The first ever movie trailer reportedly debuted back in 1913, for the musical The Pleasure Seekers. Today, movie trailers have become an industry unto themselves, refining their own formulas to maximize viewer appeal, and even recalling earlier trailers (rather than actual movies) by using the same borrowed music or the same techniques. Now there are even teasers for trailers, which are shortened to suit dwindling attention spans or to try and connect with ticket buyers on a variety of platforms.
In honor of this time-honored tradition, we decided to assemble a list of some of the best movie trailers of all time. Suffice it to say that the list skews heavily toward more contemporary films—not just because people tend to remember those trailers more vividly, but because from a technical standpoint, many of those trailers are more polished than their predecessors. So here they are: 25 trailers from the annals of film history that set a precedent, were often duplicated, and/or otherwise reminded viewers about the artistic possibilities of the format, even when—or especially if—the film that followed didn’t live up to the hype the trailer generated.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
With this perennial Best Movie Of All Time (at least until recently), Orson Welles created a fantastic trailer for his feature debut, playing first on his background in radio and stage, then introducing his Mercury Theatre troupe, a few details about the film, and some chorus girls—strictly for “ballyhoo,” he confessed.
2. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock was always a showman with his movies, and many of them had terrific trailers. But the trailer for Psycho—which is long by contemporary standards—ranks among his best, as the filmmaker himself offers viewers a tour of the Bates Motel and the scene of its grisly murders. What’s most amazing is the patience Hitchcock shows in winding through the house and each room before finally ending up in the bathroom where its most famous scene takes place, finally delivering a terrifying payoff after lulling viewers with his charm and personality.
3. The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist trailer is famous not only for being too intense for audiences, but also for featuring music that composer Lalo Schifrin recorded for the film that director William Friedkin eventually discarded completely (Schifrin claimed that he literally destroyed the tapes, but recordings of his tracks did show up on a 1998 CD release that’s now long out of print). Even today, getting through even just a few seconds of the trailer is difficult (if you struggle with strobing effects, you might want to avoid it altogether). But given the impact of the final film, this trailer established expectations that Friedkin undoubtedly lived up to, whether or not he wanted to terrify audiences even before they got into the theater.
4. Jaws (1975)
Before celebrated voice actor Don LaFontaine, there was Percy Rodriguez. For a certain generation, his voice is synonymous with trailers, especially in the horror genre. Jaws might have made the cut simply for its historical position as the first of what we consider to be contemporary blockbusters, but the trailer is actually pretty great, starting with John Williams’s music and Rodriguez’s ominous description of a shark: “It is as if God created the Devil, and gave him Jaws.” Ultimately the trailer veers into more of an overview of the plot, but those first moments are so fantastic that you don’t even need the rest.
5. Alien (1979)
The Alien trailer was so famous that when time came for Ridley Scott to return to the franchise with Prometheus, he and his collaborators relied on the same sound effects he had used three and a half decades earlier. Best of all, this trailer features what just might be every single shot of Jones the cat seen in the film.
6. Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th was already capitalizing on an explosion of slasher movies by the time it debuted in 1980. But this was one of the first of its genre—and certainly one of the most successful—where the film’s trailer made it clear that the point of the movie was to rack up a body count, not explore the inner lives of a bunch of camp counselors. The counting continued through the franchise’s subsequent trailers, but there’s something fantastic about advertising that lets you know from the get-go a lot of people will die, and the anticipation will come from watching how it happens.
7. The Shining (1980)
There are trailers here that are considered highly influential or memorable, but The Shining‘s is iconic: Over a shot of the elevator doors at the Overlook Hotel, credits announce the arrival of Stanley Kubrick’s film, an adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller of the same name. As those credits continue to roll, the elevator door opens, unleashing a tidal wave of blood so thick that it moves the furniture and splashes against the camera. In any era, that’s all you will ever need to want to watch Kubrick’s masterpiece—or possibly, to never watch it. And it’s still just as unsettling today.
8. The Abyss (1989)
James Cameron has always been able to generate a spectacular sense of hype for his films, but this early trailer exploring the intense and authentic process of filling an abandoned nuclear power plant, developing new breathing technology, and actually shooting everything underwater hooked audiences on his vision, even before they saw its groundbreaking visual effects and unforgettable story.
9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
In 1991, Cameron created one of the greatest sequels (and action movies and CGI showcases and …) of all time with his The Terminator follow-up, Judgment Day. The film’s teaser trailer, featuring voiceover by the late Don LaFontaine—the man responsible for the “In a world …” boilerplate that seemingly preceded every movie for two decades—shows audiences nothing from the actual film. Instead, it reminds them of the menace of the Cyberdyne T-800, brilliantly never mentioning that in this film he’s actually one of the good guys.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Independent filmmaking was already an exploding phenomenon when this Palme D’Or winner was released in 1994, but it’s kind of impossible to imagine a time before Tarantino and his singular creativity. Many trailers have used multiple songs to highlight tone or story, but this one boasts a full-fledged hit parade of songs that became synonymous with the film, and went on to cultivate an extended commercial life in broadcasts and other advertisements. Pulp Fiction changed modern filmmaking forever, led by this trailer.
11. Goldeneye (1995)
Trailers for James Bond movies have truly run the gamut, varying in quality from clips offering a stentorian breakdown of the girls, guns, and gadgets, as was done in the 1960s and ‘70s, to the more polished clips that have preceded Daniel Craig’s installments. But after the delay following License To Kill, the casting announcement of Pierce Brosnan as 007, and a radical shift in the sophistication and appetites of audiences, nothing short of spectacular would do when reintroducing the character. Thankfully, this clip captures everything that makes Bond great—his casual flinch as bullets ricochet inches from his head remains one of the great shots in Bond history—culminating in a mind-blowing bungee jumping stunt that seems to go on forever and ever. Welcome back, Mr. Bond.
12. Strange Days (1995)
If you were not around, or just not paying attention, at the time of the debut of this trailer, then it’s not possible to know exactly how ubiquitous Ralph Fiennes’s monologue, a freshly-performed version of his sales pitch within the film, became. Speaking directly to audiences as punctuative phrases flash around his face on the screen, Fiennes became for better or worse the salesman for this film from ex-spouses Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron, a formidable team long before either of them won Oscars for Best Director.
13. Independence Day (1996)
This is a trailer that really only needed a single image: The shot of the White House exploding in a ball of fire. Disaster movies have always been sold on the destruction they depict, but when this clip came out, that single image was like a siren call for people looking to escape at the movies. Roland Emmerich’s movie is more than adequately silly in its overall portrait of an alien invasion, but it remains fascinating to imagine that extraterrestrials would have any clue what that location is or why it’s important—even if blowing it up is a lot of fun to watch.
14. Godzilla (1998)
The aforementioned Emmerich has always been a filmmaker with a cheeky sense of humor, enjoying (or at least exploring) the destruction of the human race in one story after another. Aside from his winking reference to Jurassic Park with the Tyrannosaurus skeleton, this trailer is unique in that it was expressly shot without intending to be a part of the film it’s supposed to be from. These kinds of clips were used more frequently in the 1990s, but this one captures the tone of the final film while showing nothing from it.
15. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Found footage wasn’t truly a part of moviemaking vernacular until The Blair Witch Project unexpectedly became a pop culture sensation so notable that even people’s parents went to see it (despite probably not having watched a horror movie since The Exorcist). But this trailer expertly sells Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s concept in all of its low-resolution Hi8 glory, inviting viewers to watch three people venture into the woods like the hundreds of dumb teens in slasher movies—but this time, someone actually died?
16. The Matrix (1999)
As has always been the case, the best trailers are the ones that get us excited about a film but don’t tell us too much—or sometimes, anything—about it. Featuring a second-tier Enigma track and offering an exhibition of both the bullet-time cinematography and wire-work martial arts action that American movies had not yet explored, The Matrix trailer drew in audiences the second Carrie-Anne Moss began running up walls and Keanu Reeves rightfully said “whoa” before Laurence Fishburne succinctly informed them that “no one can tell you what the Matrix is,” immediately prompting viewers to throw money at the screen like Fry from Futurama.
17. Dinosaur (2000)
Technically, this clip was the literal opening scene of the film. But when it premiered in theaters ahead of the film’s release, audiences were absolutely mesmerized by its then-groundbreaking computer-generated imagery, following a dinosaur egg that escaped from its mother’s care and embarked on an astonishing journey. This one, it’s safe to say, did not live up to the hype, especially once the dinosaurs started talking. But at a moment when computer animation had never shown audiences anything like this, it was an absolutely gripping teaser of what was to come.
18. Spider-Man (2002)
Like the Godzilla trailer, this clip was created solely to promote Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and never meant to appear in the film. That’s kind of a bummer, because it’s actually a pretty dynamite sequence, as thieves escape in a helicopter before the web slinger apprehends them. But in the wake of 9/11, a clip featuring a flying vehicle stuck between the two towers was justifiably determined to be inappropriate, prompting it to be removed from circulation and replaced by something a bit more conventional. Regardless, that image of the copter’s blades struggling against Spider-Man’s webbing as the camera pulls back to remove the enormity of the towers, and his power to use the landscape to his advantage, makes for an unforgettable sight.
19. Cloverfield (2008)
It’s debatable how well Matt Reeves’s Cloverfield lived up to this trailer, but expectations were understandably sky-high after the film used the disaster movie iconography of filmmakers like John Carpenter—culminating in a shot of the Statue of Liberty’s head rolling down a New York street—in what by this point had become a more familiar “found footage” format.
20. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen Brothers invariably offer such a wonderful, intriguing variety of imagery in their films that lining them up like dominoes is all one needs in order to get audiences interested. But starting with the image of Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) rhythmically beating Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) head against a chalkboard speaks brilliantly to the niggling frustrations of A Serious Man‘s main character, a physics professor navigating life in 1967 Minnesota.
21. The Social Network (2010)
David Fincher is represented twice here—in a row—because of his incredible work. But the trailer for The Social Network seems to resonate with people more vividly because of the extraordinary combination of music and imagery that not only hints at what the film is about, but also begins to explore some of the deeper thematic and sociological underpinnings of Mark Zuckerberg’s journey to create Facebook. The children’s choir singing a sobering cover of “Creep” by Radiohead would have been enough for most audiences, but even before we really get a glimpse of Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg (much less Justin Timberlake’s flashy Sean Parker), a montage of images highlighting the landscape of social media—likes, comments, messaging shorthand, and more—accurately indicates that this is one of the definitive films of the modern era, both for and about it.
22. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Fincher’s films have often had fantastic trailers—a teaser for The Game juxtaposed Michael Douglas’s harrowing pursuit by Consumer Recreation Services and a puppet being pulled by its strings, and Gone Girl uses a cover of Elvis Costello’s “She” as a delicious counterpoint to the story’s romantic toxicity. But this clip, set to Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” is a marvel of montage editing, pairing every drumbeat with another provocative image of the director’s adaptation of the Swedish thriller.
23. Man of Steel (2013)
Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is another film where the advertising may have promised more than the film could deliver. This teaser, featuring Russell Crowe discussing the ideals that his son Kal-El would and could embrace for humanity over shots that evoke Terrence Malick more than they do Snyder’s typically muscular cinematography, had the internet absolutely gobsmacked with excitement when it was first released. While it was largely agreed that the movie didn’t quite live up to its promise, the brilliance of the trailer is its ability to make you want to watch the film just once more, with the hope that it was the film you saw in the trailer—and not what the end result became—that you’ll get to see.
24. Mad Max Fury Road (2015)
The only thing that’s better than the first few shots in this trailer is every single shot that follows it. We’re not altogether sure that this trailer breaks any new ground or challenges expectations, but the sheer holy sh*t-ness of the images is simply too powerful—and unrelenting—to resist. While the shot of Tom Hardy’s Mad Max swinging in and out of view as the War Boys pursue him might be the coolest image, even without the deeper sociological and emotional context of the story, Mad Max Fury Road is one of the greatest action movies of all time, and Warner Brothers was smart not to hide any of it in this trailer.
25. Us (2019)
It should tell you how much times have changed that in 2018, members of the press were actually invited to attend an event for the unveiling of this trailer, hosted by none other than Jordan Peele. By the time this film’s marketing was even imagined, slow covers of famous songs had long since become a cornerstone of horror trailers, but Peele flipped the script on that trend by building on Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It,” turning their classic hip-hop track into a building menace for a family unlucky enough to discover their homicidal doppelgängers.