. There are few things I hate more than spoilers, and it’s especially infuriating when a movie is ruined by its own trailer. But if a trailer is confirmed to be spoiler-free, I’m happy to watch—because there’s nothing more exciting than a well-made trailer.
What exactly makes a trailer “well-made”? “Effective”? “Great”?
Hmm, it’s hard to pinpoint. You know it when you see it, and you know when a trailer is hot garbage, but trying to capture the why is like trying to hold a fistful of sand: you think you get it, but it slips your grasp. We tend to forget that movie trailers are themselves a form of art, and art can be tricky to nail down.
Instead what I’ll do is point to some of my favorite movie trailers of all time and what makes each one great.
1. Expectations and Revelations
The trailer for Avengers: Endgame is a masterclass in hype. You’ve got the introspective music that builds to an epic crescendo, the dramatic weight of all previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and the humorous endcap with Scott Lang unexpectedly showing up at headquarters. But the best part—the most “Whoa!!” part—is the five-second tease of a new Hawkeye. We’re all expecting him to make a return, but like that? A badass revelation makes for elevated anticipation.
2. Tease the Main Attraction
I really like the trailer for A Quiet Place because it expertly highlights the main attraction of the film—sound-sensitive monsters—without ever showing them on screen. No dialogue means no explanations, no discussions, no quarrels. The trailer shows everything we need to know about this film’s main draw without ever telling us straight-up, and that just makes us want to see it all the more to satiate our curiosity.
3. Set Up the Premise—Then Stop!
The worst thing a movie trailer can do is condense all three acts of the film into two minutes. If I know the gist of the narrative, it deflates any sense of anticipation. The trailer for Buried gets it: you’re introduced to the protagonist, the situation, and the stakes. Once you know those three things, you know everything you need to know about whether this film is for you or not—and in this case, you know that this is going to be a crazy claustrophobic thriller. Boom, sold.
4. Raise Intriguing Questions
The Alien trailer is one of the best ever made for a horror film, precisely because it does one thing: makes you ask question after questions without ever giving you an answer. WTF is that egg? Who are these people? What’s going on? Why are they screaming? By the end, you’re left curious—you need to know the answers, but you’re afraid to find them. Exactly how horror should feel.
5. Focus on Character
I’m not saying the trailer for Detective Pikachu is a GOAT trailer, but I am saying that it hyped me up quite a bit for a film I originally didn’t care an ounce about. It has a bit of #1 with all the Pokemon teases and glimpses, but its main strength is its focus on the character of Pikachu and who he is in this film. A confident, lovable mouse with an attitude? Yeah, that sounds promisingly entertaining. Sign me up!
6. Have a Climax
Whiplash‘s trailer is doubly clever. First, it misdirects you into thinking it’s yet another romantic comedy and/or coming-of-age story. The twist comes after 40 seconds, letting you know that this isn’t the movie you thought it was—that this isn’t like any movie you’ve seen before. The intensity only ramps up from there, paired with the snare drum’s gradual quickening, until the unbearable tension is broken by a climax timed to the film’s name. Whoo, what a ride.
7. Capture Mood and Tone
Play the trailer for The Social Network on mute and it’s nothing special. Humdrum, even. But combine it with the backdrop of Radiohead’s “Creep” and you have something special. The juxtaposition of social media and college life with the somber, even chilling music turns an everyday topic into one of intense contemplation. It perfectly captures the serious nature of the film and prepares you for it.
8. Know the Selling Point
This one isn’t exactly a trailer, but it’s more effective than most trailers have ever been. Only four lines of dialogue are spoken. You don’t see any faces. No scenes from the film are shown. All you get are five names—Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel—and the name of the film. But that’s all you really need to know, isn’t it? This trailer knows exactly why this film is going to be so big.
9. Spotlight an Epic Scene or Two
I didn’t think the movie was all that great, but the trailer to Godzilla (2014) still raises the hairs on my neck on rewatch. The iconic HALO jump set to the foreboding voice-over speech is the perfect introduction to what this movie is going to be. The final scene with the epic Godzilla reveal? Masterful. If that doesn’t make you want to see a film, I don’t know what will.
10. Appeal to Higher Emotions
This trailer for Interstellar is pretty low-key compared to the others on this list, but it’s so effective because it appeals to higher-level emotions that we all share: hope and destiny. It makes us reflect, and the emotions are amplified further by the wonderful, otherworldly score by Hans Zimmer. That last shot of the shuttle launching into space leaves us wanting for something greater, and the trailer promises that this film will deliver on that—so of course you have to watch it now.
What Makes a Great Movie Trailer?
You tell me! What are your favorite movie trailers of all time? Or better yet, what are some of the worst movie trailers you’ve ever seen? No spoilers, please! But I’d love to hear your thoughts, so be mindful and share down in the comments below.