Everyone loves a great movie trailer. They help create a buzz about your project. They entertain crowds as stand-alone, short-form tidbits of cinematic excitement. And, if you haven’t even made a full film, a well-executed trailer can lead to successful financing.
But creating a great trailer that explains your project and excites the viewer is no easy task. The same storytelling elements and techniques that engage audiences in films and shows also need to hit all the marks in trailers — even more so, because in trailers every split second is watched under a microscope.
In this post, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about how to make a movie trailer for your project. You’ll come away ready to build short, effective trailers to get attention for your project no matter where you are in the filmmaking process.
Table of Contents
Everything you need to know about making movie trailers
- Cutting Your Trailer
- Scripted Project Trailer
- Unscripted Project Trailer
- Movie Trailer Essentials
cutting your trailer
all the different ways to edit your trailer
1.1 CUTTING YOUR TRAILER
Edit your movie trailer
Once you’re done shooting, it’s time to cut your trailer.
Editing is where your trailer blossoms, because there are so many different ways to cut it together. The beauty is that there is no wrong way to do it. In fact, the more eye catching, the better. Test what works. Try everything. Go with your gut, and see where it leads.
Here's an eye-popping movie trailer example. It thrills the viewer and generates interest in the sci-fi action film The Matrix:
Keep in mind that you don't have to make a linear edit of all your scenes chunked together.
Instead, experiment with creative editing techniques, such as bookending and intercutting your trailer.
You'll want to aim for a three-act structure, however abridged, in in your trailer. This means you'll establish characters, introduce the conflict or complications, and then raise the stakes and tease the conclusion. This basic movie trailer template has worked as a storytelling framework for thousands of years, and it still works today.
Movie Trailer Definition
What is a movie trailer?
A movie trailer is a marketing tool originally used by major motion picture studios to show the coming attractions. They’re called “trailers” because they were commonly shown at the end of a film, but theatres and studios realized people were more likely to see them if they played before the film rather than making the viewer wait until after the credits.
What makes a good movie trailer?
- They build excitement for a particular project.
- They entertain viewers as their own standalone piece.
- They inform a focused group about coming attractions.
You may already know a bit about how to make a movie trailer on iMovie, Apple's utilitarian standby. There's no shortage of other movie trailer maker software available as well, including Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut X, and Avid Media Composer, to name a few.
Whatever trailer editing software you use, the marketing and storytelling principles will remain the same. Tools give you the means, but your own creativity and the footage you start with will form the bedrock of your trailer.
1.2 HOW TO MAKE A TRAILER
Avoid the mini-movie
Have you ever watched a trailer and thought, “They just showed us the entire movie! Oh well ... now I don't have to see that."
Everyone has seen long, boring trailers that feel like a mini-movie.
If you have your entire story already recorded, don’t give over every piece of information. This isn’t the film itself, it is an advertisement for the film.
When it's time to make your own trailer, find places in your story that generate questions:
Who is that?
Why are they doing that?
What does that mean?
How does that work out?
Your goal is to tease the viewers and leave them wanting more. The best trailers get viewers thinking, “I have to see the rest of this!” Or, “I can’t wait to see what happens next!”
Aim for this level of polish, information, style, and emotion:
Notice that there's no dialogue, except for song lyrics. We don't always need dialogue in a trailer.
The visuals, characters, pacing, graphics, and music tell us everything we need to know, and just enough at that.
What else did you notice?
Rhythmic, fast-paced editing.
Abrupt and dramatic cuts.
Swelling emotion on every level: music, graphics, and imagery.
And the length? About a minute and a half. You'll want to keep your trailer short. There's no set rule about how long your trailer should be, but limiting your trailer to a couple minutes is a good start.
A shorter-form trailer, or teaser, usually clocks in at one minute, give or take. A teaser is a very brief, super-minimal trailer designed to, of course, tease the viewer and build anticipation. A teaser only has to have one hook. Get in, hook the viewer, get out — that's the M.O. of a teaser.
When you make your own movie trailer, you have license to use graphics and title cards to your heart's content. Just make sure not to overdo it, and make sure they serve your story.
1.3 movie trailer maker
Use graphics and voice-over
In movie trailers, there are often two or three levels of storytelling happening at once. There’s the stuff that’s happening in the footage.
Then there’s a layer of story that gets told via voice-over, on-screen graphics or both.
For example, your trailer might start with a traditional Don LaFontaine voice-over line: “In a world ... where nothing is certain …” Then we’ll see a stock footage aerial shot of, say, a giant outdoor market.
Then, a title card comes up that says “Egypt, 1968.” At this point, you cut to a set in Van Nuys, and no one knows the difference.
Check out these motion graphics trends to get up to speed on what's effective in trailers and video content right now:
How to make a trailer? With various post-production elements firing on all cylinders. Use these elements to draw the audience into your story, tone, and mood. Incorporate them to supercharge your teaser.
Voice-over and titles are useful tools, especially when you don’t have a lot of footage to choose from.
1.4 How to make a movie trailer
Add music and sound effects
You can get creative with music in your trailer. Music tells people how they should feel, so it’s a very important way to set the tone.
Here is a video all about how to master the film score. Apply the pro tips in this video when you make your own trailers:
If you are building an original trailer for official marketing, you’ll want to find a composer to work with. They are everywhere, and many of them are really good — plus you want to get in the habit of building these relationships and becoming familiar with the process. Take a peek at resources like Score a Score and see if they look right for you.
Or, you can find great royalty-free music at stock sites. Whichever route you choose, unless you're getting really artsy and out-there, you'll most likely want music in your trailer.
1.5 CUTTING YOUR TRAILER
Export and send
Get your movie trailer seen. Believe it or not, one of the most important ways to get someone to watch your movie trailer is old-fashioned email.
Busy execs don’t like to click on links. So be sure to export a highly compressed MP4 version of your final cut that’s less than 10MB. Your 10M or less MP4 will also serve you well when posting to social media.
Below is a video that is part of our Free TV Writing & Development Master Class. It includes seven episodes that take you through the entire television show development process.
If you're making a trailer as part of a pitch for a film or show that you're attempting to make in its entirety, this video is essential viewing:
Hoping your trailer goes viral? YouTube is the best bet. Vimeo is also an option, but less well-known outside the filmmaking community. In general, Vimeo is known for slightly slower load times but very high playback quality.
If you have a website, you’ll want to get the embed code so that your trailer plays on your site. Last but not least, your trailer is a great way to launch a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo.
Scripted Project Trailer
MARKETING YOUR SCRIPTED PROJECT
2.1 SCRIPTED PROJECT TRAILER
Start with your script
You have a feature film or TV pilot ready to roll. It's going to set the world on fire, if only you could get it made.
While making the entire thing might be impossible with your current resources, there's a good chance that making a trailer is within the realm of possibility.
If this is the case, the first step in “how to make a movie trailer” is to choose a scene that highlights the most compelling things about your film or pilot. Many people think they need to shoot the best scene in the movie, and often that best scene is near the end.
At this point, approach your movie trailer making as you would any shoot. You'll need to be prepared. The goal is to give viewers a small taste of your larger vision, so you'd better be sure the small taste goes down exactly as you intend.
This means breaking down your script to know what's required, and where the best footage can be found.
In your script breakdown software, label key elements that need to be seen in your trailer, and use this info to accurately budget your abridged shoot.
For a good pitch trailer, you’re going to want to choose a scene that offers the “setup” of your story, not the “payoff.”
In practical terms, this means that you don’t need $40 million worth of dailies to make your own trailer. But you will have to put yourself in the audience's position. Ask yourself, "What elements of my script would I find most compelling if I could only see a minute or two of it?" Or, "What would make me want to watch more?"
2.2 SCRIPTED TRAILER maker
Shoot your setup scene
Typically, if your project is a feature film, you’re going to start with a scene that happens in the first act of your movie. You’ll probably even choose a scene that happens in the first 10 pages. Your setup scene.
Would you watch the movies below? Probably not, but we dare you to look away from the trailers. Simply not possible:
The scene you choose to shoot first might be what's called the “inciting incident,” and it’s the jumping off point for the rest of the story. Why should you shoot the inciting incident?
Because your trailer needs to do a lot of heavy lifting. Character, tone, setting, genre, and originality are all required for a good trailer.
So you need material that makes us want to watch the rest of the movie. If your script is solid, somewhere in the first ten minutes of your film you'll find a scene that does all the above. A scene that launches the story into action.
But don't stop there.
2.3 make your own trailer
Shoot a second scene
If your budget allows, we highly recommend shooting two scenes. The first scene is the inciting incident, or setup scene, discussed above (or something else from the first act). The second scene is for added flavor.
If it’s a comedy, this needs to be a scene that’s hilarious. If it’s a thriller, it must be intriguing. If it’s an action movie, it needs to be a fight or a chase.
Another thing for movie trailer makers to keep in mind for the second scene: try to get some visual variety. If your first scene or setup scene is inside a classroom, then perhaps your second scene can be outside to open it up.
Nothing catches the eye like modulating your visual tempo. Switch it up, let it breathe, give the viewer variety. That's how to make an effective trailer.
2.4 Movie TRAILER Elements
Add key dialogue and visuals
Have you seen the trailer for Steve Jobs? Like many trailers, it uses dialogue to push our comprehension forward, while using imagery to enhance suspense and entice the audience.
So to flesh out your trailer, don't be afraid to make some audio-only recordings of great lines from your script that go beyond the two scenes you plan to shoot.
Check out the trailer here:
You can record these lines at the end of your shoot days, especially if they’re lines from a more expensive scene in your project. Then, use the audio in your trailer.
For visuals, you can use establishing shots, aerials, title cards, or even shots ripped from other movies and stock footage to cover these “wild” lines.
You don’t need to worry too much about the visuals when you target which lines to include. You’ll end up matching dialogue to the right visuals during your edit.
Unscripted Project Trailer
MARKETING YOUR UNSCRIPTED PROJECT
3.1 UNSCRIPTED PROJECT TRAILER
How to make a trailer for unscripted
Pitch reels for unscripted projects might seem different than scripted trailers. But the basics of how to make a trailer are the same: you still need a setup, and a little extra flavor. You have to bring the drama and tease a bigger story.
RuPaul knows many things, including how to make a trailer. Check this out for, you know, educational purposes. And for your guilt-free viewing pleasure, too:
The main difference is that in an unscripted project, all the elements you need aren’t likely to occur in a single scene. Instead, you’ll use a combination of interviews, documentary-style scenes, and archival footage to convey the story.
In a sense, you'll approach your unscripted trailer as a producer or story editor as much as a director, so don't be afraid to produce it. Take a heavy approach to planning to set the wheels in motion. Then step back and let the unscripted drama unfold.
3.2 UNSCRIPTED TRAILER Maker
Pre-interview your main characters
Interviews are cheap and easy to shoot. For a long-format project, you will end up interviewing your main subject many times. You might as well start now, and use it in your trailer.
Get subjects to sit for a solid two-hour interview that covers all the basics on your topic. Schedule at least a half day with them and use the remaining time to shoot something active and more visual.
For example, if it’s a true crime series you're selling, get a subject to do a walkthrough of a key event in the location where it really happened. Be sure to pick up cutaways and establishing shots while you are there.
Remember, visual variation is critical. Any shots you can grab for cutaways or modulation will go a long way to making a compelling trailer when it's time to assemble.
3.3 How to make a reality TRAILER
Set up at least one key scene to shoot
Most unscripted projects use interviews or voice-over to drive the narrative, but scenes are still important. Using your pre-interviews as research, set up a scene where natural tension will occur. If your project is about a family dynamic, come up with a plan that will highlight the relationships.
This is what we mean when we say you've got to produce it.
A mother and two daughters in a bridal shop fitting room might turn into a revealing or intimate moment. The same three people attending a big bridal shower will probably get lost in the shuffle, and the scene will reveal nothing at all. So get intimate and get personal with key scenes.
Again, check out RuPaul's Drag Race as an example. We just can't help ourselves. Watch this and you'll understand why:
If you don't set up the right scene, if you don't give your unscripted drama the little push it needs to unfold before the camera, you'll end up with a bunch of B-roll and no usable scene.
Restrict the number of people in the scene to two or three. More than that is hard to follow and it'll be hard to separate audio later on.
3.4 Trailer footage
Acquire any other footage you need
If your goal is to make your own movie trailer for a reality project or a documentary, it’s never too early to start tracking down important footage sources for your film.
Common elements include news clips, film clips, interviews, historical footage, even audio tapes. Government agencies like NASA and the U.S. Library of Congress have tons of material that is available to the public.
For most doc trailers, you’ll possibly be finding video on the internet.
If you want to know more about how to use B-roll and where to source it, be sure to read our ultimate guide to B-Roll.
the basics of marketing your projecT
4.1 making movie trailers
It’s important to make a movie trailer
If you’re like most indie filmmakers, your goal is to get financing for your movie. It used to be that a simple log line in an email with a copy of the screenplay was the way to get funding.
But in the current media-saturated world, a video trailer is much more effective than a log line. If potential film financiers like your trailer, odds are much higher they will read your script and call you in for a meeting.
Another popular way to raise money for a film is via crowdfunding. For these fundraising campaigns, trailers are indispensable.
So yes, a trailer is a marketing tool to generate interest in your project whether you're already starting with a finished film or if you haven't even shot a single frame.
4.2 make your own movie trailer
How to make a movie trailer
Big movie trailers have tons of amazing shots from many different scenes.
Traditional trailers get made after the film is shot, and they are built by specialized trailer editors who have a sort of industry template they follow.
Here is a great trailer that establishes characters, conflicts, and action. It brings the excitement and turns up the emotion. This famous "Crown" trailer for Black Panther won the Golden Trailer Award in 2018, for good reason:
For a fundraising trailer, you won’t have access to Marvel-Disney level footage. Instead, you’ll have to choose one or two key scenes to shoot. After that, you'll need some editorial creativity to make your concept shine.
After you select which scenes you'll want to shoot, make sure you prepare.
4.3 TRAILER Maker guide
Use a shot list to organize your trailer
When professionals cut trailers they often have the entire feature film to pull footage from. This won’t be the case for many filmmakers trying to fund their full project.
So, you'll will want to get bite-size pieces of footage that speak to the tone and story, and that "sell" what's special about your film.
That means a bunch of separate, seemingly unconnected imagery needs to be captured. This is where your shot list comes into play.
Use shot listing and storyboarding software to set up your visuals in advance. Keep everything organized, send ideas, and collaborate with crew.
Specific camera movements and placement matter. Will you go handheld or can this be done on sticks? Whose POV shot is it, and will we be eye level or closer to the ground? What about low angle vs. high angle?
Determine this in advance so you can hit the ground running when it comes time to shoot. You'll want to get everything in the can.
You want to capture crucial details in your shot list.
In shot list software, shot options like size, movement, and angles are listed in a clickable menu of specs. You only need to check boxes and test different creative combinations. Doing this before your shoot saves time and makes your movie trailer come to life.
If you're shooting footage specifically for your trailer, don't forget that you're producing and directing an actual film shoot. Plan accordingly, and think of it as a small trial-run for your full shoot when financing is ultimately secured.
TV Writing & Development Master Class
Now you know how to build your own movie trailer, and create buzz around your project or idea. Don’t stop there. You’ve got your selling hat on now, so you might as well work on more of your ideas.
Watch our writing and development master class to you build your show idea. This is a fantastic resource that will keep you on track, and help you organize and sell your idea.