Approved for All Audiences: A Brief History of the Modern Movie Trailer
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, movie trailers were just commercials, disposable ads for upcoming films. Then, in 1998, came the trailer for what was then the most eagerly awaited movie in years: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Fans bought tickets to Meet Joe Black just to see the Star Wars clip and walked out before the supposed main attraction started. In a pre-broadband, pre-YouTube era, fans downloaded the Phantom Menace promo millions of times, poring over it for clues. And an evolution that had begun more than 20 years earlier finally became evident: the modest movie trailer had grown into an attraction in itself, one as worthy of scrutiny and appreciation as the art form it advertised.
Today, the Internet has made available to us a cornucopia of trailers we can watch when we want, as often as we want, for free. In addition to tracking the box office, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter now chart the most popular new trailers as well, with the top clips scoring in the millions of streaming views. (The Fault in Our Stars trailer, at this writing, has drawn more than 25 million viewers, more than twice as many as have bought tickets to the hit movie itself.) And online critics can now give close readings of trailers the way they do for full-length films.
The humble film promo wasn’t necessarily built to withstand such intense scrutiny. But over the past 50 years or so, trailers have matured into bite-size pop-art commodities, worthy of both critical study and mass consumption. (Indeed, it’s easy to watch the online clips the way we eat popcorn, one morsel after another, after another.) Here’s a brief history of how trailers have come into their own.
1940s to 1950s: The Monopoly
Before 1960, trailers for Hollywood movies were a lot like the movies they promoted: products of a small monopoly. They were all created by a company called National Screen Service, which compiled clips into two- or three-minute promos and rented them to movie theaters, tossing a kickback to the studios that supplied them with the footage. (In the silent era, the ads would follow the movies — rather than preceding them as they do today — which is why they’re called “trailers.”)
Watch TCM for a few hours, and you’ll see plenty of these old-school trailers, all made according to a house style marked by lots of on-screen text, breathless voice-overs, and hyperbolic superlatives (“Colossal!” “Stupendous!”).