So you’re a director, you’ve made your genre-defining debut picture, and now it’s time to convince the viewing public that your film blows the other cinematic dross out of the water. But how do you prove it? You could knock together a by-the-numbers montage of the movie’s best moments, pepper in some narration, and top it off with a swelling score. Or perhaps you could take a different approach, something a little more… creative? Today we look at the promos that broke the mould: 10 trailers that stake a strong claim as the most innovative of all time.

Before we get started: these are not necessarily the greatest trailers of all time (not that there may not be some crossover; originality is refreshing and quality is subjective). These, however, are the trailers that stood out from their contemporaries, influencing and popularising the tropes we see in film promotion today. Also, this analysis will mostly steer clear of the more recent emergence of teaser trailers and similar short-form advertising; these tend to be more experimental by nature and are often created to complement an official trailer, therefore serving a different purpose.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

In the beginning, movies were sold in the US the same way an advert would flog you toothpaste: as a product. Mostly put together by the National Screen Service, they would all follow a similar formula: flaunt a few features of the film with nasal narration; a few brief scenes overlaid with descriptive block text and a sprightly yet uninspired score. If a director wanted to gain control of his marketing, the best way was to create a “special shoot” trailer, which usually entailed a look behind the scenes, and turned the trailer into a short film of sorts.

For theatrical auteur Orson Welles, cynical towards studio influence in the art of movie-making and promotion, this opportunity was too good to miss when promoting Citizen Kane. His trailer is filled with Pythonesque humour, sending up the tropes that had already been associated with selling a film, complete with Welles’ omniscient narration. And interestingly, it doesn’t show a single frame of the film itself. Maybe less is more when enticing an audience to see your picture.

2. Psycho (1960)

Furthering the send-up of the special shoot, Alfred Hitchcock’s trailer for Psycho added to Welles’ rulebook. Whereas Citizen Kane‘s promotion said “less is more”, Psycho‘s said “defy expectations”. Bar the opening text, there is no mention that the location we are being guided around by Hitch is a film set. Instead, we are led to believe that Hitchcock is showing us the scene of a real crime, the mystery built by the pretence that he’s too squeamish to go into details. His bumbling manner lulls us into a false sense of security, but when we are lead into the infamous bathroom, a wigged Vera Miles (not Janet Leigh, whose shooting contract had ended) startles all who thought they had the trailer sussed out: surprise!

3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

When the ’60s were in full swing, trailers became less about giving the audience a peek behind the scenes and more about showing the people what you’d already got in as exciting a way as possible. Directors gained more control over marketing and no one took it more in their stride than Stanley Kubrick. Inspired by Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), an avant-garde collage film made by Arthur Lipsett, Kubrick had played with the form of trailers in the promo for Lolita (1962), utilising fast cuts and a memorable question posed to the viewer: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”

It was the trailer for Dr. Strangelove, however, that perfected this style. Decidedly more pacy than Lolita, the trailer has an off-kilter rhythm, each word of every question posed punctuated with an atonal marimba and finishing off the questions with a line of dialogue from the film. It leads to a curious experience that raises more questions than it answers, yet it gives a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the film itself. Kubrick would further this visually visceral advertising strategy with A Clockwork Orange (1971), but it was in 1964 that Kubrick discovered that ambiguity and intrigue does not necessarily mean a slow pace.

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Warning: contains flashing images

The use of fast cuts to perplex the viewer was adopted swiftly by the horror genre. In the original trailer for The Exorcist, monochrome stills from the film flash on the screen at a blistering rate, blending the bedroom scene with the grimacing faces of Pazuzu and Regan, all morphing into one another over a cacophony of strings. The result is a visual and aural bombardment, testing the boundaries of audience tolerance. The trailer, once again, devotes its time to making you feel like you’ve seen a lot but actually giving away very little, both unsettling and teasing the audience.

This trailer was eventually deemed too intense and was widely banned, so a simpler trailer was produced for the remainder of the film’s run. The Exorcist had pushed the limits of advertising to the brink. From now on, trailers would have to rely on smarts rather than shocks.

5. Alien (1979)

Often considered the greatest trailer of all time, Ridley Scott’s promo for Alien is a masterclass in pacing. Eschewing the overwhelming atmosphere of The Exorcist, Alien, begins with 40 seconds of only the infamous alien egg, we the audience happening upon it just as the characters do. The tension builds with quickening shots of the doomed crew of the Nostromo. The only audio is a wailing siren and a deep industrial thudding—which then explodes with a burst of diegetic sound. Much like the film, the trailer is a game of hide and seek: the dread of knowing you will be caught, but not knowing when. Alien shows that the best trailers are not just one note throughout; peaks and troughs in pace can make an audience just as gripped as they would be watching the film itself.

6. The Shining (1980)

Kubrick again, with a trailer so sparse it is often mistaken to be a teaser. Kubrick shows as little as humanly possible in this haunting promo; if The Exorcist‘s trailer had found one end of the “less is more” spectrum, The Shining found the other. The trailer, after making sure that we know that this a Kubrick picture, consists only of the slow-mo blood-elevator money shot, the liquid eventually covering the camera. It’s delightfully sickening and the only way it was deemed suitable as a trailer was Kubrick convincing the board that it was rusty water spilling from the elevator.

Odd. Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.

The ’80s and ’90s

A brief interlude to explain the lack of content from the ’80s and ’90s.

After a few bombs from auteur pictures, movie studios demanded greater control of marketing to make sure that their movie did not die a box office death due to the director getting too experimental with the trailer. Promos of this era tended to stick to a formula that included “In a world… ” narration courtesy of Don “Thunder Throat” LaFontaine, a peppy soundtrack and typical pacing. We think of this style of trailer as clichéd and classic now, but that’s because nearly all trailers of this time were very similar in style. It was a period with a distinct lack of innovation, and although there are some great trailers that spawned from it (e.g. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994)) they tend to be great because the film itself is fantastic, not that the marketing was groundbreaking.

But all that was about to change. Enter the internet.

7. Fight Club – Internet Spots (1999)

Fight Club bombed at the box office. David Fincher’s subversive adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s satire of nihilism and toxic masculinity was mismarketed by 20th Century Fox—who feared losses—as a testosterone-fuelled, Brad Pitt-helmed beat-’em-up. The public balked and it wasn’t until the home video release that the film found an audience. But Fincher had initially planned a different trailer strategy. Instead of a single two-and-a-half-minute sweat-fest, the plan was to release five ambiguous 30-second monologues delivered by Edward Norton’s narrator intercut with quick clips from the film, with a few cartoonish sound effects for good measure. Fox disagreed and the trailers were stuck online to be forgotten.

However, to look back on now, the trailers have the same direct and captivating quality that is present in modern internet ads, years before the birth of YouTube. The fast-paced, eye-catching, secretive spots beg for your attention, not wanting the viewer to press that tempting ‘Skip Ad’ button. The first ads for the no-attention-span generation of tomorrow, which for Fight Club, is rather apt.

8. Inception (2010)

It’s hard to imagine a time when movie trailers didn’t unashamedly ape the style of this spot; the promo for Inception would look positively uninspired if it were released today. While the pacing is reminiscent of Alien—start slow, ramp up the tension and then drop it back down for the final moments—Inception introduces two new components: the Nolan blockbuster orchestra to follow this pace and also, more importantly, BWWWWWAAAAHH. The sound that changed the game. The sound that now constantly echoes through every cinema in the country. As the jump-scare is to horror films, the industrial BWAH is to the modern movie trailer: easy, effective and ubiquitous. Inception wrote the book on modern trailers, so much so that to follow its rules is to admit to a lack of imagination and originality. You can dislike what it created, but you can’t deny it changed the game.

9. The Social Network (2010)

One of the best films of the 2010s spawned one of the best trailers. Critics of “The Facebook Movie” were swiftly silenced when this promo was released. In a way, the trailer for The Social Network is similar in style and pacing to (you guessed it) Alien‘s: dedicate over a third of the trailer to establishing context, with The Social Network showing the influence of Mark Zuckerberg in our everyday life through a screen, and, once again, slowly ramping it up to a thrilling finale.

It’s innovative, however, for its use of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ as performed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, thus inventing the “stripped-down piano/acoustic cover version” trope. Not just inventing it, perfecting it. This trope has now been done to death by every other major studio, and not one of them has bested The Social Network. None of them so perfectly utilised a slow cover version of a popular song to such a chilling effect. It’s simply brilliant and really is as good as you remember.

10. Suicide Squad (2016)

Bear with me.

So it’s 2016. Movie trailers can now be made digitally on the cheap and distributed so casually and swiftly onto the internet that they’re “dropped”, not released. But this easy production of promos can often lead to an abundance of them for each film (e.g. teasers, Comic-Con exclusives, Instagram ads) meaning that the official trailer is often the most formulaic, uninspired and boring of the lot. So, how do you make yours stand out? Make one inspired by the internet.

While many superhero trailers of the 21st century had had a popular song thunder behind the action (Watchmen (2009) with the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘The Beginning is the End is the Beginning’ and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) upping the cheese factor with Blue Swede’s cover of ‘Hooked on a Feeling’), none had made the song the main event in the same way Suicide Squad did. Consider pacing; we the audience are tired of the usual pacing of a modern movie trailer. But we are also well acquainted with the pacing of a lot of pop songs, and the symphonic journey of say, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. So why not create a trailer that doesn’t just use the iconic tune but choreographs itself to it? Years of YouTubers cutting up interviews, splicing films together and making Obama sing ‘Call Me Maybe‘ had lead to this. The cuts, the punches, and the shots fired are timed perfectly to hit every beat of the music; it’s a form that is satisfying, familiar, yet also totally new and refreshing. Shame about the actual film though.

So, where are we now?

In a lot of ways, we’ve come full circle. Trailers have, once again, an established form that is, more often than not, stuck to. In the same way films were initially sold as a product with a disregard for artistry, we now complain of trailers “showing all the best parts” and being bland and predictable. Auralnauts’ How to Make a Blockbuster Movie Trailer (above) brilliantly skewers the tropes that plague movie marketing, but it’s interesting to see the influence from the game-changing trailers of the past (e.g. Alien pacing, a slow cover à la The Social Network, Inception BWAAAHs, the quick-matched cuts of Dr. Strangelove and Suicide Squad leading to an Exorcist-style bombardment).

But can modern trailers break new ground? Can this myriad of unoriginal promos be a catalyst for experimentation once more? Well, think of Orson Welles; his trailer for Citizen Kane played on the clichés of selling a film and knowingly subverted them. Maybe the next generation of trailers will embody the same anarchic spirit. Who knows? Change may be “coming soon”.