Top Ten Teaser Trailers
In tribute to the internet recently going ga-ga over the reveal of not one, but two tantalising movie teaser trailers - for The Dark Knight, as mentioned here previously, and the altogether more mysterious 1-18-08, of which more later - I thought it was high time to take a look at an art that is both one of cinema's best-loved, but also arguably one of the hardest to do truly well...
The teaser trailer as we know it is a relatively recent invention. They're usually inextricably linked with comic book movies, or other adaptations - this can probably be ascribed equally to the fact that they need to quickly plant a seed of recognition in the mind of an audience, and to the fact that we all know that comic book geeks are by far the easiest group of people to whip up into a frenzy of excitement. They can also serve to appease growing uncertainty over a project with a lot riding on it - indeed, two of the biggest superhero adaptations of all time, Richard Donner's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman, made use of brief trailers that were specifically designed to show just how the film was shaping up, and to help allay the fans' fears about delays (in the case of Superman) and casting (in Batman). The latter trailer in particular is often marked out as the first true "teaser" as we understand it - although this description owes more to its short running time and the fact that there were recorded instances of people paying to see movies just to watch it, than it does to its editing style, as it's simply a chopped-together sequence of clips from the film.
So, what makes a good teaser? Well, it's worth noting that at its heart a great teaser is very different from a standard trailer, whose main aim is simply to give you enough of an idea about a film's content that you're able to decide whether or not to see it. The best teasers are the ones that, very simply, inform an audience that a film is on the way - and provide them with just the briefest of glimpses of what to expect. The less you show, so the argument goes, the more feverish the speculation about what you'll eventually see when the film comes out. This was particularly important, of course, in the days before the internet was so commonplace - word of mouth would spread far more slowly, and so often the first time anyone would even know about the existence of a forthcoming film, particularly if they didn't read trade magazines, would be upon seeing a trailer for it.
There are a few common elements, however, that separate the very best teasers from the ones that simply get the job done. Most of the best teasers feature material that has been specially shot for the purpose - although in some cases, it can be a disappointment when a great teaser scene doesn't make it into the final cut. Meanwhile, a truly great teaser, as we'll see, reveals itself gradually - a number of the films on our list will have lulled audiences into thinking they're watching a trailer (or even a commercial advert) for something completely different before suddenly hitting them with an "Oh, it's THAT!" moment. Crucial to this is a sense of narrative - a teaser that actually goes somewhere is far better than one that simply shows you a few snippets of dialogue. A lot of the best teasers are funny - even if they're not for comedy films - as a trailer that you've laughed at is instantly that bit more memorable. Bonus points also if you can convey what the film is without actually having to put the title up onscreen (a trend that Batman was certainly one of the forerunners in kicking off), although this is of course often difficult if you're not playing with an existing brand.
One final thing to note, meanwhile, is that the quality of a teaser will often have little or no relation to the quality of the film itself - a point that the first entry in our list quite firmly demonstrates...
10. The Flintstones
Yes, it's The Flintstones. Yes, it's one of the worst movies of all time. But yes, it had a great teaser. Honestly. It's simple, it's effective, and it does the job. After an introductory blurb ("Universal Pictures leaves no stone unturned to bring you..."), the Flintstones theme begins, and the lyrics appear onscreen in classic "bouncing ball" sing-a-long fashion, with a rock taking the place of the bouncing ball. The whole song is got through, before the rock bounces offscreen... and is caught by John Goodman, in full Fred Flintstone gear, who gives us a spot-on "Yabba dabba doo!". Of course, at that point, those of us who never liked the original cartoon could have told you what a pointless exercise the movie would turn out to be - but you couldn't fault the teaser for capturing the right spirit...
9. Superman Returns
Rather than stringing the viewer along and providing a sudden moment of revelation, the teaser for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns instead builds itself gradually. If you're enough of a fan, you'll know instantly what you're watching by recognising Marlon Brando's voiceover or John William's "Krypton" theme; a more casual viewer might spot the meaning of the name "KENT" on a Kansas mailbox, or the use of the name "Kal-El". By drawing upon some of the lushest scenes from a beautifully-shot film, but never showing you enough of the title character in motion that you have time to dwell on him, this teaser creates a great sense of atmosphere - and, for those enthralled by the reverence shown to the original 1978 movie, excitement. Some might argue that the slow and ponderous nature of the teaser is as inappropriate to a superhero movie as the slow and ponderous nature of the film itself; but as preparation for the sort of film Returns would turn out to be, this does the job, and is thus inspiring stuff.
8. Austin Powers : The Spy Who Shagged Me
In 1999, all the talk was about The Phantom Menace. Knowing full well that any attempt to compete with Lucas' behemoth would prove futile, the makers of the first Austin Powers sequel decided to take a different tack. The teaser trailer begins with a setup that, as the camera pans through a dark spaceship, some heavy breathing is heard, and a voiceover booms about "battle"s and "empire"s, is clearly designed to make the view think it's something to do with Star Wars. Of course, the big reveal is that it's Dr. Evil in the big chair - "You were expecting someone else?" - before the self-deprecation kicks in with possibly the best voiceover line ever uttered in a movie trailer : "If you see one movie this summer... see Star Wars. But if you see TWO... see Austin Powers!" It's a neat subversion of the usual movie bombast, with the added bonus that the film it trails, while not perfect, actually was better than Episode I.
7. The Incredibles
In order to introduce the general public to their masterpiece, Pixar and Brad Bird conjured up this cracking little vignette. The camera pans across a succession of framed magazine articles and newspaper headlines detailing the career of esteemed superhero Mr Incredible, before he himself is seen answering a "hotline" phone in his family den. Springing into action, he puts on his costume - only to find that his belt won't fit, and his wife is calling him for dinner. It's bloody funny. It's worth noting, however, that not only does the footage not come from the film itself - but it doesn't even actually square with the film's narrative. Incredible is seen in his red costume (an outfit he acquires later in the film after coming out of retirement), while the anonymous "wife" is not voiced by Holly Hunter. This matters little, though, when you consider the aim of the teaser - to sum up the film's basic premise (retired superhero now living as family man) - which it achieves succinctly and perfectly.
One of two well-remembered teasers for the Emmerich/Devlin 1998 crap-fest, this one is a classic of the "show a specially-shot scene that introduces the premise and makes the audience laugh" genre. A group of kids are on a tour around a natural history museum, and a deliberately boring-voiced teacher leads them to a T-Rex skeleton, explaining how the beast was "believed to be one of the largest predators that ever lived". At which point, naturally, a giant lizard foot crashes through the roof, completely crushing the skeleton.
It's funny, of course, and it's arguably sharper than anything that happened in the movie itself; but on the other hand, there's also an undercurrent of unwarranted sniping at Jurassic Park (whose sequel The Lost World had been released only the year before, and at one point featured a T-Rex on the rampage in a city). "Look!" it seems to be saying, "if you thought the dinosaurs were good, you ain't seen nothing yet!" There's even a shot through the jaws of the skeleton that seems to be referencing the JP logo. Pretty presumptuous stuff, really, given how shockingly inferior Godzilla is even to the weaker Lost World. Still, that could just be me reading far too much into what is still, at the end of the day, a fun little teaser.
5. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Deceptively simple, this is a teaser that didn't even show a moment of footage from the film itself - but that didn't stop it being absolutely brilliant. Whether or not you agree that the makers of the Hitchhiker's movie were actually respectful to Douglas Adams' original work based on the film itself, it's hard to argue that they definitely appeared to be on the right lines when the teaser came along. Opening with a shot of the Earth, set to Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" (the closing theme to the first series of both the radio and TV series), it's another one where you're not immediately aware of what you're watching - until, at the moment that Louis hits the word "world", the planet suddenly explodes spectacularly, sending debris flying towards the camera. There's a brief freeze-frame as the iconic words "DON'T PANIC" appear onscreen, followed by a slightly lacklustre but acceptable tagline ("The most astonishing adventure in the universe begins... when the world ends"). Finally, some of the pieces form the brand new H2G2 logo (revealed here for the first time, and a vast improvement on the godawful green tongue thing that adorned the US book covers). The second tagline ("Don't leave Earth without it.") is better than the first, and we even get the number 42 formed by some stars in the background. What's not to love?
4. Jurassic Park
Ooh, this is a clever one. Presented in a documentary format, the teaser for Steven Spielberg's blockbuster par excellence explains the "science" behind the DNA extraction and cloning of dinosaurs in such a manner that audiences could be forgiven for thinking that what they were watching was a genuine scientific breakthrough (until the bit about actually recreating dinosaurs is mentioned, that is!) Or maybe I'm just saying that because, when I was 10, I saw the teaser in the cinema (attached to Death Becomes Her, if I recall correctly) and that's what I initially thought.
Knowing full well that you only have to say the word "dinosaur" to get people interested, this teaser doesn't bother telling or showing us anything about the plot, the characters, the effects... anything about the film itself, in other words. If you knew Michael Crichton's original novel, then the title would mean something to you - but other than that, all it gave you was that it was a film about dinosaurs, directed by Spielberg. Nowadays, of course, after such a trailer the curious could hop online as soon as they get home from the cinema and look up what the film's all about - but back then, the trailer was about as teasing as you could get.
3. Doctor Who series one
Alright, so it's telly, not film - but it was also a fucking good teaser, and it drew largely upon cinematic conventions, so it bloody counts, alright? Christopher Eccleston says "D'you wanna come wi' me?" and the world will never be the same again. We got our very first glimpse at the interior of the TARDIS, the pounding beat of Murray Gold's re-arranged theme tune (it's worth noting, however, that it's actually a different mix - much darker and more bass-y - than the one that was eventually used), and thirty seconds or so of walking round the console talking before BOOM! A spaceship crashing into Big Ben! Missiles over the white cliffs of Dover! And a fucking DALEK! We barely saw anything, we didn't have any context - but it didn't matter. This was a teaser to be watched again and again with the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. This was an end to nine (or sixteen, depending on how you want to look at it) years in the wilderness. Beautifully cut together, superbly tantalising, it falls short only because it was instantly obviously Who - rather than letting us wait, oblivious, for a bit first.
Also known as 1-18-08 (its projected release date in American lingo, and the only thing that comes up onscreen at the end of the teaser other than a brief list of production staff), this project - produced by JJ Abrams and written by Drew Goddard - doesn't even have an announced title yet, but that hasn't stopped the feverish speculation spreading in every corner of the net in which movie geeks doth reside. The reasons are twofold - the early stages of a careful viral marketing campaign, and a fucking awesome teaser trailer.
In fact... I'm not even going to describe this one, because it's better if you go into it not knowing anything. Suffice to say that all that is known about the film is drawn from what we see in the teaser. Everything else, for the moment at least, is pure speculation. It's not just that the trailer is mysterious, though (Abrams has built an entire career on mystery, but this is the first project of his that I've got anything like significantly excited about). It's that it's so well constructed. It follows a number of the classic teaser conventions I've set out above, with the main exception that it isn't funny. But that's all you're getting. Watch it, enjoy it, and wonder what the hell it's all about. And start the countdown to 18th January...
Chances are, you didn't see this one at the time, unless you were a rabid Spidey fanboy who was counting down the days to its release online. It's certainly highly unlikely that you were one of the lucky few who got to see it in the cinema, before it was pulled for what were - for once - completely fair and understandable reasons. But as teaser trailers go, this is the absolute daddy. It encapsulates everything I've outlined above about what makes a great teaser, and indeed set a standard and template that numerous films have followed since.
We begin at a bank, closing up for the night, when suddenly a team of robbers burst in and carry out a finely-executed robbery. Escaping to the roof (at one point showing a close-up of a Nokia phone that must have led many to think they were watching an expensive commercial), they make their getaway in a helicopter. "Sit back and enjoy the ride!" calls the ringleader. Suddenly, however, the chopper halts in midair, before finding itself dragged backwards between buildings at high speed. For a brief moment you can spot some kind of cord or thread attached to the back of the helicopter, before all suddenly stops again - the chopper is tipped, nose first towards the ground, hanging there as the robbers wonder what's going on. A gradual pan out, and the truth becomes clear - the helicopter is suspended in a giant spider-web between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
We don't even need the tantalising glimpse of Spidey himself to round off the trailer - but we get it anyway. A quick head shot, a quick firing of web, and the briefest of montages of him swinging and jumping through the city. It's difficult to imagine now that we've had three films' worth of the stuff, but bear in mind that this was the first time that we'd ever seen a live-action (well, CGI presented as live-action) representation of Marvel's foremost hero's famed abilities. It was, for want of a better phrase, bloody spectacular.
As a teaser, this just ticks all the boxes. It runs for over a minute before we have any indication whatsoever of what it's supposed to be advertising - for that time it just looks like a generic and frankly somewhat cheesy heist story. The moment of revelation is beautifully played, not least because it's not simultaneous for every viewer - different people will have twigged at different times just what was going on. Best of all, canny viewers would have spotted that it references the theme tune to the '70s TV series - "Spins a web, any size / Catches thieves, just like flies" (the blades of the helicopter even twitch as it's trapped in the web, calling to mind the wings of a helpless fly).
Of course, the destruction of the WTC towers only a matter of months later quickly put paid to the trailer's short life in cinemas, and prevented its inclusion on the subsequent DVD. Understandable, of course - but as a significant part of movie history (and, indeed, given Spider-Man's inexorable tie to New York culture), it is a shame that it's not more widely available all these years later. Irrespective of the tragic events that it will always be associated with, though, it's hard to deny that the trailer represents the ultimate pinnacle of the art of the teaser.
NB - if you spot a broken video link, let us know and we'll try to find an updated one!