A24 and the Art of the Movie Trailer

By  · Published on August 15th, 2016

Too many movie studios spoil their movies, forgetting how to sell them.

It wasn’t too long ago when audiences would go to the movies and complain about seeing movie trailers. Movie trailers have always been about selling a movie to the public. Somewhere along the way, many studios have forgotten to leave some mystery in their trailers. Not so for distributor A24, whose trailers always hit the right balance between teasing, concealing, and intriguing.

Movie trailers have become even bigger than they once were. Studios hype their commercials with smaller commercials, so that even the movie trailers have build up toward a big reveal. Not only does this relentless promoting spoil a lot of great moments, it might have the opposite effect diminishing interest.

So how has A24, a small independent company, managed to create movie trailers that excite viewers, creating enough intrigue to make audiences seek out their unique film offerings? Taking a look at three of their biggest releases of 2016, there seems to be a formula starting to take shape and this seems to be the key to their success.

Plot Details Are Sparse

A24 understands that there is a difference between showing too little and too much. Take for instance their trailer for one of this years most divisive films, Swiss Army Man. On paper the film seems like a total downer. A man about to commit suicide finds a corpse that might save his life. There were lots of articles about people walking out of the film at Sundance, so A24 had to turn that narrative around. The trailer manages to setup the concept of the movie, without spoiling much of the film. It is fun and manages to showcase the ingenious premise. How wild is it that a corpse can be used to shoot a grappling hook?

Music Sets the Tone

A movie trailer can run anywhere from two to three minutes and then it is done. Imagine if there was a way to make audiences remember a trailer, without watching it? Music plays a big part of that. The trailer for Andrea Arnold’s American Honey uses two pieces of music to accompany the footage: I Like Tuh – Carnage feat. ILoveMakonnen and God’s Whisper – Raury. The songs directly talk about sequences in the trailer: making money, smoking weed, and living life to your own code. Even if we don’t know why the heroine (Sasha Lane) is living this type of life, we can get an idea of just what it entails.

Performances Sell the Film

A24 recently debuted the trailer for their first fully financed production Moonlight. Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight stars Ashton Sanders Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, André Holland, Tre’ Rhodes and Janelle Monáe. Like the two other trailers above, Moonlight only teases at the larger plot and encourages audiences to learn more about the picture. The film is actually about a young man battling with his sexuality during Miami’s turbulent war-on-drugs era in the 1970s. It’s not exactly easy to get that idea from the trailer. Above all else, the trailer lets the cast shine, with Sanders, Rhodes, and Harris showing how emotional the feature will be. Their performances should bring interest in-abundance toward Moonlight.

Too many companies have lost the art of a movie trailer. Even when they have an all-star cast, fantastic music, and plentiful special effects they often show a little too much. One upcoming film has so much promise, too bad the trailer maps the entire feature. Disney’s Queen of Katwe ruins many of the possible surprises of the film, even when they have a cast as strong as Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. Obviously the studio doesn’t have confidence those actors will sell the film on their own, but the story gets hurt in the process. Plenty of studios use the idea of making their trailers into a short film, but why go see the movie if you know everything there is to know?

Take a look at some of the more successful trailers of the past two years, especially films involving J.J. Abrams, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Even discounting their attachments to already established brands, they left plenty of intrigue and secrets for the audience to discover when they see the films. A24 understands these ideas letting performances and music sell their films, while encouraging audiences to attend the films to uncover the mysteries behind them. Movie trailers are even bigger business than they used to be and there is still no better way to announce a feature film to the world. Studios would be wise to adapt to the times or many of their movies will get lost in the shuffle. Until then, A24 trailers continue to be a can’t miss event that showcases the delicacy of independent cinema.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.