Wyzowl Video Marketing Blog

6 lessons in video marketing from the best movie trailers of all time

Earlier this month, USA Today put together an awesome list of ‘The greatest movie trailers of all time.’ Now, we’re total film-buffs here at Wyzowl HQ so this was a super-cool walk down memory lane.

Not only did these trailers allow us to relive some of our favourite movies to ever hit the silver screen; it also got us thinking. You could argue that these short, bite-sized teasers have much in common with the humble marketing video.

After all, movie trailers are all about giving the audience a brief introduction to the ‘product’ on offer. They rely on being short, relevant and engaging. And they combine voice, movement, sound and design to create an audio-visual experience which, if executed correctly, leave the viewer absolutely needing to find out more. Sounds familiar, huh?

So, within the very best movie trailers, we argue, lie a series of valuable lessons for video marketers everywhere…

The Run-Down
The top 10 trailers consist of some of the very best movies you’ll ever see, as well as a few obscure ones. They also come from a variety of different periods, from Citizen Kane in the 1940s all the way through to 2008’s Cloverfield. Here’s a quick overview of the 10 trailers that made the cut, and the lessons we can all learn from them as video people.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The movie: Citizen Kane tells the fictional story of millionaire newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane. When Kane, the most powerful American of his time, dies alone in his enormous mansion, he mutters one enigmatic word: ‘Rosebud.’ A team of reporters set out to determine the significance of this.

The trailer: The golden tones of the film’s director, Orson Welles, narrate this classic trailer. He gives viewers a look behind the scenes (something which audiences love!) while introducing some of the star-studded cast members. He also gives a tantalising introduction to the main event of the movie, Kane himself, without giving too much away. And what’s Kane’s real story? In the words of Welles, “I wish you’d come to this theatre when Citizen Kane plays here, and decided for yourself.” Great call-to-action!

Takeaway lessons: Identify your key selling points and focus on them (in this case, it was the cast, and the character of Kane himself.) Don’t be afraid to show ‘behind the scenes.’ Don’t worry about telling the full story – just enough to whet your viewer’s appetite. And make sure they know how to find out the full story!

Cloverfield (2008)

The movie: Cloverfield is a decidedly modern thriller, filmed in a hand-held camcorder style. It tells the story of a group of friends throwing a leaving party for Rob, who’s departing New York for new pastures in Japan. He’ll soon wish he had left sooner!

The trailer: This trailer may be less than 2 minutes long, but it does a great job of selling the movie. The hand-held filming style – probably the movie’s main ‘point-of-difference’ – is immediately obvious. As a result the trailer looks different and stands out in the crowd. There’s an unsettling believability to the storytelling, and, without knowing so much about the plot that we switch off and get bored, we’re given a great introduction to the characters, setting, and narrative. One of my favourites!

Takeaway lessons: Stand out from the crowd. Make sure your video reflects your product! Keep it short, keep it relevant, and keep your viewer engaged.

The Exorcist (1973)

The movie: One of the most controversial movies of all time, The Exorcist pushed pretty much every envelope possible! This horror classic tells the story of Regan, a young girl who becomes possessed by a demon, and the priest, Father Merrin, who represents her last hope.

The trailer: Not only was the movie banned in some countries, the trailer was deemed so disturbing that it, too, was subject to widespread banning. Once again, the whole trailer lasts less than 2 minutes. It consists of no more than around 25-30 spoken words, which sum up the plot beautifully. The rest of the trailer consists of violently unsettling images which make it clear that this movie is something different – and it’s definitely not a walk in the park. The whole package reveals so little about the movie, but so much…the colours, the discordant soundtrack, the unflinchingly creepy imagery. It’s original and brutally expressive down to the last detail!

Takeaway lessons: Don’t be scared to be different! Some things are better ‘shown’ than ‘told.’ Regardless of what you’ve been told, style is sometimes as important as substance – check out how much the colours, graphic style, fonts, and, particularly music, add to this trailer.

Little Children (2006)

The movie: Not a box-office blockbuster, but this incredibly atmospheric trailer qualifies Little Children for inclusion in the list. The film documents how the lives of two lovelorn spouses from separate marriages, a registered sex offender, and a disgraced ex-police officer intersect as they struggle to resist their vulnerabilities and temptations. (thanks to IMDB for the neat summary!)

The trailer: What’s interesting about the trailer for Little Children is this; it’s easy to sell a story that features a fire-breathing monster, or a possessed 12 year old girl. It’s much more difficult to sell a slow-burning story like this. But perhaps it’s what we don’t know here that makes us want to see the movie. The ominous soundtrack informs the tone of the trailer – if this was replaced with flourishing string music, it could easily be a classic love story. The metaphor of the ‘train-crash’ shows us that this is not destined to end well. And, if we needed a reminder that sex sells, here it is!

Takeaway lessons: Find a way to accurately express your brand and product. Choose the right music and imagery. And, finally, a lesson that seems to be recurring ever frequently: keep it short!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The movie: Based on Tolkien’s legendary novel, the critically-acclaimed – and enormously successful – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring tells the epic story of Frodo, a young hobbit from the Shire, and his eight companions. Their mission is simple; to destroy the Ring of Power created by the Dark Lord Sauron, at the Mount of Doom.

The trailer: The movie grossed over $313 million, and this epic trailer no doubt had plenty to do with the movie’s enormous box office success. It’s a little on the long-side, – as is the movie – but it does a great job of introducing viewers to the story in an exciting and dynamic way. Every single second of the trailer is crammed with a myriad of messages, conscious and subconscious, which build a comprehensive picture of what the viewer can expect if they buy a ticket to see the movie. The language used by the character speaks to the epic nature of the movie.

Takeaway lessons: Use the right tone-of-voice. Tell a story, and capture your viewer’s attention!

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The movie: One of the all-time greats, Pulp Fiction is pretty much peerless. It focuses on the lives of Jules and Vincent, two hitmen on the hunt for their boss Marcellus Wallace’s stolen briefcase. Wallace has also asked Vincent to take out his wife, Mia, while he’s out of town. And Butch Coolidge is a boxer who Wallace has paid to lose his next fight. Their interconnected lives make for one of the most entertaining and unusual movies of all time, which is littered with humour, violence, irony and pop culture references.

The trailer: The trailer begins with a fairly old-hat introduction – a narrator lists the film’s awards while a piano plays an accompaniment. Of course, the screen is quickly ‘destroyed’ by gunshots, immediately symbolising the movie’s disregard for convention! Perhaps the most noticeable facet of the trailer is the soundtrack, which is awesome! The movie soundtrack itself went on to sell over 2 million units.

Takeaway lessons: Use the right music. Identify the key themes of your product and focus on them. And don’t be a slave to the rulebook – it’s sometimes good to defy conventions!

The Shining (1980)

The movie: Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror movie tells the story of a man who becomes the winter caretaker at an old, isolated hotel. He brings his wife and son with him, the latter having a telepathic gift known as ‘the shining’ which allows him to foresee terrible events. The father, Jack Torrance – played by Jack Nicholson – slowly slips into insanity and is convinced by the ghost of a dead waiter that he needs to ‘correct’ his family. One of the all-time greats!

The trailer: This is a really unusual trailer and refuses to conform to tradition. Most notably, not a single word is spoken aloud – it features no voiceover-narration, or even dialogue from within the movie. The first half of the trailer, however, does a very simple job of selling the main features of the movie. It’s a Kubrick film; Jack Nicholson is in it; and it’s based on an incredibly popular Stephen King novel. In the unlikely event that you don’t get the idea from this, just check out the visual in the second half of the trailer; it’s a hotel lobby, which suddenly and unexpectedly floods with rivers of blood. While not really communicating any of the nuances of the plot, this gives us enough of an idea that we’re interested to see the movie.

Takeaway lessons: Identify what’s important and only focus on that stuff – don’t worry about having to tell the full story! Use the right music to create the right atmosphere and feeling in your audience.

Sleeper (1973)

The movie: Woody Allen plays a nerdy clarinet player who is ‘thawed out’ 200 years in the future, in order to fight an oppressive government. Perhaps the trailer says it best… ‘A love story, about two people who hate each other…two-hundred years in the future.’ Where do we get a ticket?!

The trailer: Just like the trailer for Citizen Kane, the trailer for Sleeper is presented by the movie’s director. However, that’s just about where the similarities end. The trailer, as you’d expect from a classic comedy film, is very funny. Woody talks about the film’s ‘cerebral, didactic’ nature, with ‘very little overt’ comedy. In the background, we see various scenes of slapstick comedy which are guaranteed to raise a smile. The humour of the product comes through beautifully in the trailer!

Takeaway lessons: Humour, where appropriate, is a great addition to your video…so embrace the personality of your product, and let it shine through!

Spider-Man (2002)

The movie: This 2002 blockbuster explains the origins of the Spidey story. Nerdy teenager, Peter Parker, is bitten by a radioactive spider on a school trip, giving him amazing, spider-like abilities. He must learn to use these powers to fight against the evil Green Goblin to protect the city…and those who he loves.

The trailer: This trailer was so well-received that it pretty much formed the pattern for every subsequent super-hero trailer. It’s split roughly into thirds. The first third offers a few tantalising glimpses of Spidey…but never long enough for the viewer to be certain what they’re watching! The second third gives us a bit of an intro to the story…we see Peter in total-nerd mode, taking photos on a school trip. And we see him fatefully bitten by the spider. We see him grow into the Spiderman character, and we’re introduced to the Goblin. With the stage set, the final third focuses on some of the mind-blowing special effects, which – let’s face it – is what the audience want to see for this kind of movie!

Takeaway lessons: Build suspense, identify the coolest parts of your product and make sure you give the audience what they want!

Alien (1979)

The movie: Alien tells the creepy story of the crew of the Nostromo – a deep space towing vessel. When they’re awoken from hyper-sleep, they must investigate a strange signal from a nearby planet. Was it a message…or a warning?

The trailer: The trailer does a great job of reflecting some of the key elements of the story; loneliness, isolation, and fear of the unknown . It starts by showing a barren, alien landscape against a background of complete darkness. We then see an egg hatching on the aforementioned alien landscape, and, to be fair that’s rarely good news! The trailer wraps up with a series of action shots of the crew being hunted by the alien being. It’s a great reflection of the movie as a whole; dark, creepy, atmospheric. And all this without a single word of dialogue, again underscoring the importance of music and sound effects. The trailer wraps up with the iconic tag-line; ‘In space nobody can hear you scream!’

Takeaway lessons: Sound and music can make all the difference. Use colours that reflect your brand…and choose a great tag-line!

That’s a wrap…
So, I hope you can see from our analysis of these trailers that, in fact, you and the big Hollywood Directors have a LOT in common.

Sure, they spent millions of dollars and invested years of hard work into a blockbuster movie. But you buried your soul into a business or product that you’re every bit as passionate about.

And guess what? You both have around 2 minutes to sum up everything you worked SO hard on, and make it totally unforgettable for your audience.

The lessons we can learn

  1. Keep it short and concise…leave the audience desperate to know more.
  2. Sell the important bits, forget the stuff that doesn’t matter
  3. Make sure your personality and brand is reflected in every aspect of the end-product
  4. Be different – stand out from the crowd
  5. Always grab the users attention
  6. Make sure to tell them where and how they find out more.

Adam Hayes

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