The History of the Movie Trailer

Some people consider them the best part of the movie going experience – the Movie Trailer. Take a look at the evolution of the “coming attractions” from simple silent film splices, through the template style of the Golden Age of Hollywood, to the Auteurs of the 60s and finally into the Blockbuster era.

In The Beginning

Looking back on the evolution of the movie trailer we must consider the evolution of how we watch movies. Unlike the multiplexes we’re accustomed to today, the first movie theaters in the 1910s had only one screen.

Comet1910

You would pay the admission, say five cents, and you could sit in the theater for as long as you wanted. Show times weren’t precise – a feature length movie along with a short films and a cartoon would play in a continuous loop and you could watch it as many times as you wanted.

1913 would be what many historians consider year zero for the movie trailer.

Nils Granlund

Nils Granlund

In New York City, Nils Granlund, advertising manager of Marcus Loew theaters, made a short little promotional film for the Broadway play “Pleasure Seekers” showcasing actual rehearsal footage. The idea of showing ads between films was a hit – at least to the movie theater owners – The practice of creating and splicing in promotional pieces into the screening rotation was quickly implemented by the Loew theater chain as well as others.

Colonel William Selig

Colonel William Selig

Around the same time in Chicago, Col. William Selig, one of film’s earliest pioneers, would engineer another way to get audiences to the movies. Selig noticed the popularity of print serials in newspapers so he approached the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper embattled in a circulation war for who could be the most sensationalist, to adapt a film version of a print serial. The result was a 13 episode serial entitled “The Adventures of Kathlyn”.

The Adventures of Kathlyn

The Adventures of Kathlyn

This wasn’t the first film serial, it was actually the second, but it introduced a new device to film marketing. You see, each week a new installment would debut along with an article in the Chicago Tribune that continuing the story. What made “The Adventures of Kathlyn” different was at the end of each installment something would happen to put the characters in some sort of peril – a cliffhanger often with a title card inviting patrons to come back the following week to see what happens.

So Thus the idea of the trailer was born – and so too the term – as these promotions for upcoming attractions would play at the end of the film – hence trailer.

Most of these promotions were produced by the theaters themselves but by 1916, the movie studios themselves began officially releasing for upcoming movies. These first film trailers were pretty basic – they generally consist of snippets of film with some text overlay such as the cast of stars.

Trailer for the first film with sound: The Jazz Singer

There was very little money in the trailer making and renting business – at least to the studios – It took a group of clever business men to figure out a way of making money on the nickel and dime work of trailer distribution but in doing so, they created a company that would hold a virtual monopoly on movie trailers and promotional items for nearly four decades.

The Monopoly of the National Screen Service

When we think of the power of Hollywood – we often think of large sound stages and studio sets. But anyone, anywhere in the world with the right amount of capital can build movie studio. Hollywood’s power lies in it’s ability to get the movies it makes to a paying audience – distribution. In an era before internet or even reliable phone service coast to coast, distributing movies and promoting with trailers and posters was a logistical nightmare – one that the major studios were happy to outsource to a company called the National Screen Service.

Started in 1919 by Herman Robbins, the NSS opened an office in New York City that took movie stills, spliced in titles and turned around and sold these trailers to movie theaters directly. They didn’t even ask permission from the studios. Well that didn’t seem to bother the filmmakers. Quite the opposite, many studios happily signed deals to submit their films to the NSS to be made into trailers. By the 1940s, the NSS had branched out into poster and paper advertising and contracts with all the major Hollywood studios.

The way NSS made money was by signing Movie theaters owners to a contract where the NSS would rent out their poster and trailer needs on a week by week basis and NSS would kick back a small royalty to the studios.Now occasionally a studio, like Warner Bros. or Columbia would experiment with their own trailer cutting department but for the most part the NSS dominated the trailer making business from the 1920s through to the 60s – creating a template style trailer with some very specific stylistic patterns like screen wipes and fly-in titles as seen in this classic trailer from Casablanca:

Other notable examples of NSS trailers:

But as star directors started taking the stage, new styles for trailers were emerging as seen in this trailer for Citizen Kane by Orson Welles trading on his and Mercury Theater’s popularity to promote their first feature film:

The Auteurs Redefine the Trailer

Coming into the 1960s, a new generation of star directors began to redefine the trailer – among them was the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of showing scenes from the movie, Hitchcock, who had become quite well known to audiences from his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series, cashed in on his celebrity… taking audiences on a tour using his gallows humor style in this trailer for 1960’s Pscyho:

The reemergence of Cubism in film and commercial art in the 1960s was not lost on another emerging filmmaker – Stanley Kubrick. Having experimented with fragmented cutting styles in the trailer to 1962’s Lolita…

Kubrick comes back strong in 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove” with a trailer that I consider one of the most bold and brazen pieces of movie advertising ever made:

As movie censorship and the production code began to fall by the wayside, trailers began to feature anti heros such this one from Bonnie and Clyde.

More emphasis was laid on the music – as in the Simon Garfunkel score of The Graduate

The tide was turning away from the cookie cutter style trailer of the NSS. And as the film theaters turned more toward multiplexes with multiple screens in the 1970s and going into the 80s with less space for movie poster advertising, the monopolistic grasp of the NSS began to crumble and the movie studios and production companies reasserted control over promotion. But as we will see, the Hollywood promotion machine was just getting started.

The Era of Blockbusters

By the 1970s the movie business landscape had completely changed from the studio controlled “Golden Era of Hollywood” – one of the key turning points in distribution strategy came in 1975 with the release of Jaws.

If you were watching TV in the summer of 1975, you most likely saw that trailer. Jaws was the first successful film to see a wide release – prior, movies would premiere in big cities and then roll out so smaller markets over the coming weeks and months. Jaws opened big – in 464 theaters on June 25th, 1975, expanding to 675 a month later – the largest simultaneous distribution of a film in motion picture history at the time. The idea of a wide release was to get the most out bang out of the advertising buck – Universal bet an unprecedented $700,000 into Television advertising alone, saturating the airwaves with John William’s creepy score. The gamble worked – Jaws saw a huge opening box offices numbers – $7 million in the first weekend alone with an ultimate run of $470 million world wide.

The blockbuster strategy was born and at the heart was the movie trailer. Big bold visuals for big movies. And the voice to many of those blockbusters was the great Don LaFontaine - The “Voice of God” who has lent his talents to over 5,000 movie trailers and hundreds of thousands of television commercials. So identified with the opening phrase “In a World” – that Geico saw fit to spoof it in this ad from 2006

But Don LaFontaine wasn’t the only trailer king – as seen in this local LA report:

As the so called MTV cutting style with fast paced edits shaped a generation of audiences, the trailer adapted and became what it is today.

Notable Trailers from the 1980s – 2000s

With the internet and immediate global distribution, a movie trailer is almost a genre onto itself with boutique editing houses focusing solely crafting that perfect piece of movie advertising. (as in BLT Communications)

In a world with increasing competition from television and video games all competing for a limited resource – your time and money – the role of the trailer, as a moving breathing talking representative of a film – easily consumed as a preview before a main attraction or as easily sharable content on social media has never been as important. Go out there and make something worthy of an awesome trailer -make something great.

Articles Worth Checking Out:

We’re Living in the Age of the Movie Trailer Money Shot

Becoming attractions: A brief history of film trailers