An epic history of the movie trailer. Image 1.

Matthew Schimkowitz

Author

For as long as there have been movies, there have been attempts to get people into movie theaters. From barkers on street corners to teasers, TV spots, and trailers littering the special features of your Matrix DVD, movie marketing has evolved to let you know when and where Iron Man would be throwing a robot through a skyscraper as loudly and frequently as possible.

Looking at the history of the movie trailer gives some insight to how it has changed. As viewership grew in number, so do advertisements. But how did the modern movie trailer come to be?

 

1895 — 1929

The birth of the movie trailer, ads

Before movie trailers appeared ahead of your feature presentation, two components had to be in place: movie theaters and filmed advertisements.

On November 1, 1895, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, a pair of German inventors, brought their short films to The Berlin Wintergarten theater and turned it into the first official movie theater in history. In those days, since there weren’t other movies to show, aside from short clips of a man sneezing, theater owners decided to run commercials to help fill time and make some money.

↑ Advertisements as the first features, trailers:

The first filmed advertisement appeared in 1897, with the Edison Manufacturing Company’s a phenomenally awkward attempt at easing racial tensions with a simple decree: We All Smoke. Here you can see the first filmed advertisement, a spot for Admiral cigarettes.

 

 

Movies were about to hit mass audiences and make people lots of money. A growing number of city dwellers were heading to nickelodeons and movie theaters to scream at reels of trains pulling into stations—or so the legend goes. But trailers weren’t originally used as they are today. Paramount executive Lou Harris told the Los Angeles Times in October of 1966 that the first “trailer” appeared in 1912 at the end of the serial The Adventures of Kathlyn.

Trailing off

At the end of the reel, Kathlyn was thrown in the lion's den. After this "trailed" a piece of film that asked in text "Does she escape the lion's pit? See next week's thrilling chapter!"

The idea of luring customers back to the theater was the birth of modern movie marketing. Serials opened the door to previewing other pieces of entertainment. In November of 1913, Nil Granlund, an advertising manager for Loew’s Theaters, devised and shot an ad for the Broadway musical The Pleasure Seekers, which was playing at the Winter Garden theater in New York. Granlund’s trailer caught the attention of Loews owner, Marcus Loew, who set about having Granlund make more of these short advertisements. By 1914, he was making trailers for Charlie Chaplin, then one of the world’s biggest stars and a marketing revolution began.

Going corporate

Like all great things, Granlund’s innovation would soon be stripped away from him and taken by a faceless corporation. In 1919, the National Screen Service (NSS) started in New York and began a four-decade monopoly over the creation and distribution of movie trailers and promotional materials. Finally, the floodgates were open.

Movie trailers of the silent era aimed to give you the most bang for your buck. In the absence of sound, they put the cast and crew upfront, along with some sizzling ad copy. In the trailer for Charles Hines’ The Live Wire (1926), the spot promises the “Crackling Sparks of Fun and a Flash of Its High Voltage Thrills,” before a montage of the film’s most extraordinary stunts. A tightrope walk across telephone lines, a car racing a train and men scaling tall buildings without a harness were the space ships crashing into buildings of the 1920s.

 

 

These early previews revolved around text and visceral action scenes. The trailer for Colleen Moor’s Irene promises “Dazzling costumes! Brilliant Musical Comedy.” It delivers with scenes of dancing, music, modeling, and comical misunderstandings. Editors of the silent era did what they could to get the word out without getting a word out. They wouldn’t have to work around this for long, though.

Sound changed everything

As with everything else in the movie world, the release of 1927’s The Jazz Singer changed everything by adding a key element to motion pictures: sound.

 

 

Not only is the trailer complete with a spoken introduction, but it's also seven minutes long. The introduction acts like a sales pitch, calling on people to hear this new form of entertainment. It's followed by newsreel footage of the film’s star-studded premiere and several voice-narrated scenes from the movie.

Decades later, blockbusters would show off new technology as previews, usually in state-of-the-art IMAX theaters. It's a mix of new and old, welcoming the world to a new era in film advertisements.

 

 

19301949

The rise of the talking trailer

The Jazz Singer’s contribution allowed studios to lay off the heavy text of silent trailers and add some lively tunes for their theater audience. With a mix of sound, typography, and action, movie trailers became bolder and more sensational than ever before.

The introduction of sound gave the studios a whole new way to sell movies—they didn't even need footage of the film anymore. Take a look at the blunt opening to the trailer for William A. Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931).

Strange! Mad! Loud!

— Opening with a gun pointing directly through the fourth wall at the viewer, The Public Enemy (1931) trailer makes huge claims, like “Nothing like it before! Never anything like it again!” Gun shots cue the ad copy before stating “A few scenes cannot do justice to the most powerful picture of the year.” More gunfire occurs and the trailer rattles off a list of the movie’s stars. If that doesn’t get people into the theater, nothing will.

 

 

Early trailers aimed to give people as little as possible—light on plot, heavy on genre and stars. In his video essay series, 'Frame by Frame,' Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says trailers of the 30s and 40s “would give away as little as possible. They would showcase the stars, the special effects, whatever the film had to offer. And they would offer tantalizing glimpses of the movie, rather than a complete narrative rundown.”

This is the perfect way to describe Orson Welles’ 1941 trailer for Citizen Kane, which features very little plot, a whole lot of mystery, and blows apart all of the trailer tropes that would define the era.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the National Screen Service tightened their grips over the trailer game by cutting deals with nearly every major studio. In turn, they developed a calculated strategy for producing trailers and created a template.

The NSS trailer template

Every NSS trailer followed a similar recipe:  typography and text (Expressions that take cues from the silent era: “You’ve Never Seen Anything Like It!” and “Sensational! Marvelous! A Romance for the Ages!”), narration to clear up some the murky complexities of plot, music to showcase the intrigue, danger, romance, and timeless good feelings of the film, and  montage—quick clips and sharp one-liners to help draw the characters.

 

 

At the height of NSS’s era, trailers would make promises, like “The Monster Speaks” as in the case of The Bride of Frankenstein. Today, we would see a shortened version of the entire film ending with a shot of the Monster speaking.

Throughout the 1930s, the NSS sat pretty, making marketing materials for Warner Bros, RKO, and Paramount, signing theaters and studios to lucrative and exclusive contracts. This squeezed out the competition and monopolized the market place, which left the United States Government no other choice but to intervene.

Things get freaky

From 1942 through 1955, the age of the NSS started its steady decline. The NSS was accused of monopolizing, conspiring, and occasionally sabotaging petitioners who stood against them. But it would still take nearly fifteen years to break free of the NSS’ stranglehold on the industry, and that’s when things really got freaky.

As the 40s bled into the 50s, ticket sales began to slump. The post-war years were hard on the movie theaters; people fled cities for the suburbs and spent their time starting a baby boom. By 1950, one thing hit the movies harder than anything else: television. Between 1950 and 1955 the number of households with TVs jumped from 3.9 million to 30.7 million and it didn’t slow there. Theaters were emptying, and it was time for a shake-up.

Accused of monopolizing the film advertising industry and conspiring against those who stood in their way, the NSS was brought against the judge in 1955. Injunctions were issued against the NSS and the company entered an entangled legal battle over accusations of owning a monopoly due to its extensive exclusive contracts. While court proceedings carried on, those exclusive contracts expired and the NSS entered non-exclusive agreements which allowed for competition in the movie promo biz.

 

 

19501969 

The downfall of the NSS and the Hollywood revolution

While much of this case was regulated to the NSS’s exclusive contracts regarding movie posters, the non-exclusive agreements allowed studios, exhibitors, and ad men to create new trailers, which gave us the system we have today. However, it also allowed real artists and filmmakers to experiment with trailers in a way that helped differentiate themselves from the NSS model.

One of the most famous auteurs to take on the NSS trailer system was the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. With his trailer for 1960’s Psycho, Hitchcock did everything to tease the film’s many shocks by hiding them in plain sight. He led audiences on a guided tour through the Bates Motel, hyping the film’s most violent scenes without giving anything away, describing the horrific scenes just up to the point of revelation. In this six-minute trailer, far longer than any NSS preview and certainly without the same style, the trailer more closely resembles the tricks of The Jazz Singer and Citizen Kane.

Psycho (*spoilers?*)

Hitchcock kept things remarkably light as he divulged almost all of Psycho’s murder scenes—using this as a chance to tease the audience. He did this again with his follow-up film The Birds.

As Hitchcock was playing with audience expectations, another auteur was deconstructing the movie trailer altogether.

 

 

The production of Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is the stuff of legends. From director Stanley Kubrick changing the tone halfway through production to Kubrick not telling star George C. Scott that he was doing so, Kubrick’s film was destined to start a revolution.

Doing away entirely with the NSS model in one fell swoop, Kubrick cut the Strangelove trailer himself and shocked the world with a disjointed trailer that reflected the sordid logic of the film. He asked questions of the audience that he never meant to answer, cutting from text to still images to clips of the film.

 

 

Directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick had a level of creative control that no one in Hollywood had ever seen before. They made movies cheaper, threw their weight around, and challenged studios. As film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon tells Hopes&Fears:

 “With Kubrick, he had total creative control and told the suits to get lost. He wasn’t going to take lessons from anyone. And the thing about Psycho, for example, most people don’t know that Psycho was an independent film. Hitchcock was doing a television show for Universal, and he was doing his theatrical releases for Paramount and realized that he had hit a dead end. He got the script for Psycho, got the novel from Robert Bloch, gave it to Paramount. They turned him down flat. Finally, he said, I’ll put up my own money in return for 60% of the negatives. And that’s the only way things got made.”

This was the beginning of a new movement in Hollywood and abroad. The trailer for Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s breakthrough work, beat both Hitchcock and Kubrick to the punch.

The pretty girl, the villainous man, the revolver

Again, playing on the tropes of the NSS trailers, Godard removes the music, the feeling, and excitement, in lieu of a simple narration that highlights the building blocks of his film. The narrator lists off elements, like “The pretty girl, the villainous man, the revolver.” These are the things that would be in a trailer for Casablanca, but instead are pulled out of context to entice the viewer.

 

 

Avant garde culture was on the rise in the 1960s, and it was reflected in the trailers. Directors continued to play with the idea of promoting and producing movies in subversive ways throughout the decade.

The preview for Head, the Monkees movie, mocks the very idea of promoting themselves and their public personas. Over the trailer’s soundtrack, they sing, “You say we’re manufactured to that we can agree/So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free/Hey, hey, we are the Monkees/We’ve said it all before/The money’s in, we’re made of tin/We’re here to give *gun shot*.” Trailers have become self-aware.

 

 

1970 1989 

“In a world” of blockbusters

If the 1960s were among the most experimental periods in filmmaking, and the 30s and 40s were the most formal, then the 1970s were the marriage of both.

Directors plucked from film schools were the first generation of filmmakers to be raised on cinema and made movies more popular than ever. Midway through the decade, directors like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg were given more freedom and changed the way business in Hollywood was done.

Very big Jaws

Jaws bucked the trend of rolling a movie out slowly — starting in big cities and making its way to small towns over the course of a year or more. The prototypical blockbuster opened in 464 theaters in the summer of 1975, which was virtually unheard of at the time. This move was designed to maximize advertising dollars and it worked so well ($7m opening, $474m total) that it became standard practice.

 

 

This mix of old and new wasn’t contained to the films, but the marketing as well. You can see a slow evolution throughout the decade that takes some of the techniques of the 60s and blends them into something less abrasive than, say, the trailer for Head. Promo spots for Love Story and The Godfather rely heavily on their association with the bestselling novels on which the films were based, offering short glimpses of the film, as well their respective soundtracks.

Mood and music

The Love Story trailer is probably more interesting than the film, trading footage of the movie for still images of the two leads in their romantic bliss. Surprisingly, the collection of still photography that makes up Love Story’s trailer resembles Chis Marker’s hugely experimental, one-of-a-kind La Jetee.

 

 

The spirit of the 60s lives in these trailers, leaning hard on mood and music, not plot. The same is true for the Godfather trailer, as Coppola gives audiences a peak into the Corleone family.

However, the closer Hollywood gets to the age of the blockbuster, the more the modern trailer starts to reveal itself, and it all starts with Jaws -- the film phenomenon of the summer of 1975. Adjusted for inflation, the movie has the seventh largest box office gross in movie history, so it seems fitting that so many would pull influence from its trailer. It introduced something new to trailers: relying almost entirely on the narrative of the film to advertise it. In 3 minutes and 21 seconds, the entire story arc of the film, save for the ending, is given away. There’s a shark terrorizing the beach on the 4th of July, it’s up to a local sheriff to take care of it, and he teams with a scientist and a fisherman to get the job done.

 

 

The Jaws’ trailer is very close to what most movie trailers would become, three-minute mini-movies that show the audience exactly what they’re getting into. You can see this evolution clearly when comparing the trailers for the first three Dirty Harry movies. Dirty Harry (1971) focuses almost entirely on character, especially compared to the trailers for the second and third Dirty Harry movies, Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976), which offer far more direct explanations of the film’s plot and, more importantly, the latest group of punks that may or may not be feeling lucky.

 

 

Money to make money

Movies were becoming more and more expensive, and advertising budgets were rising. Studios were willing to take chances on auteurs, but there was more attention paid to the film’s marketing. More people than ever would have to go see these movies for them to make their money back.

“Movies are one of the few things people don’t get refunds on,” Wheeler Winston Dixon tells Hopes&Fears. “The trailers almost go out of their way to say, ‘This is what we promised you.’” Considering how much time and money went into the production of Jaws, it’s no wonder that the studio would want audiences to know exactly what they were getting. And it worked.

There’s a similar technique used for Star Wars, which largely explains the plot and world of the film in narration and clips of the movies. In some ways, Star Wars feels a bit more traditional, almost harking back to the NSS days with an emphasis on the story structure.

It’s easy to imagine the Star Wars trailer in black and white with words like “Exciting! Adventure unlike the galaxy has ever seen!” This was so easy to imagine that a fan-made “Premake” trailer for the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, appeared in 2008.

This, of course, was not the case across the board. Movie studios tried out all sorts of techniques to ensure returns on their investment. As the 70s moved forward, so to did trailers, which started looking a bit more like music videos. Three years or so before the advent of MTV, the trailers for Ridley Scott’s Alien and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer showed the world three minutes of music and montage that were largely dialogue-free.

 

 

The 60s created a hodgepodge of different advertising techniques that were as formal as they were experimental, but as the 70s ended, an emphasis on big movies that were more expensive than ever led to trailers that were more like Jaws than Sorcerer. However, that’s not to say they are without merit.

In 1974, a then-unknown voice took narrated the trailer for The Godfather Part II, a preview that is more of a laundry list recitation of the Godfather’s bountiful collection of awards. That voice would become the voice of trailers for nearly three decades—that voice was Don LaFontaine's, best known as “the voice of god” or that guy from the trailers who always says, “In a world…”

Starting his career in 1964 with the trailer for the spaghetti western Gunfighters Of Casa Grande, LaFontaine dominated the 80s with his voice attached to over 5,000 different trailers. While it is somewhat unknown when and where LaFontaine first uttered his immortal words, it seems fitting that one of the earliest was The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) in 1981.

 

 

Over the next few decades, LaFontaine led audiences through story arcs in under three minutes, transporting them to different worlds quickly and efficiently. His voice could prep us for a journey into any world, whether it’s as wild as Mad Max or as revolutionary as Baby Geniuses.“We [voice-over artists] have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to,” LaFontaine says of the phrase. “That’s very easily done by saying: ‘In a world where ... violence rules,’ ‘In a world where ... men are slaves and women are the conquerors’ You very rapidly set the scene.” You can hear his influence in trailers throughout the next two decades.

La Fontaine had created yet another template for trailers. Whereas in the 1940s stars and genre made the sell, this is where the narrative really takes over. Audiences now know exactly what they’re getting into before they buy a ticket.

 

 

1990 — 2015

The mini-movie

By the end of the 1980s, movies were making more money than ever. Year after year total grosses and movie budgets were higher. As such, studios took fewer risks on trailers. They would make multiple trailers, premiere them at different times, test them on different markets, and find just the right way to sell their product.

More importantly, they started honing in on an abridged version of the movie, advertising with a short version of the film’s three acts: setup, confrontation, and climax—essentially everything but the resolution.

In some cases, the trailers gave away too much. In what The Dissolve's Tasha Robinson called the "world's biggest spoiler" in the trailer for Terminator 2: Judgement Day actually ruins one the films most exciting reveals -- the fact that Schwarzenegger's killer robot was now a good guy protector instead of the unstoppable homicidal robot from the first film. The seven year wait for a sequel and the characteristic switcheroo were undone in a matter of minutes.

“BRAAAM”

Hans Zimmer: "This is a perfect example of where it all goes wrong. That music became the blueprint for all action movies, really. And if you get too many imitations, even I get confused! By the time we got to The Dark Knight Rises, the studio sent over a trailer with that temp track, and they actually apologized for it. They said, 'We put the Inception music in there because we didn't know what else to do, so could you guys maybe come up with something else?' So we came up with a trailer that was just a few lonely notes — it couldn't have been more opposite. That sound was in the script […] The sound, really, is that I put a piano in the middle of a church and I put a book on the pedal, and these brass players would basically play into the resonance of the piano. And then I added a bit of electronic nonsense." - The Vulture

 

 

In some cases, the trailers gave away too much. In what The Dissolve's Tasha Robinson called the "world's biggest spoiler" in the trailer for Terminator 2: Judgement Day actually ruins one the films most exciting reveals -- the fact that Schwarzenegger's killer robot was now a good guy protector instead of the unstoppable homicidal robot from the first film. The seven year wait for a sequel and the characteristic switcheroo were undone in a matter of minutes.

To fight or not to fight the formula

However, the proof was in the pudding, both Ghost and Terminator 2 were monster hits as was Home Alone (two of these were narrated by LaFontaine himself). Why fight the formula? If people want to see the whole movie before going in, why not give it to them?

Over the next few years, actually the closer you get to the ubiquity of the Internet, the more coming attractions become the attractions. Independence Day, the highest grossing film of 1996, shows much of the film’s biggest effect pieces, employing many of the tools editors use today. A few years ago, NPR offered a pretty handy trailer-specifc vocabulary list, which Independence Day has in spades.

THE TURN LINE: That moment in a trailer where the music drops out for a single line of dialogue.

THE RISE: The big, crescendo finale most trailers ultimately build toward. The Rise often follows a Turn Line.

HITS: Those pounding, dramatic drum booms that punctuate so many trailers are called Hits.

THE BUTTON: The scare or joke that comes immediately after the Main Title Reveal and ends the trailer with a bang or laugh.”

 

 

With Independence Day, you can hear the first “Hit” at 0:34, the “Turn Line” at :50, “The Rise” in the soundtrack, which slowly gets louder, and, of course, a classic Will Smith button: “I’m just a little anxious to get up there and whoop ET’s ass.” Independence Day is both a product of its time and a sign of things to come.

Three years later, it could be argued that trailers became bigger than movies themselves. The teaser to The Phantom Menace boosted ticket sales to whatever movie it was attached, and for some reason, it was attached to Meet Joe Black. Still, most Meet Joe Black ticket holders probably haven’t seen the movie. As the New York Times reported, “Theaters showing films like The Waterboy, The Siege and Meet Joe Black were crammed with people—mostly young men—who paid full admission just to see the trailer and left when the movie began."

Over the next fifteen years, trailers became some of the most popular forms of entertainment on the web. Trailer announcements litter blogs and Twitter feeds, complete with reactions, recaps, and reviews. Just searching for the trailer for the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck features search suggestions like “Trainwreck trailer reaction” and “Trainwreck trailer review” as well as a non-skippable ad for another movie, Pixar’s Inside Out. Trailers now have trailers and teasers that precede the trailer. They are their own form of entertainment, an attraction that has a “coming attraction,” innumerable online destinations for trailer consumption (iTunes, YouTube, Rotten Tomatoes, etc.) and fans' mash-up trailers (like for that charming father-son dramedy “Shining”). Perhaps, for the first time ever, people watch commercials for fun.

 

 

Today sound and structure play a huge role in selling movies. Within any given trailer, you’ll be introduced to a character, their relationships, and brief look at the three acts of the film, all of which are set to the "Hits" of an Inception-style “BRAAAM,” dub-step inspired crescendos, and/or drop outs that sound like someone is shutting down at nuclear power plant. These sounds are essentially the new template for trailers.

The Inception “BRAAAM” has become the standby soundtrack to dozens, if not hundreds, of action movie trailers, becoming so common that even composer Hans Zimmer is sick of it.

 

 

The predictable nature of trailers and tendency to over explain a plot extends to comedies as well. Trainwreck is a perfect example. The preview opens with a protagonist philosophy (“monogamy isn’t realistic”), a setup of her life (“a modern chick who does what she wants”), a problem (“you’re approachable”), a quest (“an interview with a sports doctor”), and a philosophical challenge (“I had a really good time last night”). Like in the case of Independence Day, the trailer divulges everything but the solution.

It isn’t just like this for studio tentpoles, indie movies also use a similar structure to sell their movies. The trailer for Gary Gardner’s The Nymphets shows a similar arc to Trainwreck. However, they differentiate from each other in the edit. The Nymphets shows a far more chaotic world, quicker cuts, louder music; Trainwreck, a lighter one with more jokes and trailer hits.

It’s hard not to notice the outliers in this case. Opening against Pitch Perfect 2, the critically lauded Mad Max: Fury Road broke free from the traditional trailer structure. Though it highlighted the film’s striking visuals and action scenes, as trailers do, it gave away very little of the plot. And yet, it was bested by the acapella comedy. While Mad Max was a smash with critics, its box office draw was pretty light in the opening weekend, with its sleeper hit status having as much to do with positive word of mouth as the trailer. Before Max, David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo had a striking and original trailer. However, at the time of release, Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo wrote, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo grossed an estimated $19.4 million from Friday to Monday for a six-day total of $27.8 million. That's tops among the new releases, but is also a bit disappointing considering the movie is an adaptation of one of the most popular books of the last decade and featured a killer marketing campaign from distributor Sony Pictures (‘The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas,’ Trent Reznor and Karen O's version of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," etc.).” There are exceptions, especially in horror and other hard genre pictures but, for the most part, audiences seem to choose plot over style.

 

 

There are no right or wrong ways to cut trailers. It is entirely dependent on the audience. Studios test their products more thoroughly than ever, changing the tone and even story of the movie in hopes of attracting enough people to turn a profit. Studios, marketing teams, editors, and audiences will always change what they look for in trailers. Right now, big, loud, plot heavy trailers are in vogue, tomorrow might be something more subversive or, simply, gentler. Or maybe people will only be interested in genre. Or effects. Or music. Or stars. As budgets climb, the market place will adjust to what people respond to. One thing is certain, though: the best part of going to the movies is here to stay.

 

Additional sources: Movie Trailers 101, Wired, The Dissolve, Filmmaker IQ