I talk a lot about hooking the audience with an exciting trailer intro, but what about starting a trailer slowly? Is it possible to do successfully?
Of course it is!
A trailer need not be "exciting," it just needs a hook. I talk about making exciting openings with big music, fast cuts, and bombast because it comes easily to me. This approach is easy to lean on because fast cuts mean there's a better chance the audience will see something they like, and decide to continue watching. It's also easier to send a client a tightly edited montage, to make them think: "Ah yes, this is what I hired an editor for." The truth is, an editor still did their job if they start with a well chosen scene, and did little to nothing to cut it into pieces.
Let's look at some trailers with good hooks in their intro, but don't open with literal BOOM sound effects, don't have heart pumping music, and don't have a lot of fast cutting. I came up with seven categories to illustrate why each of these "slow" intros effectively hook the audience
IT'S SO PRETTY!
People like pretty pictures, and if they're pretty enough, they don't have to be cut fast to epic music. In fact, it's in the interest of the trailer to give the audience time to soak them in. Look at the teaser trailer for Zack Snyder's 300:
Music opens slowly over studio logos designed to fit the aesthetic of the film (which in itself draws attention). At 0:11 there's a piano note and a subtle boom under an action scene of soldiers clashing; several fall off a cliff in slow motion.
The following three shots are a boy confronting a wolf, a man sitting on an ornate throne, and a child hugging his mother in a field of grass. These are static, but demand attention because of their composition and aesthetic. Imagine this same introduction with a few shots of mundane landscapes or poor cinematography; they wouldn't encourage you to continue watching. I frequently say good art and music put a trailer head and shoulders above the others, and this is why. We crave new images, especially in our sea of endless options for entertainment.
This trailer, and many others open slow, but open PRETTY. As famed art director and designer George Lois said: "When you got it, FLAUNT IT!"
Make 'em Laugh
I talked extensively about this in my post about stand-up comedy, but getting a genuine laugh out of someone earns you so much good will. Look at the trailer for The Disaster Artist.
It's a simple setup: an actor comes out of a shed, after a long pause admits they forgot their line, and we hear the line, which in itself is ridiculous. Then the trailer cuts away as if to say: "This is going to take a while."
The trailer doesn't even have to be in the comedy genre to open with a joke, but it's a good way to start as long as it fits the spirit of the movie or game. Comedy is very difficult to pull off, so people pay attention when it's done well.
On top of the joke, this opening uses another technique:
The Open Question
This is when a trailer quickly poses a question the audience needs an answer to. Look at the trailer for Syriana which opens with a hypothetical situation:
"Imagine 30% of America unable to heat their houses. Or gasoline $20/gallon at the pump..." Followed by Matt Damon saying: "It's running out, and 90% of what's left is in the Middle East..."
From this intro we understand the film is about oil. Yes, the slow intro doesn't take long to show a literal explosion, but it's a solid intro because it gets you thinking, and then we're now ready to see this story about the world oil supply.
Another example of an intro with an open question is in the trailer for Swiss Army Man.
The first shot is of the ocean, but the second is a man about to hang himself. This instantly poses the question: "Is he going to go through with it?" As soon as that question is in our head, of course we're going to watch to find out. Setups like these are inherently suspenseful, which is why they make good intros and/or trailer visuals in general.
Interestingly enough, Swiss Army Man is a film chock full of truly unique visuals, yet they didn't use any of the film's more off-the-wall images for the intro. In fact, it takes quite a while for the premise to fully reveal itself, and show the especially outlandish scenes. This segues nicely into another intro technique:
The Unique Premise
Some movies or games are simply so unique, the barest pitch draws attention. Look at the trailer for Being John Malkovich.
This is an AMAZING introduction. A woman in an elevator says to the man next to her: "7 1/2, right?" Mere seconds after the first shot, we're already thinking: "Wait, what? There's no such thing as a 7 1/2 floor in an elevator, right?" This is especially intriguing since the film looks very grounded, and not the fantastical world of Harry Potter where train platform 9 3/4 exists. We simply HAVE to stick around to see what's going on; THAT is a good hook.
Of course the more unique an idea, the more a trailer needs to show it as soon as possible, but the premise or image doesn't even have to be so totally out of the world; it can be grounded in reality, but still be just off enough to get our attention.
Garden State is a romantic comedy complete with Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It's a totally grounded film, but the two opening shots of its trailer really stand out.
The first shot is an airplane cabin with oxygen masks fully deployed, the plane is shaking, and people hold on in fear. Amidst all this is a young man completely unaffected by his surroundings. This is both a unique visual, and begs the question: "Why is he unaffected?" The second shot is him walking by motion sensing bathroom faucets, which individually activate as he walks past them. This is a small comedic moment which doesn't say much, but gives a nice chuckle. These shots aren't flashy, but just "off" enough to show the audience something unique.
Everything past these two shots is fairly mundane, but the peppy music, and comedic moments give the trailer enough momentum to carry the audience through. Speaking of:
The trailer for Logan isn't very flashy, but its on-the-nose yet no less effective choice of music hooks us before we even see the first image. I think even people who don't consider themselves trailer connoisseurs innately understand the typical sound of music in a trailer, which means music automatically stands out when it doesn't fit that mold.
The music is Johnny Cash's cover version of Nine Inch Nails' song "Hurt." It's a full minute before we see any action scenes; this is about as "slow" an introduction as you can imagine for a trailer, especially one for a superhero film. This is also heavily leaning on an existing fanbase, and unique premise on top of it all, but the power of the music simply cannot be understated.
Last but not least is something that draws us in by appealing to us as humans:
As humans, we naturally seek out faces. We find them appealing, and try to find them everywhere we look. Take a look at the intro to the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The first shot is Rey in her desert gear; we don't see her face, but I find it instantly appealing. There's just something magnetic about faces, never mind the fact in popular entertainment we typically see exceptionally attractive actors or artist created attractive 3D rendered faces. With good costuming, makeup, and art direction, a face says a story all on its own, thus they make for good introductions. Add on a popular actor, then of course people want more.
So there you have it, in no particular order, seven ways a trailer can start "slow" but hook the audience. I'm sure there are many more, but this covers a lot of ground, and gives options beyond the need for a mini-teaser before the trailer, big booms, bombast or adrenaline pumping music.
If you have favorite intros for other trailers, please email or tweet them to me; I'm always looking to watch well made trailers!