In the decades since Hollywood first breathlessly sold its features to audiences, the art of movie trailers has changed dramatically. Click through our gallery to watch 15 of the greatest examples of coming attractions.
"The Sea Hawk" (1940)
Early studio system trailers were marvels of hucksterism -- grandiose ad copy that promised every movie to be GREATEST, the FUNNIEST, the MOST ACTION-PACKED, the MOST UNFORGETTABLE. In addition to a film's starry-eyed gloss, the trailers sold stars -- box office draws and beloved character actors -- to get moviegoers to shell out for even MORE tickets.
"The Sea Hawk" trailer has all of this and more. An evocative pitch for the Errol Flynn pirate adventure, the ad is notable not just for packing in so much in the way of thrills, romance and derring-do (plus Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stunning music), but for being that rare case when the film truly lived up to the superlatives heaped upon it.
"Citizen Kane" (1941)
If "The Sea Hawk" was an example of a studio trailer typical of Hollywood's Golden Age, Orson Welles' trailer for "Citizen Kane" is perhaps the anti-trailer, poking a bit of fun at the marketing of a film and at his own celebrity (a radio star in the late 1930s, Welles doesn't appear on camera).
He introduces chorus girls ("Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, we're just showing you the chorus girls for purposes of bally-hoo. Pretty nice bally-hoo!") and the cast of his film, who mirror the conceit of "Kane" by each describing Charles Foster Kane from the prism of their own experience.
"The Big Sleep" (1946)
Just how frequently does Humphrey Bogart wander into the Hollywood Public Library? Well, you would, too, if Lauren Bacall were there to recommend the latest mystery from Raymond Chandler. In this trailer the stars go the extra mile in promoting their film, heralding its ripped-from-the-bestselling-novel's-pages immediacy, while also showcasing Howard Hawks' moody lighting and Max Steiner's music.
Among film directors, Alfred Hitchcock was undoubtedly the biggest star by the time he introduced his 1960 horror film in this extended trailer shot on the backlot and stages representing the Bates Motel and the dismal house on the hill where Norman Bates' mother lived -- and where the "most dire, horrible events" of "Psycho" took place. Backed by jokey music, Hitchcock tut-tuts about the indelicacy of even mentioning the sordid content of the film, which of course makes us laugh and want to see more.
"Point Blank" (1967)
As filmmakers branched out into more counter-cultural topics and techniques in the 1960s and early '70s, trailers reflected this change in marketing. Instead of Technicolor superlatives, we were given dour messages about anti-heroes. The trailer for John Boorman's crime drama "Point Blank," starring Lee Marvin as Walker (see, he walks a lot), described as "an emotional and primitive man" seeking vengeance, tries to warn us that we will witness vengeance and "mental agony" at "point-blank range," but the real tension is -- kinda ridiculously -- provided by Marvin's constant walking.
"The Exorcist" (1973)
Composer Lalo Schifrin, best known for "Mission: Impossible" and "Cool Hand Luke," was commissioned to write the score for William Friedkin's "The Exorcist," which he prefaced with music written especially for this trailer -- one of the most disturbing ever made. Over flashing, black-and-white still images of a possessed Linda Blair, the strident music (reminiscent of Krzysztof Penderecki) grips us and refuses to let go. Even if you weren't familiar with William Peter Blatty's bestseller about a girl possessed by the Devil, you'd know you were in for a ride.
Reaction to the trailer -- many reported vomiting, and the strobe effects must have been anathema to anyone prone to epilepsy -- was swift; the studio pulled it, and Schifrin was dropped from the picture, which ultimately made memorable use of Michael Oldfield's more reassuring "Tubular Bells" instead.
Just as Hitchcock used himself to pitch his films, Woody Allen appeared in this 1973 trailer for his comedy "Sleeper," making the case that it was more intellectual and cerebral than the slapstick science fiction farce actually was.
"There's very little overt comedy in the film," Allen says, a claim that, of course, the clips negate entirely.
"Taxi Driver" (1976)
In the '30s, '40s and '50s, stars were sold for their glamour. For Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," the trailer's narrator sells Robert De Niro's critically-acclaimed talent and Oscar win for "The Godfather Part II," and promises that his Travis Bickle is "a terrifying portrait of life on the edge of madness."
The narrator intones: "The taxi driver is looking for a target ... getting ready ... getting organized ... for the only moment in his life that will ever mean anything."
Not a light evening's entertainment for sure, but the trailer does accurately depict the film's gritty realism, and the dichotomy that Bickle presents, as both a charmer and a threatening harbinger of death.
"You've never seen a more chilling performance than this." One thing's for sure, they can't be accused of overselling.
According to an apocryphal story, the ad line for Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi horror film ("In space no one can hear you scream") was actually overheard at a preview screening. True or not (who wouldn't want to take credit for the greatest tag line ever written?), the trailer is effective in setting up the situation -- crewmembers trapped in space, where an alien threat is born -- with just enough glimpsed to set us on edge.
"The Shining" (1980)
Stanley Kubrick was behind innovative trailers for "Dr. Strangelove" and "A Clockwork Orange," but his most stately, and disconcerting, trailer was for his 1980 horror film based on Stephen King's "The Shining." It is a masterpiece of minimalism, consisting of a single shot of an elevator at the Overlook Hotel, which unleashes a torrent of blood. Who wouldn't go see that?
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)
The science fiction-y premise of the Michel Gondry-Charlie Kaufman romantic comedy "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is laid out in the start of this trailer, as a faux commercial featuring Tom Wilkinson selling the very service he tries to sell Jim Carrey -- erasure of memories of a broken heart. It exploits the film's skewed angles and stylized visuals (why do people just disappear?), while softening the blow with bouncy music. It also prevents us from thinking this is a typical, slapstick Jim Carrey movie.
"Little Children" (2006)
Sound - incorporating the plaintive horn of a commuter train in the distance - is used exceptionally well in this trailer for "Little Children," about two stay-at-home suburbanites (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) who begin an affair, and the spouse (Jennifer Connelly) who begins to suspect. Ennui, leading to passion, leading to trouble. The trailer makes no mention of an extensive subplot involving a hounded child molester, but the trailer makers know that's not necessary (not when you've got Winslet's iconic red swimsuit).
Of the last decade's found-footage horror films, J.J. Abrams' "Cloverfield" was one of the better examples, and its trailer made good use of that aesthetic -- long, extended handheld camera shots by a partygoer who witnesses a massive catastrophic event in New York City. The action of the trailer is kept mostly off-screen or to the side, disorienting us about the actual threat, which is mostly suggested by the panic of the actors (and that head of the Statue of Liberty which ends up in your street).
"The Social Network" (2010)
I don't care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice
When I'm not around
You're so very special
I wish I was special...
The striving heard in the Belgian women's choir Scala and Kolacny Brothers' haunting cover of Radiohead's "Creep" beautifully underscores images and messages on Facebook -- cherished moments, new relationships, love, birth, desperation and pain. The audience, already familiar with the power of sharing the most intimate aspects of their lives on Facebook, is then introduced to the narrative of the film, about a Harvard student whose very exclusive website becomes, ironically, the center of the universe for a half-billion people. The trailer pitches that irony just right.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (2011)
A teaser (an early release version of trailers) is often threadbare on dialogue or specific plot points; its purpose is to sell awareness, and mood. Perhaps the best use of music to suck us into the mood of a film is in this teaser for David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Accompanied by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Karen O's cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," we get quick cuts interrupting a long, stately drive into a mysterious, snow-covered estate. There is so much movement, we can't help but be carried along into the conspiratorial environment of Stieg Larsson's thriller series.
The mood is capped with the punchy tag line: "The feel bad movie of Christmas." Truth in advertising!