The Evolution of the Movie Trailer

Movie trailers have taken on a life of their own. We’ve reached a point as a movie-watching society where people will go see films that they’re less interested in, purely in the hopes of catching a trailer for an upcoming movie with tremendous buzz. The whole process is absolutely fascinating. Despite the fact that most movie trailer styles have had an impact on the trailers of the modern era, trailers haven’t always had such importance for movie-goers and studios. Someone had to come up with the idea and implement it.

There are many claims as to who showed the first movie trailer. According to Movie Trailer Trash, Paramount trailer division head Lou Harris claimed that the first trailer was shown in 1912 in Rye Beach, New York. Wikipedia’s movie trailer page claims that the first trailer came in November 1913, a short for The Pleasure Seekers shown at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. There’s a rumor–likely false–that projectionists in those years would take the next film to be shown at their theatre and splice it to create their own trailers. But the first wave of official studio releases of trailers came in 1916.

It remained mostly an afterthought until 1919, when the National Screen Service (NSS) was founded. The business provided a service to the studios–creating trailers as part of their advertising campaigns–while preventing studios from having to carry a staff dedicated to the task. NSS dominated the trailer-making scene for more than four decades. You can tell by the lack of variety in trailers, which generally followed the same template–a montage of clips; voiceover narration that sounded like a one page synopsis of the film, written by NSS copywriters; and the names of the stars in a huge font. A few examples:

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

Casablanca (1942)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

What I find fascinating is the way many trailers were composed during America’s hardest years–the Great Depression and World War II. Perhaps they assumed that people wouldn’t want to see films with bleak themes. For instance, the trailer for The Grapes of Wrath (1940) focuses on the popularity of the book, and the battle for the rights to adapt the book to film. The themes of the film don’t get a mention. On the heels of World War II, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is detailed as “a wonderful laugh” in a “wonderful film” in a “wonderful picture”. The drama in the film gets half of a sentence, and Christmas isn’t mentioned at all. Apparently on the heels of so much destruction, the assumption was that movie-goers wouldn’t want to deal with Jimmy Stewart’s life spun out of control.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the template started to break up, if only just a little bit. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock wrested control over their own trailers. Hitchcock used the opportunity to ham it up in reference to his TV persona. Stanley Kubrick really broke the mould with his trailer for Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964). It’s full of frenetic editing that laces together title cards with what would’ve ordinarily been the narration, and very brief flashes from the film.

Psycho (1960)

Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) (1964)

As the Production Code melted away in the 60s, films became more brazen. So too did their trailers. Anti-heroes wee emphasized rather than demonized. And the NSS monopoly was beginning to break up. Trailers ceased placing so much emphasis on the stars, and the narration started to take a back seat. Film scores moved to the front. For instance, The Graduate (1967) trailer is essentially a mash-up of important scenes and the wonderful Simon & Garfunkel score, even going so far as to spoil the film with the scenes shown. The Godfather (1972) used a flurry of screen stills, again spoiling much of the film.

The Graduate (1967) NOTE: SPOILERS IN TRAILER

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The Godfather (1972) NOTE: SPOILERS IN TRAILER

In the early-to-mid 1970’s, television began to play a more prominent role as studios realized how much more money could be made by including spots made for TV ad slots. With the shorter time slot (30 to 60 seconds, instead of around 3 minutes), narration returned, if only for TV.

Chinatown (1974)

Jaws (1975)

Star Wars (1977)

Thanks to the advent of MTV in the early 1980s, movies and music were edited together in improved ways. Trailers began to fuse score, action, and narration seamlessly. None of those aspects dominated the other, and the clips from the film were more effective for it.

The King of Comedy (1983)

Amadeus (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984)

With the indie explosion of the late 80s and throughout the 90s, trailers took on more of an underground aesthetic. It wasn’t about hitting mass markets. It was about making the mass market feel as if they were in on a secret that nobody else knew.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Fargo (1997)

Just as films today owe so much to derivativeness (I don’t mean that in a bad way, by any stretch), the same is true of trailers. Modern trailers encompass so many of the techniques that trailers in the past have used. The Psycho trailer is over six minutes long. 6+ minute trailers have seemingly been a thing of the past. And yet in this past year, we’ve seen trailers at least that long in theaters for The Dark Knight Rises and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The smooth composition of score, narration, and action, forged in the MTV era, has mostly stayed intact. However, even larger budget, non-indie films have adopted the indie era’s marketing mantra of trying to present their films in more underground ways. The cheekiness of trailers like Dr. Strangelove is still very present, with The Muppets most recently enacting a wildly effective trailer campaign that spoofed loads of other movies in 2011. In short, just about every wonderful trailer that you see today has roots in trailers past.


21 Comments

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21 responses to “The Evolution of the Movie Trailer

  1. Pingback: Lady Luck Productions » The Evolution of the Movie Trailer |

  2. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for a good trailer, but what I find maddening is that when I break down and have to see a movie at a multi-plex as opposed to my normal arthouse theater, I will often forget the name of the film I’ve actually paid to see because the trail of trailers is soooo long.

  3. RodrigoAmaral

    great post. Amazing material. i love the trailer of the shinning

  4. Darah

    You mean the Shining?
    Or did you just not want to get sued?!!!

  5. surroundedbyimbeciles

    Trailers are my favorite part of the movie-going experience. Sometimes, I think I could watch trailers for an hour-and-a-half instead of the movie that comes after.

  6. Phil

    Miracle on 34th Street’s trailer is a classic because the movie was released in May, so the executives made sure that there was no reference to Christmas in it! A deception trend that still continues today.

  7. The guy who met Kevin Meany

    In the voice of Don LaFontaine, “The world has been waiting for a movie………..This is a movie.”–John LaRue

  8. Well, it’s certainly interesting to see that the practice of giving away the entire movie in the trailers isn’t necessarily a recent phenomenon.

  9. That Godfather trailer is crazy, I almost don’t need to watch the movie ever again, just come back here for all the good parts.

  10. Excellent post John. Very insightful and informative! The movie trailer certainly has come a long way since its inception and it will be interesting to see studios continue to transform and adapt it over the coming years. As you note, it seems like we are seeing a return of longer previews, where you basically get to watch 10 or 15 minutes of the movie uninterrupted. Also the Brave recent trailer was pretty unique in that it showed an entire extended clip of the movie.

  11. Personally, I try to stay clear of trailers. I don’t go searching for them at home – and just force myself through it at screenings.

    Quite a lot of research you’ve put together here John.

    Well done.

  12. Great piece as always. And some of my favorite trailers. I’ve written about a few of these on my site.

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  14. Pingback: The Movie Trailer Evolution « Silver Screen Media

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