What makes a great movie trailer? As with the films they sell, there’s no one answer. Some trailers provide a strong impression of their “product,” letting viewers know what to expect without spoiling the twists and turns. Others work as stand-alone objects, almost independent of what they’re advertising. And a few are just flawless at what they do, tantalizing with a tried-but-true bag of tricks—the perfect music cue, the perfect sequence of images, the perfect revelation of that one scene, that one line that will make the film in question a must-see.
About all the 10 trailers singled out below have in common is that they’re artfully constructed, and plenty entertaining on their own. Oh, and they all premiered sometime in 2015—hence the absence of Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, and Avengers: Age Of Ultron, whose best spots all dropped in 2014. Did we forget about some essential teaser, some primo promo? Sound off in the comments below with your favorite coming distractions from the year that was.
Set aside, for just a second, any misgivings you might have about Jared Leto plastering on the clown makeup, and just marvel at all the right moves the first Suicide Squad trailer makes: the efficient explanation of premise, provided by a few choice lines of Viola Davis dialogue; those stray notes of eerie circus music, giving way to a suitably somber cover of the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke;” the prominent placement of Margot Robbie, perfectly cast as Gotham’s cheeriest femme fatale, Harley Quinn; and for that matter, the climactic revelation of the Joker, whose two-shot appearance preserves most of the mystery of Leto’s performance. (You want to see more of his interpretation, if only to decide for sure that you hate it.) In many ways, this is blockbuster trailer-cutting 101, but it handles the basics of stoking anticipation better than most of the year’s other ads for cape and cowl fare—especially, ahem, that other Bat-related preview.
Movie advertising techniques age remarkably fast, to the extent that even a five-year-old trailer can look hopelessly dated. In theory, that makes Queen Of Earth’s blatantly retro, ’70s-style spot seem like a foolish strategy—one bound to confuse and alienate viewers not accustomed to the out-of-vogue, baritone Trailer Voice and the more leisurely pacing. Yet whoever cut the trailer—probably writer-director Alex Ross Perry, his editor Robert Greene, or both of them together—clearly understood the less-than-universal appeal of their film, and decided to play to the movie-obsessed crowd inclined to check out their throwback psychodrama in the first place. The blast-from-the-past results capture the spirit of Queen Of Earth perfectly, while making it look both familiar and distinctive.
Like last year’s vaunted American Sniper trailer, this one adheres to an effectively simple but relatively rare strategy: Leaning heavily on a single enticing scene, followed by a few lightning-quick images from the rest of the film. In this case, that single scene is Channing Tatum dancing with power tools to “Pony.” By focusing almost exclusively on one of the film’s funniest and most irresistible moments, the trailer pays tribute to the pleasure-above-all-else spirit of the Magic Mike sequel. The movie’s close to plotless itself, so who cares that the teaser tells us nothing about what it’s actually about? It’s about Channing Tatum dancing to “Pony.” Either you’re dying to see that or you’re not.
Some trailers feel like they cut themselves, when the reality is that it takes real discipline and faith to just let a film’s own sights and sounds carry the campaign. The Witch trailer amps up the unease from its first frame, and just gets more intense with each cut—it’s like an accelerated version of the movie, really. The editors preserve the old-world atmosphere of this Sundance hit, using some of the creepier images—the blood in the bucket; the ram’s black eyes; the ill-fated game of peekaboo—without resorting to such horror-trailer tricks as a sinister re-conception of a pop song or a jump-scare punctuation at the end. Only the pull quotes break the spell a little. But c’mon, given the white-knuckle reactions the film inspired in Park City, can you really blame A24 for trying to spread the word that this thing may cause soiled loins?
Another Sundance alum gets a superb preview. This one shows how a trailer can actually be more fun than the film it’s advertising. The Dope spot cherry picks almost every indelible moment, introduces the characters, and compresses the story into a digestible bite without really ruining anything. Dope’s problems—its wild tonal shifts, its sometimes-sluggish plotting, its belated bid for pathos—are nowhere to be seen in its kinetic trailer, which puts its best feet forward. (The energy never flags, as it does in the movie proper.) Bonus points for the symmetry of using Malcolm’s voice-over as bookends, and for repurposing the character’s terrific skater-punk anthem as sonic bait.
The box-office failure of Steve Jobs is confounding for a number of reasons. One of them is that it boasts such a masterfully assembled trailer. Neither unique nor groundbreaking, the two-and-a-half-minute ad deserves praise instead for the way that it makes a talky and theatrical film, set almost entirely within a series of auditoriums and lecture halls, look thrillingly kinetic. Part of that is the way the editors snatch up snarky bits of dialogue, distilling the Sorkinese into little time bombs of conversational warfare. The rest is rhythm—the flurry of motion, cut to the urgent whine of strings and, later, the almost hostile clapping, stomping, and cheering of a restless crowd, as if the trailer were trying to work the audience into a frenzy by showing them what raw anticipation looks and sounds like. The excitement is infectious. Who knows why it didn’t translate into ticket sales?
Time will tell if the Coen brothers’ Hollywood-set farce, which opens this coming spring, lives up to the madcap hilarity of its teaser. For now, though, we have this glorious screwball object, which just keeps throwing movie stars, sight gags, and elaborate backlot backdrops at the viewers—all to a jaunty, delectable selection of tunes. Really, though, just that moment when Clooney flubs his line is enough to hold us over until February.
The fact that The A.V. Club is quoted in this trailer has nothing to do with its inclusion. Honest! Like The Witch spot, this is a lesson in how to bottle a film’s nightmarish intensity and convert it into catnip for fright friends. American trailers for non-English films sometimes try to disguise the fact that there will be subtitles. But whoever Radius hired to sell Goodnight Mommy realized that the raw material is so fundamentally unnerving—there’s hardly a shot in the whole trailer that doesn’t provoke chills—that it slips right past the language barrier and into your open mouth, like a certain creepy crawly who makes a late appearance. “Every minute that goes by ratchets up the unease,” proclaims one of the pull quotes (not ours); change that to “seconds” and you’ve described the trailer, too.
All three of the Force Awakens trailers are master classes in withholding: The first teaser, which we named one of the best trailers of last year, got hearts pounding with no more than 11 shots, all carefully curated to convey the spirit of the enterprise without betraying any plots secrets. After that, Disney released two more trailers, revealing tiny new scraps of information with each one, all while managing to keep the story almost entirely under wraps. The whole plan culminated with the final trailer, which manages the juggling act of giving our new heroes a grand introduction and our old heroes a proper reintroduction; it plays on collective Star Wars nostalgia while reveling in the shiny… newness of the new film. And still, somehow, it avoids giving us too much information, narrative or visual. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the movie itself, we’ll still have this brilliant tease of a marketing campaign—a yearlong pep rally that kept the faithful excited, the agonistics curious, even the haters intrigued.
Who needs plot, dialogue, characters, or any of that superfluous stuff when you have imagery this spectacular? The first teaser for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Western survival drama says almost nothing about the movie itself, except that it features some of the most breathtaking frontier-era combat and glorious 19th-century scenery since…what, Last Of The Mohicans? It makes The Revenant look like an experience, an event, and it does so by letting the clips speak for themselves, out of context and in a language anyone with working eyes can understand. And hell, this spot doesn’t even include the damn bear.