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What are Movie Trailers?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

Movie trailers are promotional tools which are used to get audiences excited about an upcoming film. They are classically shown in movie theaters before the feature presentation begins, and they are also widely distributed on the Internet, being among the top five forms of video content enjoyed by video users. Films with a large advertising budget may also show movie trailers on television, and studios classically add trailers for their own films to their video releases. In some cases, movie trailers have been so well-designed and beautifully executed that they have won awards, a remarkable feat for an advertisement lasting less than five minutes in most cases.

Trailers are almost as old as the silver screen itself. Originally, they followed or “trailed” the feature film, but movie studios realized that audiences tended to leave after the movie was over, missing the trailers. As a result, the advertisements were moved so that they directly preceded the film, leading some people to refer to them as “previews.” Typically, four to six previews will be shown before the start of a feature film.

In a classic movie trailer, the first thing viewers see is a rating card, indicating the rating for the film being advertised, and in some cases, the rating for the trailer. If the film has not yet been rated, this will be indicated. Then, the trailer begins, showing excerpts from the film which are artfully cut together to give audiences a sense of what will happen in the movie, and to get people fired up about seeing the film.

Most movie trailers include a voice over. One of the most famous narrators for movie trailers was Don LaFontaine, who voiced thousands of trailers for Hollywood films with a voice so distinctive that it was instantly recognizable. LaFontaine also gleefully participated in parodies of traditional movie trailers, often using his signature line “In a world...” The voice over typically includes information about when the movie will be released, along with a brief synopsis of the film.

Some studios roll out their trailers slowly, building anticipation for major films. A studio may start with teaser trailers, very brief movie trailers which just give a taste of the film, often with a cryptic message. For example, an iconic image from the film might be shown, followed by a title card which just says “It's Coming” or “Coming Soon.” Over time, the studio will release longer trailers, taking advantage of completed footage to flesh out their previews with scenes which will appeal to viewers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Ivan83 — On Apr 30, 2012

I made a movie about a decade ago and I was really surprised how hard it was to cut the trailer. You sped so much time with this long complicated story and then you have to find a way to tell that same story in just a minute or two.

Honestly, the trailer took me almost two weeks to make and I didn't even have to shoot anything.

By gravois — On Apr 29, 2012

@zsazsa56 - I completely agree with you. And you know what really drives me crazy? I hate it when a trailer gives away the entire story to the movie. There are seriously some trailers where the beginning, middle and end of the movie are all shown in order. It is like watching an abridged version of the movie and it ruins any sense of suspense or surprise when you see the film itself.

I guess it is kind of a double edged sword. On the one hand you have to reveal enough of the movie to intrigue people. But you have to keep enough of it hidden that there is something to go to the theater and see.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Apr 28, 2012

They really do not make trailers like they used to. It used to be an art. Oftentimes the trailer was just as interesting as the film itself. Want an example? Check out the original trailer for Dr Strangelove. It is it's own piece of art completely and it is amazing.

These days the trailer is essentially just a commercial. And while that may have been true for the trailers of the past they did not used to pander nearly as hard as they do these days.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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