These days, we’re used to the marketing hype for a major film building up about two years ahead of release. Visitors to Comic-Con got a preview of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, for example, more than two years ahead of its due date. Our collective hunger for a first look at major forthcoming films is such that, it seems, studios are keen to show off their work-in-progress earlier and earlier.
But there are ways of teasing a forthcoming movie without showing a frame of the finished product, which is where the following list comes in. They’re all examples of promos that manage to get across the flavour of a future film without going into story details. Some of them were made before a foot of celluloid was exposed, or even a page of script written.
The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but it certainly contains some of our absolute favorites.
This seminal, blackly comic horror thriller marked a change of direction for Alfred Hitchcock – a pared-back approach that would soon re-energise his career. Adapted from the novel by Robert Bloch, Psycho was shot relatively cheaply, using some of the cast and crew from the director’s hit TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents to save money. The trailer Hitchcock put together has a similar approach to the series, placing Hitch front and centre as he leads us round the Bates Motel with his typical gallows humor.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s chilly, exceedingly gory remake of Howard Hawkes and Christian Nyby’s The Thing horrified critics in 1982, but it’s since been reassessed as a cult classic. Audiences may not have been expecting anything quite as apocalyptic and graphic as The Thing in a summer which also saw the release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but this teaser trailer at least gave them a fair warning. When even the marketing talks about the end of the world, you can be sure the finished film won’t be a barrel of laughs.
The imagery’s subtle, too – only die-hard sci-fi fans would have recognised the block of ice, which famously carried the angry alien in the 1951 original.
Back To The Future (1985)
“How far you going?” A disembodied voice asks Marty McFly. “About 30 years,” he says, coolly. When this teaser trailer was made, the filmmakers would have needed a time machine to discover just how popular Back To The Future would be 30 years later. Even this 80-second promo contains so many elements we now recognise from the film: the DeLorean, the flux capacitor, those twin trails of burning tyre tracks – and, of course, Marty McFly himself, decked out in jeans and mirrored shades.
Total Recall (1990)
There was once a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger was such a big deal that, in order to sell a big movie, all you had to do was have a minute long trailer showing his imposing face slowly rotating. In space. This was Carolco’s approach to marketing its 1990 sci-fi action jamboree Total Recall, which also features some lovely retro special effects. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A red planet surface. A black pyramid. Take my money, Carolco!
See also: the rise and fall of Carolco
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Could this still rank as the best teaser trailer ever made? Made at a time when not a single frame of the film itself had been shot – and before James Cameron had finished a script – effects genius Stan Winston was given $500,000 to create the promo above. Giving us a tour of the factory where Skynet makes its human-killing cyborgs, it shows a T-800 rolling along the production line and later emerging from a chamber covered in Schwarzenegger-shaped flesh.
Looking surprisingly like the finished film in terms of lighting and tone, the trailer told us everything we needed to know: Arnold was coming back in his star-making role.
Alien 3 (1992)
What would become the second Alien sequel had already struggled through years of pre-production when this teaser trailer emerged in 1991. That nobody could quite decide what the story was going to entail is quite evident – the familiar alien egg hovering over our planet, along with the narration, “In 1992, on Earth, everyone can hear you scream” teases a story that as ultimately abandoned. That Fox had set itself a 1992 release date would prove to be an even greater problem, as a young David Fincher was forced to hurriedly finish Alien 3 with studio executives glowering at him from the sidelines.
Jurassic Park (1993)
No doubt realising that some of Jurassic Park‘s biggest, most cutting-edge spectacles should be kept back for the big screen, the makers of this teaser trailer concentrates instead on the genesis of John Hammond’s revived dinosaurs. Showing how dinosaur DNA was extracted from a mosquito found in prehistoric amber, it’s a cagey taste of things to come. “For the first time, man and dinosaur shared the Earth. It happened at a place called Jurassic Park…”
The Game (1997)
After the success of Seven made David Fincher the toast of Hollywood, he returned two years later with another nail-biting thriller. We can recall there being a certain amount of intrigue surrounding The Game after its announcement. Alien3 was a murky film, and Seven was darker still. What form would The Game take? The teaser trailer gives little away, relating little more than some panicked voices and a jerking marionette on a string. “Who did this to me? Why?”
The original teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Hook – a movie we looked at in more detail here – did feature one major part of the movie. That’d be John Williams’ wonderful, wonderful score. But other than that, this original promo was Captain Hook scouring a treasure map in search of the film’s credits, it appears. He finds them too, without wishing to give the game away. It’s effective, teases the hook itself, and ignited a hype machine that would build until the film’s eventual release.
Barry Levinson’s wildly ambitious movie Toys was always going to be a hard film to explain and sell, and perhaps that’s why the original teaser trailers didn’t really bother. Instead, the idea was simple: put the late Robin Williams in the middle of a field, to do his one-man pitch for a minute and a half. In fact, two of these were put out in the end, although there’s an awful lot of overlap. Here’s the second.
Favorite line? “What’s it about? It’s about an hour an a half!”
The film, sadly, would look quite beautiful, but ultimately fail to catch on.
Last Action Hero (1993)
“Sorry. Not yet. Come back later”.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to action cinema, back in the early ’90s, was a very big thing. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day had put him firmly on the top of the box office tree, but it would be two years until he’d return to the genre (sort of), in Last Action Hero.
Columbia-TriStar was clearly pumped to have the new Arnie movie, and the Christmas before, it screened an especially shot trailer, with one eye no doubt on how effective the tactic had been for both Total Recall and the aforementioned Terminator sequel.
Unfortunately, despite its merits, Last Action Hero wouldn’t prove to be the big ticket for ’93 at all. That would prove to be Jurassic Park. Schwarzenegger, to date, hasn’t had a film that’s come close to the numbers of Terminator 2 since…
The Muppets (2011)
The marketing campaign for 2011’s The Muppets was quite wonderful. It kicked off, you might recall, with this trailer that did use footage for the movie, albeit in a film called Green With Envy. Yep, the first The Muppets trailer was basically in disguise. We still remember the moment of glee when Kermit popped up, and we realised what we’d actually got.
It’s what followed that earns The Muppets a place on this list, however. Disney put out a series of trailers that were just designed to take the piss out of other films. And few movies were safe.
Take this one, for instance, for Green Lantern (which did eventually weave some film footage in, so we’ve cheated slightly)…
Or what about re-editing footage into the style of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trailer…
Can we have another Muppets film soon please Disney? Thanks.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
Always loved this one. What’s terrific about the first teaser trailer for Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade is that it effectively doubles as a quick making-of featurette for the film itself. As such, the onus is on footage of the film being put together, with cameras in shot, actors out of character, and Steven Spielberg at work. “Just another day at the office,” Harrison Ford muses, as the trailer basically announces that the movie is in production. You simply don’t see them like this anymore…
Columbia-Tristar tried its Last Action Hero tactics with Roland Emmerich’s much-trumpeted 1998 Godzilla movie, which it started to aggressively push a full year out from release. The whole focus of the eventual marketing campaign was that ‘Size Does Matter’, and this promo was put together to play before Men In Black the year before. In truth, of course, it was aiming at The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which was also playing in the summer of 1997.
Not a speck of footage from this ended up in the main feature. More’s the pity, really…
The Addams Family (1991)
Love this. Simple and effective, and introducing the fact that The Addams Family was returning in a big screen feature. This one didn’t play outside the US, and if you take a look at Uncle Fester, you’ll notice that he’s not played by Christopher Lloyd here, as he would be in the eventual feature.
We looked in some detail about the problems behind the scenes with The Addams Family, here.
Rocky IV (1985)
“My name is Drago. I am a fighter from the Soviet Union…. soon I fight Rocky Balboa”
Yes you will, Ivan Drago.
“Soon, the whole world will know my name”.
Yes it will, Ivan Drago.
And bluntly, whoever came up with a teaser trailer about Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) suiting up for the thoroughly brilliant Rocky IV deserves a very, very warm handshake.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
There’s some stunning material in the first 40 minutes or so of Francis Ford Coppola’ movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And the spirit of it is hinted at in this very first teaser for the film. It’s got just a little bit of film footage, with Gary Oldman in the title role. What’s more, it does veer just a little towards the kind of logo reveal trailer that now seems commonplace. But there’s very much a mood and style at work…
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
The tactics at use in the first trailer for the South Park movie may seem commonplace now, but in the late ’90s, this kind of approach still worked…
Men In Black (1997)
There was a time when Men In Black films seemed exciting and new, and this teaser trailer certainly helped. Specially filmed for the promotional campaign, it introduced Messrs Smith and Jones in a movie that would ignite a trilogy, and prove to be one of the few highlights of the summer 1997 season.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
“If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars”
Arguably the best comedy teaser trailer of its type the ’90s gave us, the Austin Powers 2 promo stood on the shoulders of the increasing hype for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This arrived at a point when the internet wasn’t quite so savvy at giving the game away in advance, and so multiplex crowds were genuinely expecting a surprise Phantom Menace teaser. It would be fair to say that they got something better than that…
Smokey And The Bandit 3 (1983)
Here’s an interesting one. Smokey And The Bandit Part 3 is the weakest of the trilogy, with its budget stripped down and no Burt Reynolds in sight. We did get Jackie Gleason returning though, and he filmed this special promo, back when the film had a very slightly different name…
The name at the end of the promo – Smokey Is The Bandit – refers to what was the original version of the movie. At first, the film wasn’t going to include Jerry Reed, but after reports of poor test screenings, additional footage brought him into the movie. The title thus changed as a consequence, as before that, Gleason was to play both Smokey and the Bandit role. Reed would take on the latter.
The Incredibles (2004)
Few pieces of sequel news have made us happier than the confirmation that Brad Bird is at work on a sequel to The Incredibles. But do you remember when the original film was first announced? This superb teaser trailer very much set the tone for what we were going to get. And that sequel can’t come quickly enough….
The Stepford Wives (2004)
The remake of The Stepford Wives never convincingly managed to address the question as to why it existed in the first place, but the teaser trailer to announce it was smart and fun. With a bit of specially-shot Nicole Kidman material, you can hardly say this doesn’t capture some of the tone of what was to follow…