Most cinephiles will tell you that the moviegoing experience is incomplete if you miss so much as a single trailer. In the days before the internet, previews of coming attractions used to be one of the only ways to keep tabs on what was headed to your local theater (especially if you lived in a small town). Best of all were the teasers, early pieces of advertising released to theaters anywhere from six months to a year ahead of time. An expertly cut teaser could drive you mad with anticipation. "I have to wait half a year to see this???" Twenty-five years ago, the early teaser for "Independence Day" fired up moviegoers without a single shot of a star or an alien. It might be the best of its kind. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the most brilliantly conceived teasers in film history.
Shadows, creepy music, and an exploding White House: that’s all 20th Century Fox needed to hook moviegoers half a year in advance of “Independence Day” hitting theaters. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had just scored a box office success with “Stargate”, but it wasn’t worthy of “from the makers of” hype. Meanwhile, the film’s biggest name, Will Smith, wasn’t a major movie star yet. Absent an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Harrison Ford, Fox had to rely on the money shot of 1600 Pennsylvania going up. The film was a worldwide smash, and, rumor has it, spawned a sequel in 2016.
If John McTiernan and Michael Kamen could score chunks of “Die Hard” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, Renny Harlin figured he was good to go with the “Dies Irae” from Mozart’s “Requiem” to get folks hyped on his Rocky Mountain actioner starring Sylvester Stallone. It’s a brilliantly timed, money-shot-stuffed teaser that uses its muscular rendition of Mozart’s composition to punctuate explosions, leaps, and a suitcase full of cash bursting open as it hits a ledge. Though the film basically delivered on this dizzying promise, it couldn’t match the literal thrill-a-second rush of the teaser, which is still one of the best ever cut.
In the days before the internet, motion picture production was still a mystery to the vast majority of the public. Most people didn’t know what the dream factory was up to until they saw the coming attractions at their local movie theater. So when this teaser popped up in late 1987 with a portentous synth track and “A Lucasfilm Ltd. Production” credit, there were gasps from the audience. The voiceover gives nothing away, so, for a few seconds, a lot of people thought this might be an announcement for “Star Wars” prequels. The teaser definitely got the nerds talking, but that excitement didn’t carry over to mainstream moviegoers. “Willow” underperformed at the box office, and failed to become George Lucas’s next blockbuster franchise.
No teaser was necessary. All you had to do was slap “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” on the marquee, and the line would wrap around the block several times over. But 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm, in lieu of finished footage, did the fans a solid by dropping this ingenious, storyboard-driven piece of marketing into theaters. Free of context, no one knew they’d seen an illustrated still of the biggest movie moment of 1980. It’s just imagery whirling by on the screen, with the (unfulfilled) promise of “wookiees” and the introduction of “Landau Calrissian”.
A full year before its release, Sony worked up a teaser for Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s “Godzilla” wherein the skeletal remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex get stomped by the big green lizard. The callout of “Jurassic Park” was clear, but the studio cheekily went the extra mile and attached it to “The Lost World”. There was a second teaser involving a fisherman on a pier, but the museum trailer is the one everyone remembers. People cheered! They were amped for “Godzilla”! If only Emmerich and Devlin had put a little more imagination and joy into the actual movie.
Everything you need to know about the chaotic making of “Alien3” can be found in Charles de Lauzirika’s making-of documentary on the Blu-ray, including the origin of this hilariously misleading teaser that primed moviegoers for an Earthbound follow-up to James Cameron’s invigoratingly militaristic “Aliens”. Though the film was already headed before cameras as a dour, prison-colony set dirge (that would begin with the off-screen death of Newt and Hicks, and end with Sigourney Weaver plunging into a furnace), Fox marketing decided to throw a curveball that promised “Aliens” on steroids… on Earth! The trailer (modeled on the first Alien teaser) didn’t hang around in theaters for long, so the damage was minimal. “Alien3” – a strange, sad, timely AIDS allegory – failed to connect with audiences because it simply wasn’t fun.
Accompanied by jaunty music, we’re informed at the outset of this teaser that “The fabulous Mr. Alfred Hitchcock is about to escort you on a tour of his new motion picture, ‘Psycho’.” Three things: 1) the film’s title splashes across the screen in its now iconic font for the first time, 2) the motel looks much more dilapidated than it does in the finished film, and 3) the crane shot that dips down to meet Hitch as he strides into the foreground of the Bates’s residence prompts laughs, not shivers. The Master of Suspense proceeds to take viewers through a cheeky walkthrough of the premises, terminating at the shower where Janet Leigh is murdered. Having completely disarmed the audience, Hitchcock swipes back the shower curtain at which point we cut to a shot of a screaming Vera Mills (Leigh was unavailable to shoot the teaser) just as Bates is about to plunge the knife. Most people didn’t see this six-and-a-half-minute spot before the movie hit theaters, so the secret of the shower scene wasn’t ruined.
The first teaser for William Friedkin’s horror classic was deemed by Warner Bros. to be too shocking for audiences, and, well, this is one of those rare cases where a studio’s caution might’ve been warranted. Because this sucker is a nightmare machine. Strobe-lit stills of horrifying moments from the film, including Linda Blair in full demon makeup (courtesy of f/x wizard Dıck Smith), flash across the screen as a discordant symphony of strings wails on the soundtrack. Watch it in a dark room with the volume jacked up and you won’t sleep for weeks. This trailer could’ve scared off those curious to see what all the devilish fuss was about, but it was more likely to hype up the horror faithful.
“Jaws 3-D” is trash that’s borderline unwatchable due to its degraded transfer (all of the movies from that ‘80s 3D era look lousy, regardless of the format), but it’s got a nifty teaser that gave moviegoers a good jolt. Voiceover artist Percy Rodriguez sends a chill up your spine with his ominous narration (“A creature alive today has survived millions of years of evolution…”), building in intensity to a final image of a giant shark fin swimming directly at the viewer. It’s far more effective than anything in the finished film.
Warner Bros. might’ve vetoed this teaser a la “The Exorcist” if they hadn’t ceded total creative control to Stanley Kubrick in just about every aspect of the filmmaking process. The MPAA, which prohibited blood from being shown in film trailers, tried to put the kibosh on it, but Kubrick assured them it was just “rusty water” gushing from the elevators. The eerie Wendy Carlos/Rachel Elkind cue that plays over the teaser was inspired by the duo’s reaction to Stephen King’s book and composed a year before the film began shooting.
This teaser is a mess. It was rushed into theaters while the film was still being shot and is comprised entirely of unmixed audio (basically taken straight from the dailies). But it’s got two important attributes: Michael Keaton being a charming Bruce Wayne (he was considered questionable casting in this role), and Jack Nicholson flat-out slaying as The Joker. Tim Burton’s “Batman” opened to a then-record $40 million and launched a big-screen franchise that endures to this day. The teaser was a mess, but it did the trick.
Jerry Zucker’s “Ghost” was still playing in theaters in late 1990 when his brother, David, churned out this brilliant parody to tease the June 1991 release of “The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear” (for which Jerry received writing and executive producer credits despite not being involved creatively). Given the Paramount logo and the familiar strains of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”, audiences probably thought they were watching the trailer for a rerelease of “Ghost” until the camera drifted over to the pottery wheel to reveal Leslie Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin and Priscilla Presley’s Jane Spencer in place of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. It all quickly escalates from there. During an overhead shot, a third set of hands and feet mysteriously enter the erotic tableau. Audiences howled, and “The Naked Gun 2 1/2 “ went on to do monster business that summer.
Having established the X-Men as the first blockbuster comic book franchise of the 2000s for Fox, Bryan Singer allowed himself to be poached by Warner Bros to relaunch their long-dormant Superman series. Rather than reinvent the character, Singer opted to make his film a continuation of Richard Donner’s beloved iteration. This meant recasting the main roles, none more crucial than Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Clark Kent/Superman. Fans were skeptical of Brandon Routh as the new Man of Steel, yet encouraged by Singer’s reverence for the Donner movie; the whole endeavor would likely hinge on the teaser. Singer, Routh, and the rest of the crew passed the audition with the first trailer (and an extended peek at the 2005 San Diego Comic-Con), which leans very heavily on Marlon Brando’s voiceover (as Jor-El) and John Williams’s iconic “Fortress of Solitude” cue. The movie might’ve failed to meet box office expectations, but, one year prior to release, the candle was lit.
“Guys like you don’t die on toilets.” The first “Lethal Weapon” was a surprise hit thanks largely to the good cop/crazy cop chemistry of Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, so Warner Bros wisely zeroed in on that dynamic for the sequel’s first teaser. It also helped that they had an effective, semi-absurd scenario that sold the heightened silliness of the follow-up. It’s a terrific teaser, but what’s most interesting is that it clearly wasn’t meant to be a standalone piece of advertising; otherwise, they would’ve shot an opening take without Joe Pesci’s new-to-the-series Leo Getz at the beginning to avoid any hint of confusion.
How do you sell a star-studded disaster flick? Line up the celebrities, and ask, “Who will survive?” These movies are reverse whodunnits in a way; you buy a ticket to see famous people thrust into a catastrophe, and watch with queasy fascination as each big-name cheats or meets death. And then there’s the spectacle, which this teaser adroitly sells (including Ernie Orsatti’s magnificent thirty-two-foot backward fall through the ship’s skylight); the very effective teaser for “The Perfect Storm” definitely took its cue from this spot’s eye-popping tidal wave. Don’t show it all, but show more than audiences might expect. And, again, get them guessing as to who’s gonna die.
Peter Jackson’s ambitious adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic was far from a sure thing when New Line gambled on a full-blown trilogy. Though the books had been hugely popular with Baby Boomers throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the furor for them had waned by the time Jackson proposed his adaptation. A whole new generation would have to be wooed. So New Line put together a teaser presentation that showed off both the groundbreaking WETA f/x and the massive physical scale of the series (all shot in New Zealand). The marketing campaign – which used fansites to drum up enthusiasm amongst the geeks – was pioneering in its own right, selling a trilogy on the hope that audiences would buy in on the first film to an unprecedented degree.
Fifteen years of bottled-up anticipation exploded in the fall of 1998 when Lucasfilm unveiled the first teaser for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”. It was a nightmare of a day for multiplex employees; the fandom masses lined up on what should’ve been a quiet November Wednesday and demanded to know which movies had the goods (lots of people paid full admission to not watch “Meet Joe Black”). There were early warning signs: a preponderance of Jar Jar Binks, some stiff line readings, and that awful Yoda puppet. But Williams’s music and our first looks at Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ray Park’s Darth Maul were all that really mattered. “Star Wars” was back. For one night, we were sated.
Yes, there was a time when the entertainment industry viewed “Iron Man” as a massive gamble, if not a guaranteed box-office loser. Robert Downey Jr. lacked blockbuster star power, Jon Favreau was far from a sure thing as a filmmaker and Ol’ Shellhead was a B-level Marvel character at best. This teaser, which debuted at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con, changed the narrative significantly. Downey oozed movie star charm as Tony Stark, and the film looked like a total blast. The obligatory, but effective use of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” sealed the deal. The MCU doesn’t blast off without this movie.
Decades later, the most surprising element of this teaser is that it doesn’t show the bullet-time f/x that is generally credited with selling audiences on this completely unknown quantity. For the most part, it plays up the film’s sleek aesthetic and reality-bending premise, ending with the URL (whatisthematrix.com) of the website. Keanu Reeves was coming off a hit in “The Devil’s Advocate”, but he was far from bankable at this point in his career. Most moviegoers didn’t know their names yet, but what they found most appealing about this teaser was the Wachowskis.
The “Friday the 13th” franchise was running on fumes by 1989, so Paramount Pictures resorted to gimmickry to revive audience interest in the continuing killings of Jason Voorhees by sending the machete-wielding monster to New York City. This teaser cranes down from the Manhattan skyline to the strains of a fair-use “New York, New York” cue, lulling the audience into thinking this is a trailer for a romantic comedy. The camera stops behind a hulking man in a rain-pelted jacket. It’s Jason! It’s also a gargantuan bait-and-switch because the bulk of the movie is set on a boat. Still, it’s a savvy piece of marketing.
Sometimes, all you need is ominous music, white text on a black background, and old school videocam footage of a terrified young woman offering tearful apologies to the families of her crew. This teaser was built on the film’s ecstatic reception at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, where numerous critics had hailed it as possibly the scariest movie ever made. It was just a piece of a larger viral marketing effort that changed the way films are sold forever.
Quentin Tarantino hadn’t released a movie for five years when this teaser for “Kill Bill” hit theaters in late 2002, which meant it had to get mainstream audiences excited all over again about the filmmaker’s genre-blending wizardry. It also had to sell him as an action director, something he wasn’t known for at all after the dialogue-driven “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”. Scored to Tomoyasu Hotei’s propulsive “Battle Without Honor or Humanity”, the teaser – cut before the film was split into two parts at Harvey Weinstein’s request – largely consists of shots from the epic “House of Blue Leaves” fight sequence. Most notably, there are only a few bits of spoken dialogue. Welcome to Phase Two Tarantino, kids.
“When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” This is already one of the best taglines of all time, but when it’s spoken by the great Adolph Caesar, it’s downright Shakespearean. This teaser sells George A. Romero’s zombie bonafides by name-checking “Night of the Living Dead”, as well as the film’s over-the-top gore, which earned it an X rating from the MPAA. By the time the teaser hit, the decision had been made to release the movie unrated, hence the concluding text assuring viewers there is no “explicit sex” in the film, but that there are “scenes of violence that may be considered shocking”.
This teaser for Jan de Bont’s action extravaganza about tornado chasers is a testament to the power of editing and sound f/x. After some voiceover hooey about nature’s potential to “go mad”, we’re thrust into a frantic situation involving a rural family scrambling to get to their cellar before a tornado tears through their property. It’s a lot of shaky cam and cuts to black, but the terrifying noise of the storm and the clattering of the basement door pins the audience to their seats. It builds to an uncertain conclusion, with the title hitting right at the moment it seems the door might’ve been torn off its hinges. But that’s not the end. There’s a jarring stinger shot that hurls a tractor tire straight at the camera. These last-second jolts became commonplace after this teaser, but it’s never been done better.
The J.J. Abrams “mystery box” method of movie marketing at its most inventive. This ultra-buzzy teaser was attached to “Transformers” in 2007, and it immediately got the fan-folk talking. There was no title, no premise, no warning that this film was coming – which, in 2007, with scads of movie websites and blogs covering every genre production from development to production, was an impressive achievement. The closing money shot shows the head of the Statue of Liberty being flung down a New York City street. Speculation ran rampant in the days leading up to the San Diego Comic-Con. Was this a new “Godzilla” movie? An H.P. Lovecraft monster flick? A live-action “Voltron”? Nope. It was “Cloverfield”, a solid found-footage sci-fi/horror movie that spawned one very good sequel and, um, “The Cloverfield Paradox”.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.