Why Short Movie Advertisement Clips are Called “Trailers”

Movie PreviewToday I found out why short movie advertisement clips are called “trailers”, even though they are typically shown before the movie.

It turns out, the first movie trailers occurred not at the beginning of the films, as they do today, but rather at the end of the films.  They were called “trailers” because the advertisements would be spliced directly on the end of the reels, so that the movie advertisement’s film trailed the actual film.

The first known movie trailer to appear in a theater was in November of 1913.  It was made by Nils Granlund, advertising manager of Marcus Loew theaters in the United States.  The trailer was for the musical The Pleasure Seekers, which was shortly to open on Broadway.  In this trailer, he included short clips of rehearsals of the musical.   This idea caught on and trailers began appearing routinely after films.  This was particularly the case with cartoon shorts and serials that would often end in climactic situations where you needed to watch the next episode in the serial or cartoon to see what would happen.  Thus, these trailers, in particular that advertised the next episode, made a lot more sense at the end of the serial or cartoon than at the beginning.

However, it didn’t take long for movie studios to realize that full film advertisements would be a lot more effective if they showed up before the movie, instead of after, and by the end of the 1930s the switch had been made.  Despite the industry’s sincerest attempts over the last 60 or 70 years to get the name changed from “trailers” to some form of “previews”, among industry professionals and English speaking audiences the world over, “trailer” is still the generally used term.  Although, this has begun to change very recently among the general public when referring to trailers shown in theaters, which are now synonymously known as “previews”.

Bonus Facts:

  • While the first known trailer to appear in a theater was that listed above, Lou Harris, an executive at Paramount in the 1960s, states that the first trailer ever to show anywhere was at a New York area amusement park in 1912. One of the concessions workers at that park hung up a white sheet and showed the serial “The Adventures of Kathlyn”.  At the end of the episode, Kathlyn is thrown into a lion’s den.  The concessions worker then spliced into the reel some film that showed the text “Does she escape the lion’s pit?”  This simple text is considered to be the first ever rudimentary attempt at a trailer.
  • In the early days of film trailers, a company called the National Screen Service began making crude film advertisements from transferred film stills without the permission of the film studios.  They’d then sell these film advertisements to be added on to the endings of films.  Rather than sue this company and have them shutdown for their innovation, as studios would most certainly do today, the film industry chose to embrace this novel format for trailers and began providing the National Screen Service with film footage they could use in these advertisements; this ended up giving the National Screen Service a virtual monopoly on movie trailers for a time.  It wasn’t until the late 1920s that studios began commonly making trailers of their own.
  • It is estimated that around ten billion videos are watched online annually.  Of those ten billion videos, movie trailers rank third, after news and user created videos, as the most watched.
  • The earliest references to the term “trailer” being used was a passage in the June 2, 1917 issue of the New York Times: “A committee of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry yesterday began sending films known as trailers [advertising the bonds] to all of the 15,000 or more movie theatres in the United States. These films are seventy feet in length and will be attached to longer films that are shown at every performance.”
  • Early trailers typically just showed text explaining plots and then some stock footage of the film.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that this format changed into the format we know today.
  • Pioneers in this change of trailer format in the 1960s were such people as Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Lipsett, and Andrew J. Kuehn.  Kubrick introduced the montage format for a trailer.  Kuehn, among other things, introduced the narrator, instead of using text, with his choice for narrator being the young James Earl Jones.  Kuehn’s format was so popular that, by the end of the 1960s, Kuehn’s Kaleidoscope Films were one of the largest and most successful trailer making firms in the world; this is a position they held for over three decades.  Most of the top trailer making companies that exist today are run by former Kaleidoscope Films employees.
  • The most common trailer format today is the three-act structure, very similar to the structure of most films and plays.  The most common trailer format is as follows: Act 1, setting up the premise of the story; Act 2, highlighting main plot features of the story; Act 3, generally features a very powerful piece of music accompanied by a visual montage of emotional, suspenseful, action packed, or humorous moments in the film, depending on the film type.
  • The maximum allowed length for any movie trailer shown in theaters or on TV is set by the MPAA.  The time limit is two and a half minutes, with one exception; each studio or movie distributor can exceed this time limit once per year, if they feel a particular movie warrants an extended trailer.  Trailers shown on the internet or on home videos have no time restrictions.
  • One of the more famous non-montage trailers was one by Alfred Hitchcock who guided viewers through a tour of the Bates Motel, promoting his movie Psycho.  At the end of the trailer, he is in the bathroom where the now famous shower scene took place.  He then throws back the curtain to reveal Vera Miles, who issues a blood curdling scream, and then the title “Psycho” covers the screen.  For you movie buffs, you know that it was Janet Leigh, not Vera Miles who played Marion Crane, who was stabbed in the shower.  Leigh was not available after the filming when the trailer was made and so Hitchcock put a wig on Vera Miles, who played the sister of Marion Crane, and used her as a stand in for the shower scream on the trailer.  This went completely unnoticed until many years later.
  • After seeing the shower scene in the movie Psycho, Janet Leigh stated that she no longer took showers unless she had absolutely no other choice, due to the film making her realize how vulnerable people are in the shower.  On the few occasions where she did have to take showers, she would lock the doors and windows in the place she was staying; search the place; and then would leave the bathroom and shower doors open while she showered.
  • Today, most music shown on trailers does not appear anywhere in the movie or on the movie soundtrack.  This is because trailers are generally made long before the movie’s release date, often even a year in advance, and one of the last things typically done on any film is to give it to a composer to add the music.
  • The standard narrative introduction on movie trailers “in a world where…” was originally used by Don LaFontaine.  LaFontaine is arguably the most famous movie trailer narrator of all time.  By the time of his death in 2008, he had recorded over 5,000 film trailers and hundreds of thousands of television advertisements, video game trailers, and network promotions.  For a several year span, he had a near monopoly on movie trailer narratives done in Hollywood.  LaFontaine also often was a guest narrator on Jeopardy, narrating clues for contestants.
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