5 Things Hollywood Film Trailers Can Teach Us About Shooting Compelling Video

Photo: Fernando de Sousa 

Over the years, Hollywood trailers have gone from ways to entertain early moviegoers to one of the most powerful marketing tools in film.

Now that we can watch these trailers wherever we get online, they've become more important than ever. They get us hyped about a movie on the horizon. They offer chances for "superfans" to dissect every frame and predict how the movie will turn out.

The trailer-editing industry has come a long way. In just a few decades it has evolved from using tons of written copy and "voice of God" narration to tightly-cut, two-minute roller coaster experiences.

Good Hollywood trailers don't just entertain. They can also teach you a lot about how to tell more compelling stories in your own videos.

Short Attention Spans and Sky-High Audience Expectations

The evolution of film trailers couldn't come at a better time because audience expectations are higher than ever before.

The millions of people who go to the movies (some of whom you're targeting with your own videos) are swimming in information. We're overloaded with so many distractions we don't know what to do with them. There's a sense we've "seen it all." We're more critical, and stingier with our attention.

All these things create a demand for the highest level of storytelling possible.

Here are five cool ways the masters of Hollywood trailers are delivering just that – and how you can do the same in your videos:

How to Tell Better Visual Stories

Every movie is different, but the people who make the trailers follow key principles that make for a good story no matter the genre or subject matter:

1. Try to See Your Videos from the Audience's Perspective

Trailer makers have way more access to the films than the people who watch their trailers. Most of them get access to the entire film, or at least large portions of it, before they get to work.

That makes sense because trailer creators need raw material to work with, but it can also make things challenging.

Trailer creators have to be careful to see everything in the trailer as the audience would… without the benefit of context that comes from seeing the entire movie first.

A simple gesture, like a smile or a clock striking a certain time, might mean the world to someone who's seen the entire movie. But to someone who's coming into the experience fresh, it's just a smile or a clock.

If you produce a lot of videos for a client and develop a long term relationship, sometimes it's easy to get too close to your projects. You already know the client and what they're selling sell. So you can lose your perspective about what would resonate with an audience.

It helps to create a little difference if you can. One trailer company, Wild Card, gets multiple editors together in a screening room to watch films before they start working. This experience – seeing how other people react – allow them to spot the key moments in the film.

Sometimes it's a good idea to have a different person edit the video than the one who shoots it. This helps keep an objective perspective and avoid getting too emotionally attached to certain shots.

2. Treat Each Video as a "Mini Movie" with a Defined Structure

One of the most important ways trailer makers capture attention is to treat each trailer is a "movie" in its own right.

Good trailers leave people with more questions than answers, but they're careful to guide their audience through a journey from beginning, to middle, to end.

Many film trailers a loose three-act structure:

  1. Introduce everyone to the characters, their goals, and their world
  2. Complicate their world with obstacles to overcome
  3. Intensify the conflicts and ratchet up the tension/excitement/humor (depends on genre)

Take a look how the trailer for Inception does this:

First we're introduced to Leo DiCaprio's character. Things get more complicated when he starts getting chased by men in suits. And everything builds to an intense finale – part of the earth falling off into the sea.

All of your videos might not follow this three-act structure. And you probably won't want to leave the third act open-ended… unless you're shooting something (like an explainer or demo) specifically designed to get people to watch more. It depends on the video and the message you're trying to convey…

But the beginning, middle, and end structure is a good guideline to follow. Taking viewers on a journey is a great way to get them emotionally invested and receptive to watching more.

3. Start (and End) with a Bang

All the best trailers start with something that shakes people out of their comfort zones – a haunting image, a snappy piece of dialog, etc. – and end on an equally strong note.

This is a great way to get people's attention, as they're much more likely to remember those things than what's in the middle. It takes advantage of the primacy and recency effects.

Take a look how Warner Brothers did this in the film Gravity:

Things start off with a serious problem: NASA radioing some astronauts to abort a mission. They escalate to the brutal end with an astronaut spinning out of control in space. We're left wondering what happens next!

What you do in the middle of your videos is less important than what you do at the very beginning and the end. Remember, you only have about 15 seconds to get someone's attention before they turn their focus elsewhere.

What are the most important parts of the message you're trying to convey? Pack those into the beginning and the end. It's what will get attention. And it's what people will remember.

4. Every Element in the Video Must Serve a Purpose

Most film trailers are around two minutes long.

That's an ideal length for an overstimulated, distracted audience. Anything longer, and their attention starts to fade.

This leaves it up to the trailer to do a lot in a short time frame. They have to introduce characters and the world, show how things get complicated, and leave enough open-ended questions so the audience wants to find out more.

Every frame in a good trailer – every beat of music, every word of dialog – moves the story along. It serves a definite purpose.

This is a good policy to live by for all of your videos.

Resist the urge to over-explain things. Audiences are more sophisticated now. How can you convey the information in the least amount of time possible?

Take a look how the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer does this:

You won't find any cheesy voice overs. The trailer uses dialog to advance the plot while conveying a funny, lighthearted tone. We're able to see quickly this won't be like the typical superhero movie.

Sometimes a single image conveys more than 30 seconds of narration ever could. Or vice versa.

Every element of your video should serve a purpose. Even better if they can serve multiple purposes at the same time (something that conveys a product benefit while being humorous, for instance).

5. Emphasize What Makes You Unique

Your audience will give you leeway for many things. You might be able to skate by with a slightly below-average script or production value, but there's little tolerance for a lack of originality.

A feeling of déjà vu – like they've seen this video before – will drive people away quickly.

This is especially important in the film industry, where a ton of flicks are reboots or derivatives of old ideas. Audiences crave something that sets your film apart. Something that makes you an original.

Take a look at this trailer for the sci-fi movie Interstellar:

We've seen a million movies about space before, but never a trailer quite like this. The beauty of this trailer lies in its simplicity. No tense action sequences like the Gravity trailer; just one of the actors narrating a philosophical, inspirational message about space.

It's crucial to emphasize what makes your client's products, service, or message unique no matter what kind of videos you shoot.

What is it about their brand that separates them from the others? It might be their humor, unique approach to work, or their commitment to customer service.

Whatever it is, there's bound to be at least one thing your client does differently than anyone else. Finding that, and highlighting it in videos, gets attention and makes your videos memorable.

Your Turn

The bar to deliver tightly-cut, compelling stories via video has never been higher.

In today's overstimulated and attention-jumping world, borrowing a few pages from the Hollywood film trailer's playbook will help.

Being able to tell great stories is a timeless skill – one that resonates no matter which client you're helping or project you're working on.

Are you already using any of these storytelling concepts from Hollywood film trailers? If so, which ones?