Movie trailers have become a huge part of how we choose what movies we see. And rightly so, a movie trailer is a movie studio’s pitch to you, using their very best footage to impress you to pay to see their movie.
There are side effects to this though. A bad trailer can cause people to not see your movie, despite it being really good. And a really good trailer can leave people utterly disappointed and make them like it less than they would if they never saw a trailer. And then there’s the possibility of misrepresenting a movie, where people expect one thing and get something completely, totally different.
Our relationship to trailers is fairly weird. We look forward to them and get excited when we see them, but they’re nothing more than long advertisements. So now, as the movie trailer turns over 100 years old, it’s a good time to look back at how all this craziness started, with a quick explanation of why we call them “trailers”.
Initially, movie trailers were attached to the end of a movie. That practice didn’t last too long, however, because the powers that be eventually realized that people just left after the movie ended and didn’t want to stick around for a bunch of advertisements.
The creation of the trailer was all due to Nils Granlund, who was the advertising manager for the Marcus Loew theater chain. Grandlund decided to cut a promotional film for the musical The Pleasure Seekers, which was actually a play set to open on Broadway. He did it by combining video from rehearsals and other activities associated with the play and attached it to movies playing at Loews Theatres.
Granlund repeated the technique for a Charlie Chaplin film at Loews’ Seventh Avenue Theatre in Harlem in 1914, which is the first trailer for an actual movie. Soon after that, the National Screen Service started creating the majority of trailers, which consisted of giant text describing the picture intercut with scenes from the actual movie and a voice narrating the text. You can see an example of that above in the trailer for 1951’s The African Queen.
This started changing in the 1960s, when New Hollywood came along and started popularizing textless, quick-edited montage trailers. One of the key contributors was Stanley Kubrick, who took inspiration from avant-garde Canadian film director Arthur Lipsett. Kubrick’s trailers for Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange essentially changed the game and the look of trailers forever. You can see the trailer for Dr. Strangelove below, and can imagine how people used to trailers like The African Queen’s would react to it.
The trailers we have today are descendants of the work Kubrick did. They use similar techniques, and the folks who cut the trailers have mostly perfected the format and how to make a trailer. However, we’ve also seen that trailers using narration have taken a backseat to trailers that are more in line with the stuff Kubrick was doing. As you’ll see in the trailer for Wolf of Wall Street below, it’s fairly odd seeing essentially the same techniques being used today.
There are multiple types of trailer nowadays. There are full trailers, extended trailers, teaser trailers, teasers for teaser trailers, tone trailers and trailers that are essentially short films and give away most of the plot.
Trailers have also now gone beyond the movie theater, garnering millions of views on sites like YouTube and being shared all over the Internet. They have even invaded home video, playing before you get to the main menu on a DVD or Blu Ray. In fact, it feels like it’s just a matter of time before they show up before Video On Demand rentals from iTunes, Vudu or Amazon.
The average time of trailers before a film has also increased. In the early years of cinema, a trailer was only one part of a larger package that played before a movie. There were short films and news reels and cartoons and even short TV show-like episodes or serials. Now, we get treated to a bunch of ads as everyone gets settled and then about 15 minutes of trailers once the lights go down.
The trailer will no doubt evolve as the years pass, better reflecting what we respond to and want. The kind of trailers that worked in the past simply don’t have the effect they have now. And at the end of the day, the movie trailer is a studio’s attempt to sell you on a film in the best way they can. They do what they do because it works, and they won’t stop until we start responding differently to them. And we will.