How the movie trailer has evolved (in a world where clichés are rife)

In a world where trailers have become mini-movies in their own right, one man must analyse how film adverts have evolved through the decades.

Join Luke Hearfield on a rollicking adventure through time as he navigates cyberspace to find commonalities and pivotal moments in this evolution.

So fasten your seatbelts, don’t let go, and hold onto your butts for all the finest clichés of the industry in almost a century.


OK, now that’s out of my system – we can get on with it. If you did in fact read that first paragraph in the standard “voice-of-god” narration (made culturally renowned by voice artist Don LaFontaine), then you’ve just helped prove my point. His epic voice has become synonymous with our expectations of film trailers – just check out Honest Trailers if you don’t believe me.

Sadly LaFontaine died in 2008 and his absence in previews has definitely been felt in the last half-decade. Trailers have evolved since his passing and there seems to be an entirely new blueprint that distributors are following. But they haven’t always been the way we experience them today. Here, era by era, is a look back at the trends and ideas that defined them.

1920s – Age of Facts

When the first real wave of cinema advertisements started cropping up, they were a completely different kettle-of-fish. This was the era of silent film, and trailers were completely uncharted territory for distributors. This was long before the day of the blockbuster, so a trailer was basic meat-and-potatoes for the viewer to digest.

Typically speaking, they featured long snippets of footage accompanied by some music, a narrator and an assortment of title cards. The voiceover would often highlight things that by today’s standards would seem ridiculous. In the King of Kings trailer the subtitles and narrator stress fun facts like: “portrayed by an inspiring cast of 5,000 players” and “stupendous scenes that stagger the imagination”. While these must have been impressive accomplishments at the time, they seem almost silly today – but from a nostalgic point of view it’s actually kind of charming.

Here are some examples of the earliest film trailers with sound:

1940s – Age of Chat

This was when the first signs of a change in format were being witnessed. This was the time where silent-cinema was in the past and audio was becoming mainstream. After the success of The Jazz Singer, “The Talkies” started becoming remarkably popular – and that’s basically the crux of what you got with the Forties trailers. Lots of talking.

Most trailers made during this period were produced by a company named National Screen Service, who many studios outsourced their advertising campaigns too. The NSS followed a simple template that seemed to do the job, and put the emphasis on adventure. The narrator or the title cards would deliver meaty bits of dialogue with gimmicky details such as the most dangerous man, in the world’s most dangerous city” or “thrill of thrills”.

The editing looks like it’s been bundled together on a PowerPoint programme, with the old-school screen wipe technique being a clear favourite. There’s also heavy use of long takes of footage, rather than the flashy fast edits we see today.

As evidenced by trailers such as King Kong and Casablanca, there was an excitement in the air – and the narrator would do his best to convey a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

1960s – Rise of the Spectacle

The Sixties introduced an alternative approach to the standard trailer formula. While the tried-and-tested template was still present, some groundbreaking auteurs chose different approaches in order to sell their films.

Alfred Hitchcock was popular at the time for hits like Rear Window and North By Northwest, as well as his TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so he capitalised on his success by inviting the audience into the Psycho set, taking them on a guided tour of all the places that they would get to see if they went to watch the film. This technique of breaking down the fourth wall hadn’t really been seen in trailers before – and hasn’t really been done since.

Another dramatic switch was that ’60s trailers put more emphasis on music. Classics such as The Great EscapeThe Graduate and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita all had influential music that helped set up the tone for each feature.

Quick editing was something that Kubrick also started adopting into most of his works. His most notable and oddest trailer was Dr Strangelove, which baffled but intrigued audiences into going.

1970s – Dawn of the Blockbuster

Before Steven Spielberg burst onto the scene, no one even knew what a blockbuster was. Now the term has become an integral part of cinematic vocabulary – particularly for films released in the summer.

The best example to use would be the original blockbuster: Jaws. In order to gain as much hype as possible, the distributors cleverly advertised the film’s trailer between popular TV spots and had the movie distributed nationally across America so everyone could see it – not just those living in big cities. Along with the ominous score from John Williams, the preview really grips you and refuses to let go.

This combination proved a winning formula, and the copious amounts of cash that Jaws made encouraged other studios and distributors to follow the same route. Watch the following high-profile examples, and you can feel the weight placed on atmosphere, intrigue, and adrenaline – essential ingredients for this new breed of ‘thriller’.

1990s – The ‘Bigger and Better’ phase

How do you improve on a winning-formula? You have to think bigger of course. Following the phenomenal success of Star Wars and Jaws, the following decades would see the rise of trailers becoming mini-movies in their own right. Hollywood saw the potential income it could afford to earn by investing heftier budgets in the right projects.

Business was booming in the computer effects department and audiences relished the chance to get lost in the escapism. More money meant that the impossible became possible. Films such as Jurassic Park and The Matrix took us to worlds we never even imagined – and James Cameron made box-office history with Titanic.

The trailers were designed to emphasize the sense of awe, give you goose pimples and make you giddy with excitement. The combination of practical/computer effects and roaring music made movies seem more stylish and glamorous. This was also the beginning of that “In A World” narration by Don LaFontaine, which helped amplify the sense of anticipation.

2000 – 2010: The Requiem for a Dream Saga

With the birth of a new millennium and blockbusters coming out the wazoo, the running trend of keeping trailers looking and feeling ‘epic’ continued to persist.

One of the most clichéd pillars of the Noughties was the dependency on one particular composition by Clint Mansell. The ‘Lux Aeterna’ track (from Requiem for a Dream) became a common occurrence after it was sampled in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer. Combined with the fantasy elements or J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, the fast editing, and beautiful cinematography in an almost cinematic-opera, this set the benchmark for other distributors to try and beat.

Focus groups also became an important way to gather collective information on what audiences were pleased with. This gave way to a whole new set of terminology that has become engrained in contemporary film advertising since. You know that shot at the end of trailer that comes after the title? Usually a joke, a jump-scare or a dramatic action set piece? That’s what known as ‘The Button’, as it helps to leave a lingering impression on your opinion. The ‘Turn Away’ is the moment a trailer’s music will stop suddenly, for one moment of thematically relevant dialogue or a witty remark.

Finally, ‘hits’ is a term for those dramatic drum booms you here ever-so-0ften in films with a lot of action. Spider-Man 3 is great example as it combines all three of these techniques with a score not dissimilar from Lux Aeterna.

Present Day – Let’s all copy Inception

So, what do we have now? The sad truth is that there isn’t much originality left in Hollywood. Studio executives will happily piggyback onto the same strategies that other directors and creators have found success with. There seems to be a sense of ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it’ when it comes to promoting movies nowadays.

Christopher Nolan’s last three films have had gargantuan amounts of success and critical acclaim, so it makes sense that other people would aim to emulate him – or at least copy him.

The ‘BWARM!’ sound that was made notorious in Inception has now become so overused that it’s lost all effect. Using horns to make a dramatic pounding sound, this allowed everything from Avengers Assemble to World War Z to make each film seem that little bit more ambitious.

The other common denominator in contemporary film trailers is that slowed-down, dub break sound (wub-wub-wub) that Michael Bay uses heavily in the Transformers films. The sound of a bass note on a low register to highlight a slo-mo action scene or event has become very popular of late. The most recent trailers you might have heard using this include Transcendence and Lucy.

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