If you don’t know, a movie trailer is the “marketing reel” for a film that uses the footage from the movie to tell a story that sells the audiences on the idea of the film.
So how long does it take to make a movie trailer: while movie trailers can be as short as 15 or 30 seconds and as long as two and a half minutes, the process to make a movie trailer can take as short as two weeks or as long as two years.
Movie trailers are one of the most important parts of the marketing campaign for a film.
They can be used to get audiences hyped on a property they are excited for, to build up a mystery that is slowly revealed over multiple campaigns, or quite literally tell the whole story in a minute and a half instead of an hour and a half.
Below I’ll explain why a movie trailer takes this long to make, and also explain in detail the different types of movie trailers that exist.
I’ve also included an example of each type of trailer from the 2012 alien-franchise prequel movie Prometheus so that you can see an example of each type of trailer and how they’re different from another.
Why do movie trailers take so long (or little) to make?
How long it takes to make a movie depends entirely on the marketing campaign of said film.
These companies likely have a strong plan for how and when they will release each trailer to build and maintain hype over multiple years leading up to the movie’s release.
Or, in the case of a film that is being shot over a long period of time, the studio may work with multiple trailer houses to edit a trailer with footage from the set while production is ongoing. A trailer house is an editing company focused solely on the editing of movie trailers.
This could be because studios want to release a preliminary trailer by a certain date, like say before a sporting event like the Superbowl, in time for a conference like Comic-Con, or as a trailer before another similar movie with a big opening audience.
These strategic deployments are savvy marketing moves to get a lot of eyeballs but could result in a short, two-week turnaround.
Other times, a studio may buy a completed film and then have to make a plan for how to market it. They will also screen test trailers in front of an audience to gauge their reaction.
This could lead to multiple rounds of edits to get it just right – according to one of the industry’s largest trailer houses, this could take as many as two hundred revisions.
The role of a trailer house in movie marketing explained
Trailer houses typically go through a pitching process where each company in consideration is given the footage and a budget of about $50,000 to create a spec trailer.
These companies then edit the trailer, write the copy for any voice-over or titles, and create the type and animation graphics.
The studio then picks the spec trailer they like the most and awards that company with the job and the full budget, which can range between hundreds of thousands of dollars if not a couple million depending on the size of the production.
The trailer house then makes changes to the spec trailer, completes the graphics, or throws it out altogether and re-edits a completely new trailer. A studio might do this because they like the creativity and the team but want to take the trailer in a new direction.
This process, from start to finish, can take a month to complete two trailers on the low end or multiple months on the higher end. For animated movies, the process begins very early and can take up to a year for the animations to be completed.
Trailer houses usually can’t get by on trailers alone so they will also do a lot of commercial work and TV spots.
If you’ve ever wondered about a movie’s cool title sequence, there are actually whole title sequence companies dedicated just to editing title sequences for films, and they follow a similar process.
What are the different types of movie trailers?
Since the average film takes 301 days to be released after post-production begins, a film’s marketing campaign will usually cover a years-long time span. Over the course of the campaign, multiple trailers are released. Here are the most common trailer types:
The Teaser Trailer
A teaser trailer is like the trailer to a trailer that teases the concept of the movie without giving away the major plot elements.
This is the first impression an audience has of what a film will look or feel like and are important to set the tone and feel of the movie.
Teaser trailers can be 30 to 90 seconds in length and can be released as early as a year before the film is released.
Teaser trailers are often saved for the biggest and most anticipated movies to help drum up even more excitement.
While highly anticipated big-budget movies (blockbusters)will create an impression in viewers with casting announcements, release schedules, or posters and billboards, the teaser trailer is the first piece of marketing that shows actual footage from the movie.
This isn’t always true. In fact, many teaser trailers are made to introduce a movie concept without using any footage from the movie itself.
Some animated sequels, for instance, will feature a main character from the movie in a skit that is animated solely to promote the upcoming film.
Some examples of this include the teaser trailers for the Ice Age and Despicable Me franchises:
This isn’t limited to animated movies though, as live-action movies sometimes use the same trick to expand the universe (and marketing campaign) around an upcoming movie. Fx the Weyland 2023 TED Talk for the 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus presented above.
In fact, even commercials sometimes have teaser trailers these days. Here is the teaser trailer for the Lay’s commercial for the Super Bowl LVI 2022:
The Standard Movie Trailer
The standard trailer is what we think of as a complete movie trailer because it often tells the entire story of the feature film in around two to three minutes.
The standard trailer introduces the characters, premise, and complications of the narrative story arc in a three-act structure.
Standard trailers often use voice-over narration and montage to splice together the storytelling so that the quick cuts and jumping around still make sense to audiences. Learn more about continuity editing in film here.
Sometimes you’ll see more trailers produced to keep the interest of the audience and sometimes the movie companies will produce different trailers for different countries.
TV spot movie trailers
TV spot trailers are shortened versions of the standard trailer meant to be played in a short format venue on cable TV, as a Youtube video ad, or as an ad on a streaming service.
They are usually between 30 to 60 seconds in length and are usually timed to be released right before and right after a film is set to be released.
Often you’ll see several TV spot trailers produced to keep the hype alive up to a premiere.
Clip movie trailers
A clip trailer takes an actual edited scene from the film that stands on its own with limited context and uses it to promote the film.
These are usually released at conferences like Comic-Con or in special press push where an actor or director (if big enough) will do a series of interviews to promote the film and share the clip with the media.
Featurette movie trailers
Another type of marketing trailer that is shared with the media in advance of a film’s release is a featurette trailer.
Featurettes show behind-the-scenes footage of the making of a film and use cast and crew interviews to share their experience of making the film in a documentary-style format.
Previously reserved for DVD special features, featurette trailers today are often shared directly online or with the media prior to a film’s release, or as part of a press push right after the film is released.
Streaming services have lately made it commonplace to share these clips as part of the film’s page on the service so viewers can watch more about the movie after they finish watching.
What are the main criticisms of movie trailers?
While movie trailers are one the most positively regarded forms of advertising, they sometimes do receive backlash from viewers.
They found that movie viewers complain the most about movie trailers when the trailer either:
- spoils too much of the movie,
- showcase only the “spectacular parts” like the main set pieces or battles from the film,
- use deceptive editing to misrepresent the contents of the film, or
- use footage that’s not even in the movie.
On that last point, the CEO of movie trailer editing house Trailer Park, Matt Brubaker, explained that this isn’t always on purpose. Because trailer houses that make movie trailers often begin cutting a trailer while the production is shooting the movie, they will use whatever footage they have access to as it comes in.
This footage, taken directly from what’s shot on set, is called “dailies.” But the trailer editors themselves don’t have control over whether a shot used in the trailer will also appear in the movie. This is why some trailers feature footage that never ends up in the final cut of the film.
Why do some trailers disappoint audiences?
As the researchers Horváth and Gyenge found, studios don’t want to mislead audiences, but because they feel the need to use heavy persuasion and screen test the trailers to sell tickets, they can often shift and manipulate plot points to ratchet the tone of the film up or down depending on what they think will be most successful.
For instance, the researcher Kernan found in a 2004 paper that studios will spoil more of the movie if they are less certain it will be successful.
And because trailers are all available on Youtube, viewers can go back and compare what they saw in the trailer versus what they got in the movie, which can also increase dissatisfaction.
Here’s a breakdown by Vice News for more on how movie trailers manipulate you:
In the most extreme cases, moviegoers have stooped to suing films for using trailers to mislead them, either because they are marketed to appear as a different genre than what they are or because they use clips in the trailer that aren’t in the final movie.
The problem here is setting false expectations – which can be especially hard for fans of franchise movies who compare and judge each successive film against the first (or “best”) one to determine if the new film is “worthy” of the series.
As the researchers write, studios are in a difficult spot. They have to build expectations without building them so high that the resulting film can never reach them.
I’ve found personally that it’s important to measure your expectations for whatever movie you plan to see. Because of my formal training in screenwriting, I usually try to avoid movie trailers for films I already want to see because I don’t want to know the story before I go in.
Even though most films follow the same structure, I like to be surprised at the moment where and how events take place.
That said, watching movie trailers for films I know nothing about is also a passion of mine. It’s often the trailer that gets me excited to see an indie film from a new director I’ve never heard of, and so I believe they are incredibly important to the success or failure of a film’s release. However, I personally think the teaser trailer is the best form of trailer.
As digital advertising tools become more advanced, it would be cool to be given the option to decide how much of the movie you want to see in the trailer via customizable ad controls so viewers who are already primed to view a movie or TV show aren’t spoiled unnecessarily.
How are movie trailers distributed moving forward?
Since the success of Youtube and streaming video on the internet, most people see movie trailers on social media before they see them in theaters. This factors into a movie’s release plan and marketing campaign.
Previously, movie trailers were only released before the opening credits of other movies. Because most trailers are received best when seen in the theater, this was historically the best place to air movie trailers.
However, now that fewer viewers go to the movies and more stay at home and subscribe to streaming services, streamers often promote new shows or movies before their hit shows to drum up hype. HBO Max does this exceptionally well in order to keep viewers in the HBO ecosystem.
Netflix also features an autoplay trailer when a viewer hovers over any title on the service, which automatically plays either a custom teaser or standard trailer for the title in question or a clip trailer that features a key scene from the movie.
It would be interesting to see which type of trailer performs the best on Netflix based on their data, but in my own personal opinion, a teaser trailer that gives just enough to make you want to find out what happens next is the most ideal to get me to click.
How do you create a movie trailer?
For more on how to create a movie trailer, check out this feature from Vanity Fair with advice from creative director Jessica Fox that breaks down how filmmakers, studios, and creative agencies work together to decide what to show and what to tell to best promote a film.