Trailers were initially little more than crudely spliced collections of film stills, sold to early theater exhibitors to be tacked onto the end of features. Hence the name “trailers”: These brief sneak previews trailed after the main attraction, and were designed to get the hoi polloi’s asses back in the sticky seats next week. Screen-wipe to a less than a century later, and movie trailers are a bona fide industry, with their own awards ceremony (The Golden Trailer Awards), dozens of independent production houses, and hundreds of sites devoted to compiling and/or critiquing these marketing-campaign pillars.
Much has changed since an “epilogue” following a 1913 Coney Island screening of the first cliffhanger serial, “The Adventures Of Kathlyn,” wondered whether the heroine would escape her perilous predicament, and a short film promo advertising the 1913 stage musical The Pleasure Seekers piqued audiences’ curiosity in a Broadway theater—two incidents that are commonly identified as the trailer’s Year Zero moment. (That’s not counting the magic-lantern slides that pimped upcoming titles and played between nickelodeon attractions during cinema’s infancy.) How did we get from modest pre-screening promises of “Thrills! Spills! Chills!” to Hollywood Reporter “trailer reports,” the equivalent of Monday-morning box-office reports, but for free online commercials? Here’s a quick tour of the form’s evolution, as seen through 10 movie-trailer milestones.
Trailers during the silent era displayed a cave-painting-like level of simplicity: a title card, a tagline (“A dazzling story of The Great American Beauty… the modern Venus!”), some film snippets, and usually a rundown of the cast. (This compilation includes several samples.) The introduction of sound changed everything, to put it in vast-understatement terms, and naturally, trailers used the breakthrough to woo audiences. As Keith M. Johnston’s invaluable Coming Soon: Film Trailers And The Selling Of Hollywood Technology points out, the promo for The Jazz Singer wasn’t the first bit of marketing to trumpet the wonders of talking pictures; a short film featuring future censorship maven Will Hays crowing about the Vitaphone sound system ran with the 1926 première of the John Barrymore vehicle Don Juan. But like the Al Jolson musical it was selling, the seven-minute trailer that announced the industry’s big sea change feels revolutionary in a variety of ways. A man steps in front of a black curtain, clears his throat, and via a synchronized soundtrack, says, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am privileged to say a few words to you.” The direct address to the audience, the newsreel-like footage of celebrities interspersed with scenes to whet the appetite, the voiceover narration: Primitive or not, a new template had been set.
Throughout the 1930s, the mode of selling movies slowly inched toward a sleeker, more sophisticated format. (Compare the trailers for 1932’s Tarzan The Ape Man and 1939’s Gone With The Wind.) It wasn’t until the 1940s, when the National Screen Service tightened its stranglehold on studio trailer production, that several innovations now associated with classic Hollywood trailers were introduced—the use of a third-person narrator, titles that seemed to flip up onto the screen from below the frame, etc. But the incredible trailer for John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel represents a transitional moment between old-school stumping and new-school technical prowess. The first two-thirds emphasize how Steinbeck’s book about Dust Bowl Okies heading west is sold out everywhere (cue customers demanding a copy of the novel, and beleaguered booksellers proclaiming they can’t keep the damned thing in stock!) It’s a full minute and a half before Henry Fonda is introduced as Tom Joad and footage of the movie is shown, but by that time, the peer pressure is in full effect: Everyone is talking about this book! Except you! Don’t worry! We made a movie of it, people!!!
During the 1940s and ’50s, trailers remained tied to a conservative format of hyperbolic praise and hyperventilating promotion of stars. Hitchcock knew a typical promo for this proto-slasher film wouldn’t do the work justice; given the film’s twists, why would he want to show a bunch of clips that might give the game away? Plus, thanks to the prominent appearances on his TV show, the rotund auteur was almost as famous as anyone in the film. Hence this six-and-a-half-minute trailer that offers a personal tour of the Bates Motel and that sinister-looking house on the hill, complete with Hitch’s pitch-black humor and some tantalizing hints of the gruesomeness to come (“The victim fell with a horrible crash… I think the back broke immediately… the twisting, and… well, I won’t dwell upon it.”) The black-and-white cinematography and the director’s macabre jocularity make this appear to be another episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while the cryptic mentions of events too degenerate to describe suggests something viewers weren’t used to seeing. The meta-savviness all feels quaint until we get to the trailer’s ending and that disclaimer, and… well, it’s just… oh, take a look.
Stanley Kubrick had already started experimenting with how far he could push the trailer format with his fragmented, geometrically fixated teaser for 1962’s Lolita. (“How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” a voice asks rhetorically. Better question: How did he get executives to actually sign off on that Cubism-meets-lounge-culture promo?) His next film went even further. Kubrick and Pablo Ferro, the Cuban graphic artist who designed Dr. Strangelove’s sketch-like titles, came up with a trailer that sells this comedy about nuclear annihilation at strobe-light speed. Minimalist black-and-white title cards featuring single words flash by, stopping only to register a scene with a word or two of dialogue from the film—“Base,” “Fluids,” “Coca-Cola machine”—before whizzing off to the next image. The effect is like watching a trailer through the clicking shutter of a camera, or the bars of a Zoetrope; Wired’s recent article on film trailers listed the clip as throwing 220 shots at viewers during a 97-second span. Fast-cutting became the norm by the 1990s, but here, the rapid-fire pace makes viewers feel like they’re spinning out of control. It’s a perfectly stark pop-art complement to a work that mocks the apocalypse.
This movie is obscure enough that mentioning its title might make cartoon question marks appear over even the most dogged B-Western aficionados. So what is this film doing on this list? It had the first trailer to feature the dulcet tones of Don LaFontaine, who set the standard for trailer voiceovers by coining the phrase “In a world…,” which seemed to kick off every third trailer made after 1983. The baritone voice who rattled off the various awards The Godfather Part II won (in the first trailer he produced with his independent company), informed viewers of a 21st-century weapon called a Terminator, and told audiences that those Bad Boys cops “don’t follow the rules… they make them”—that was all LaFontaine too. By the time he died in 2008, it was estimated that the man nicknamed “Thunder Throat” had lent his inimitable tone to more than 5,000 film trailers. This obscure oater is where it all began. (In a world where the Gunfighters Of Casa Grande trailer isn’t online, here’s a mashup of some choice LaFontaine moments.)
Contrary to popular belief, Steven Spielberg’s tale of three men and a shark was not the first feature film to use TV trailers as a marketing tool. Johnston cites the practice as going back to 1950, when Born Yesterday used TV to spread awareness; the documentary The Monster That Ate Hollywood mentions Columbia Pictures taking out ads for its Charles Bronson vehicle Breakout, released a little less than a month before Jaws. But the horror film that cemented great whites sharks as the Charles Mansons of the deep blue sea is considered the first film to leverage prime-time-customized trailers to fuel such a huge box-office success. Blitzing the network airwaves with mini-trailers three nights before the movie’s release, Jaws opened with a $7 million weekend and became one of the biggest grossing films of the decade. Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the channel, the era of the blockbuster—and the TV spot—began in earnest.
It’s an arresting image: An art deco elevator opens its doors and floods a hotel lobby with blood—enough Type O to send a loveseat careening into the camera. (The shot reportedly took nine days to set up, and a year of stop-start shooting to finally get it right.) Add in that Krzysztof Penderecki music that sounds like buzzing bees caught in a Marshall amplifier, and the ominous upward scroll of the credits, and The Shining’s trailer becomes one of the spookiest ever made. In a minute-and-half spot—most of which is simply a shot of the doors and the cast/director/author information—Stanley Kubrick created a conceptual ad for his haunted hotel-cum-familial meltdown movie that is every bit as meticulous and unnerving as the movie itself. There have been a number of cryptic, memorably minimal horror teasers over the years, from the campy to the canonical, but this one takes the proverbial cake, setting the bar ridiculously high for head-scratching, “But hell, I have to see this now” trailers ever since.
As Matt Patches detailed in his stellar piece on trailer money shots, Roland Emmerich’s minute-long bid to get viewers prepped for his upcoming science-fiction action movie broke ground in several ways. It was the first trailer to play during a Super Bowl broadcast, virtually guaranteeing an audience in the gajillions, and it was one of the first to truly harness the power of a major payoff moment. After a gigantic shadow falls across a number of major American landmarks—including, eerily, the World Trade Center’s twin towers—and shots of people staring upward in awe (when they aren’t fleeing in panic), a huge explosion starts knocking cars into the air. “They attack” says a title card… Who is they? And then ka-boom! The White House goes up in flames. Never mind that the ad arguably gives away the best moment, a common complaint about such promos. The trailer certainly caught viewers’ attention, and a gauntlet had been thrown down: Producers who want folks to eat their summer-blockbuster steaks had better put a huge amount of sizzle into their campaigns.
Even before George Lucas tacked his first Star Wars prequel teaser onto Meet Joe Black screenings, it wasn’t unheard of for people to pay full ticket prices for a movie just to see a highly anticipated trailer, then skedaddle before the film started. (Though the 75 percent walkout rate some theater owners reported during the first week of Meet Joe Black showings was unusually high.) Movies and the Internet had collided before as well, especially in terms of marketing films like The Blair Witch Project. But the preview for Phantom Menace, a movie Jedi wannabes had been breathlessly awaiting for decades, offered a peek of things to come in terms of trailers and new media. Fans snuck a camcorder into a theater and recorded the two-minute Menace teaser, then uploaded it online. Lucasfilm reps weren’t pleased—mostly, they claimed, because the quality was so low. So the company put a pristine copy of the trailer on the official Star Wars website, and all hell broke loose. According to Johnston’s account, 450 users per second tried to download the clip, quickly jamming the servers. (In 1998, most households didn’t have broadband connections.) The eventual total of 3.5 million hits broke all previous Internet downloading records. And while fans wondered who that guy with the two-sided lightsaber was (!!!) and what was up with the floppy-eared alien (don’t ask), studios took notice of the Internet’s power to take their trailers to the masses. From that point on, trailers became the property of PC monitors as well as multiplexes.
People who went to showings of Transformers in summer 2007 saw a trailer that starts with the Bad Robot logo (familiar at the time to fans of Alias and Lost) and what looks like cellphone footage of someone’s going-away party. Then a huge thump echoes across the soundtrack, and everyone at the party goes up on a roof. An explosion is seen in the distance. The footage cuts in and out. Chaos reigns. Then, out of the blue, something falls from the sky onto a New York street—the Statute Of Liberty’s head. No sooner had viewers registered what they’d seen than a generic “From Producer J.J. Abrams” flashed across the screen, followed by a brief credits block and… that’s it. No title. This brilliant teaser caused a lot of audience confusion, but it certainly got people talking: What caused that huge noise? Is the whole movie going to look like cheap, consumer-grade video? What the hell is this film called? It was a while before Cloverfield, as this 9/11-spolitation monster movie was eventually titled, answered those questions, but its viral-looking trailer established that in this day and age, less really could be more. When trailers started, their goal was to make sure the film’s name was on everyone’s lips. This ad proved that so long as filmmakers could get people talking about their movie, they didn’t even need a name.
The innovations didn’t stop in 2008, of course: Favoring music over dialogue and story details has become a bona fide trend, creating soundtracked “silent” trailers that range from melancholy to slow-burn creepy (go straight to the 1:50 mark of this) to caffeinated anxiety. (Try to sit still while watching David Fincher’s first trailer for his Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake.) Red-band trailers have become their own subgenre, regularly using R-rated material—violence, raunch, swear words that would make George Carlin blush—to sell moviegoers on the notion that they’ll see envelope-pushing entertainment. And anyone who even casually sifted through 2013’s trailers would find examples of formal experimentation and fresh takes on old tricks: Witness the mood piece that let comic-book fans know Man Of Steel would not be their father’s Superman movie, the druggy impressionism of the Only God Forgives trailer, or the sublimely zero-to-batshit promo for Gravity that pimps the film’s space odyssey disaster sans any context. New ways of enticing viewers to the main attraction undoubtedly lay on the horizon. Those, too, will be coming soon to a theater near you.