The Psychology Behind Movie Trailers

A movie trailer is a preview, or advertisement for a movie. The first movie trailer was produced in 1913 with a short commercial for a musical called The Pleasure Seekers. Trailers were originally shown at the end of the movie, but since people would leave when the movies were done the trailers were quickly moved to the front of the picture. They would also be shown between the pictures when double features became more common.


Early trailers were often a combination of explosive text – often on text cards overlaid on the action, in combination with short clips of the movie and enthusiastic narration. Words like “Terrible” or “Terrifying”, “Gigantic”, “Colossal”, were often over-used as each trailer would try to top the others. The trailers would give a sense of the type of movie be it action, suspense, horror, or romantic comedy. For most of the early decades, the National Screen Service created trailers.

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Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, in the 1960s trailers dropped the text overlays while quick cuts and montages were used more often. Stanley Kubrick was one of the first directors to control the trailers for his movies, using these techniques for a variety of ground-breaking trailers for Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned How to Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eventually specialized companies developed to produce trailers for an array of blockbuster movies.

Trailers are designed to capture the interest of the viewer and build enthusiasm for the movie in the hope that viewers will anticipate the release and plan to watch the movie. When successful a trailer will draw and enlarge the audience for the movie.

Trailers typically follow a compressed three-act formula similar to many movies. Act 1 introduces the idea of the movie, while Act 2 will give hints to the plot and possibly some sort of climax. Act 3 may hint at the cast or provide a montage of quick clips, possibly other hints to the movie itself, though sometimes the cast list is most of Act 1, and the other acts are pushed back one-step. Trailers will often provide multiple hints to the movie, like comic scenes or action sequences, without providing conclusions. This urges the viewer to see the movie to resolve the action.

Trailers will also use music to relate the movie to movies in the past. Often movies will draw from similar famous movies or from established classical music so that a viewer will relate the potential of the new movie experience to the experience they had with the original movie. However, music will occasionally be composed specifically for the movie trailer. At times, even scenes will be composed specifically for the trailer but never used in the movie. These are usually called “special shoots”. Famous examples are special effects blockbuster scenes built for Terminator 2 and Spiderman designed only for the trailer.

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Viva Zapata movie trailer screenshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most famous special shoot was one that Alfred Hitchcock did for the movie Psycho. This was also one of the more unusual trailers. Hitchcock took the audience on a tour of the Bates Motel. Through most of the tour, the background music is from Hitchcock’s comedy The Trouble with Harry. However, the trailer ends with Hitchcock in the bathroom and a bloodcurdling scream.

Movie trailers, like movie posters, will alter colors within the trailer to adjust the moods of the viewers. Darker colors for more intense action oriented pictures or more depressing movies and lighter, cooler, brighter colors typically communicate more humorous, lighter fare.

A movie trailer’s most important role is building anticipation for the release. The positive aspect of anticipation, or pleasured anticipation, also known as excitement, combines the enjoyment one will receive at the event with the irritation of waiting. This is similar to the experience many have when looking at wrapped presents under a tree and knowing it will be days or even weeks before they will be opened.

This concept is sometimes called anticipatory savoring. The savoring can help enhance the event in the future, building excitement and drawing more people into the enthusiasm. In recent times, we have seen near mob behavior as excitement moves people to camp out in line for days or even weeks in anticipation of the movie. One danger is that the enthusiasm can be so great that it will set expectations for the event too high and the movie itself will be a disappointment.

More specifically, the anticipatory savory will make a link between memory and enjoyment. This is partially related to all memory and how people anticipate other things. When your hand gets near to a candle, you will remember the burn in the future, and the closer you get to the candle, the more powerful the memory of your burn. The anticipatory savory experience is similar to this but in a positive manner. Someone who enjoyed Batman Begins will watch a trailer for another superhero movie that will trigger memories of Batman Begins, it might even have music that is evocative of or borrowed from Batman Begins. This way the viewer will relate the previous experience with the potential for the new experience.

More recently, they have even started to test trailers with samples using a variety of medical equipment including fMRI, EEG, and various skin response and eye response tests. This allows the movie studio to get the best responses possible on trailers. This allows scientists in the field of neuromarketing to best examine the responses of viewers and hone the constructions of movie trailers even more specifically so that the reactions of viewers will match the studio’s goal.

Psychology plays an important and ever-increasing role in the creation and design of movie trailers. The structure, tendencies, color, and sound are all related to the energy that is created by the trailer. As ever more specific tools are created to gauge the emotional responsiveness of very small changes in the movie trailer, trailers will be designed to bring even stronger recall of past experiences be they movies or other events in people’s lives that will relate to the movie trailer.

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