There you are, sitting in the best seat of the movie theatre with a big bucket of buttery popcorn on your lap and an extra large cup of whichever sugary drink you prefer in your hand, anxiously waiting for the movie you paid a ticket for to start.
The lights go down, you shift in your place with anticipation and then…
2 car ads, 3 different soda commercials and 1 mildly amusing insurance company spot are shown. By this point your popcorn and drink are down by a quarter.
A trailer for that season’s biggest movie shows up.
Then another comes.
By the time the actual film starts, you’ve already finished half your food along with your sanity.
Trailers, the marketing tool which film studios have employed for nearly a century, are a curious subject when analyzed. Consisting of condensing a movie into 2-3 minutes of quick, visually interesting and excitingly edited clips with hopes of eliticing a gut reaction or emotion and convincing a group of individuals to buy another big bag of popcorn, extra large soda, and a ticket.
Some people love them (raising my hand here) while others hate them, yet ultimately a good trailer can make people notice a movie that otherwise would have slipped into oblivion while a bad trailer can push audiences away.
But what’s the story behind them? Where do they come from? Why were they created? And what has been their evolution?
In this two part deep dive through history we’ll find out where these marketing tools originated and how far they’ve come.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Although movies saw their creation during the late 1880s, the first trailer came almost 20 years later and had two very significant distinctions from what we see today: It was neither for a movie nor was it set BEFORE the film.
For starters, movie theaters worked a little differently then. With only one screen and 5 cents you could stay seated in there for as long as your body could hold, watching endless loops of various shorts, cartoons, news reels and feature films.
In 1912, Broadway producer Nils Granlund was hired to be the advertising manager for a chain of movie theaters and seeing an opportunity to hype an upcoming musical he was working on with this new audience, he decided create a new stunt; cutting together footage from rehearsals into one reel and showing it AFTER each feature presentation.
Once he noticed this presented a viable and successful way to plug in future projects, his whole theatre chain adopted the marketing method.
During the same year Colonel William Selig noticed the popularity and success gained by print serial and contacted the newspaper The Chicago Tribune to try and come up with the film version of print serials. The result was a 13 episode serial called “The Adventures of Kathlyn“.
Although by no means the first serial ever created, it did introduce an important and crucial device: At the end of each episode, scenes from the next installment would be shown.
The fact that both Granlund’s and Selig’s techniques came after the main film, “trailing” it with scenes from the next chapter is what gave it its name to what we now refer to as trailers.
Soon, major studios took notice of the success this practice had and started releasing their own previews. During the 1930’s, theaters became worried that audiences were not staying after the credits to watch these sneak peeks, so they were moved to be shown before the feature presentation. However, the name had already been ingrained into popular culture and thus, the modern placement and definition of trailers was born.
NATIONAL SCREEN SERVICE ERA
During the following years, movie studios were finding it difficult and cumbersome to create and manage their own trailers.
Enter the National Screen Service (NSS) company.
Formed around 1919 – 1920, the NSS was created to assist with producing and distributing movie trailers. Over the course of the next 20 years, the NSS would become a monopoly for the marketing and advertisement industry, procuring exclusive rights contracts with all major movie studios and theaters to ensure that only they could handle trailers as well as all paper advertising (posters, lobby cards, flyers and so on).
Trailers from this period were defined by having large title cards imposed over footage, melodramatic music and powerful news-reel style narrations.
The NSS made money by renting out their promotional material on a weekly basis and transferred a small amount of royalties to the movie studio. This business practice helped them dominate an otherwise unexplored area of filmmaking at the time.
During the 1950’s, trailers got increasingly longer and detailed, becoming condensed versions of the film rather than just a sneak preview. This may have been influenced by epics such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments- films which had runtimes of over 3 hours – becoming hugely popular.
60’s AND 70’s: THE AUTEUR ERA
The 60’s would prove to be a defining era on influencing the modern era of trailers. And it’s only fitting that this tool would turn into an art form courtesy of some of the most celebrated directors of all time: Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.
In order to avoid spoilers as well as build hype for his highly secretive 1960 horror classic Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock devised two very important marketing strategies; A “no late admission” policy and a trailer that contained not a single frame from the finished film which somehow still ran for over six minutes.
Rather than show actual clips from the movie, Hitchcock walks around the various sets cryptically describing different gruesome events that take place in Bates Motel with his characteristic dark and macabre sense of humor.
On the other hand, Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb trailer presents a series of hypnotic quick cuts which looks to instill the dark humor and paranoia that is present in the film into audiences.
Courtesy of renowned graphic designer Pablo Ferro, Kubrick based it on the short film Very Nice, Very Nice from artist Arthur Lipsett, using a similar quick cut technique and which would in fact be used again for their next collaboration in the trailer for A Clockwork Orange from 1971, capturing its manic and violent nature.
Both director’s approach to this marketing tool reflected the evolution that these two decades had seen in filmmaking techniques and genres as well as people’s expectations for more avant garde visual storytelling. Rather than presenting a condensed version of the movie, trailers moved to capture the essence of the story being told, as with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, presenting its dark and unsettling tone.
Or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trailer, which has a more artistic approach, giving you the feeling that you’re browsing through photo album that becomes increasingly murkier.
This move would spell the downfall of the NSS as studios began being more involved with their marketing in order to ensure that their director’s vision was respected, greatly weakening its position within the industry and eliminating the necessity for an organization of it’s kind.
By 1977, a new filmmaking style was popularized thanks to the release of two small films which were expected to be massive failures. Instead, they would help shape not only how movies are made but also how they are marketed: The Blockbuster.
But we’ll leave that tale for later…