Terminator 2: the story of the groundbreaking teaser trailer

Terminator 2
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The year before Terminator 2 arrived in cinemas, a specially-shot teaser – with no footage from the movie – showed just how these things should be done.

Whilst it’s accepted as the norm in the modern film world that a film can get a teaser trailer a good year or more ahead of release, it was not always so. I remember the hype, for instance when a trailer for Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla played a year ahead of its release in the later 90s, and that still felt like something really leftfield to do.

Perhaps ultimately unwisely, that particular film targeted viewers of 1997’s Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World, by tantalising them into the prospect of a bigger creature arriving the year after.

This was the trailer, and ultimately it would be writing metaphorical cheques that the film didn’t really cash.

But in 1990, audiences – and I was one of them – were knocked back by a promo for Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Hindsight is an easy game, of course, and star Arnold Schwarzenegger the year before had enjoyed the biggest hit of his career, with Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. But Terminator 2 was to be the most expensive film of all time, the sequel to a very low budget science fiction movie from nearly a decade before. And there was genuine doubt. Would people turn up? Would they remember the first film? How could they possibly get people interested and hyped for the movie well in advance of its release?

Writer/director James Cameron was both aware of all of this, and well ahead with his thinking. He and the film’s backers wanted to put together a teaser trailer for the movie, that wouldn’t contain any actual footage from the film itself, but would hopefully hype up audiences for what was to come. He knew he would struggle to manage that himself, given that he was involved in the extensive pre-production work on the movie.

Furthermore, at the time this was being discussed in 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger was still on the set of Kindergarten Cop (as we chat about here), shooting that particular movie. Resources were going to be tight.

It’s often forgotten too that whilst Terminator 2 was a hugely expensive film, it was still independently funded, away from the major studios. The firm behind it, Carolco, was putting up the lion’s share of the funds for the film. Carolco was a groundbreaking company that would go under around half a decade later after the troubled production of Cutthroat Island.

Nonetheless, a budget of $150,000 was set aside – staggering at the time, for a trailer – to put together an early promo for Terminator 2. To announce the title and existence of the film in those pre-internet times. The further challenge was that the movie was in pre-production, so this wasn’t even a case of being able to take material from the first week or two of filming and cobble together something from that. Filming wouldn’t actually begin on the movie until the back end of 1990, less than a year before its release.

No, this promo would need to be especially shot, with material that wasn’t going to appear in the end film.

Cameron, then, turned to make-up and effects wizard Stan Winston. Winston – who had won an Oscar working with James Cameron on Aliens as well as collaborating with him on the original The Terminator – was also preparing Terminator 2. He cleverly devised a piece of material that would not only serve as a teaser for the film itself, but also do a tiny bit of storytelling work as it did so. After all, audiences had seen Arnold Schwarzenegger’s original Terminator meet its demise at the end of the original film. What Winston came up with would establish the idea that another Terminator could roll off the production line, that looked identical to the first. In doing so, the whole project opened up the narrative challenge behind the later sequels – how can you raise the stakes and tension if we know that either side of the battle can just sent another Terminator back through time? – but back in 1990, the idea of further sequels wasn’t prevalent.

A day was arranged therefore with Schwarzenegger for him to step away from the filming of Kindergarten Cop, and to shoot the first moment of his return to the world of The Terminator. In doing so, he would speak his 59th, 60th and 61st words on screen in Terminator form, uttering the now-infamous phrase “I’ll be back”.

Cameron was happy with Winston’s work, and thus the following promo was duly released into cinemas in 1990, and ultimately included too on the VHS release of Total Recall.

To this day, it’s regarded as one of the best – if perhaps even the best – teaser trailer for a movie, that happens to contain not one jot of footage from the film it’s actually selling. It gives nothing of note away – ironically, the full trailer for the film would prove to be quite spoiler-y – and very much ticked the box of raising anticipation levels for the film itself.

Hollywood took notice, and it didn’t take long for the bandwagon to be boarded. Before even the screenplay for the movie was locked down, a teaser trailer was released by 20th Century Fox for its-then planned Alien sequel. Again, contextually, in the pre-internet days, this was the first many people knew that the movie was actually happening.

Schwarzenegger would try and repeat the trick in advance of 1993’s Last Action Hero, which at the time was his much-anticipated return to action cinema after two years away. Thus, the Christmas before the film’s release, this trailer played in cinemas, and would be included on Columbia Tristar home video releases too…

The original audience reaction to that trailer was strong, but to a degree it sold a different movie to the one that we’d ultimately get. That, however, is a story for another time.

In the case of the Terminator 2 teaser trailer, it wasn’t the first to try a promo with no footage from the movie. The likes of Psycho and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had actually got there first. But its sheer effectiveness is hard to beat.

And in the modern era, it’s telling that films often get three or four variants of a trailer now, and still struggle to land a glove on what Winston did back in 1990…

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