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Approved for All Audiences: A Brief History of the Modern Movie Trailer

July 16, 2014
A moviegoing audience watches trailers
A moviegoing audience watches trailers

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!”).

1960s: Directors Take Charge

The trailer took the first major step in its modern evolution when Alfred Hitchcock broke with tradition to appear in his own trailer for his 1960 game-changing thriller, Psycho. Instead of featuring footage from the film, the six-and-a-half-minute short showed the Master of Suspense touring the Bates Motel set like a crime scene, and ended with him setting up — but not spoiling — the film’s shower scene.

Other auteurs followed suit. Rather than describe the controversial premise of Lolita (1962), Stanley Kubrick constructed an abstract, geometric set of images that posed the meta-question of how Hollywood had managed to adapt Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous novel in the first place.

He followed that up with a memorable promo for Dr. Strangelove — which would become one of the most celebrated trailers of all time — selling the cutting-edge black comedy via strobe-speed cuts and images from the film that seemed random and absurdly out of context. (The clip anticipated the subliminal imagery forced on Malcolm McDowell’s Alex as a behavioral modification tool seven years later in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.) “The evolution of trailers in the 1960s mirrors the evolution of advertising,” says Mark Woollen, whose LA-based Mark Woollen & Associates is one of Hollywood’s leading trailer boutiques. He cites the still-influential Dr. Strangelove promo: “People still go back and look at it — it’s as fresh today as it was in the 1960s.”

The monopoly of National Screen Service began to erode as studios, sensing a shift in a way to engage audiences, began to assert ownership in the creation of trailers — which paralleled the rise of auteurist film-making and adult-targeted movies.

1970s to 1980s: Blockbusters Change the Game

That auteurist era is said to have ended with the coming of wide-release blockbusters like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and just as movies became more formulaic, so did trailers.

For the next two decades or so, there were some common elements in trailers: the slow demise of on-screen text coupled with the rise of MTV-style quick-cut editing that emphasized the idea of a movie as a ride to be experienced, rather than a story featuring unique characters.

Easily the most familiar component of this new shift was the reliance on a “Voice” — a Burning Bush-worthy baritone usually delivered by either Dan LaFontaine and Hal Douglas, legendary voice-over artists who’ve provided the vocals heard in thousands of trailers over the last 50 years. Watch Douglas parody himself in a promo for 2002’s Comedian:

Even the music was often the same, with certain audio cues (such as Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” for occult horror films, or Randy Edelman’s “Love Theme” from Come See the Paradise for dramas) repeatedly used as shorthand to put unfamiliar movies in the context of familiar genres and emotional responses. (Years later, Internet pranksters would cleverly lampoon this approach: One splendid example fused footage from The Shining to the warm, oft-used notes of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” to transform the chilly horror tale into a family-friendly inspirational drama.)

1990s: The Age of the “Money Shot”

A new kind of trailer — direct and aggressive in tone — emerged in the 1990s, the apex of which was the promo for 1996’s Independence Day. The first trailer used to sell a summer movie months in advance was actually a commercial, but it heralded a new age in coming attractions. Airing during the 1996 Super Bowl, Fox’s 30-second Independence Day spot revealed the movie’s set piece, the destruction of the White House by invading aliens.

It was one of the most talked-about ads, and motivated other studios to make sure that every blockbuster trailer reveal at least one "money shot" (a term that takes it origins from both the old Hollywood definition — an expensively-staged stunt — and the, uh, climactic moment in a porn-film).

The other innovation that arose at the same time was first used in the trailer for 1996’s tornado thriller Twister. The so-called “button shot” refers to one last surprise at the end of the trailer, seemingly after the promo is over — as in the the uprooted house hurtling toward the camera in the Twister ad.

Often studios would rush to complete these special effects shots before the rest of the film so they could be ready for the trailer, like with the towering wave about to close on The Perfect Storm's boat in 2000.

In fact, filmmakers now routinely shoot footage for the trailer as soon as possible.

"We often come into a film a year before its release," says Woollen of his firm’s early participation in the marketing process. "Often times, there’s just a script."

As a result, trailers occasionally include scenes shot specifically for them, scenes that may not actually show up in the completed film. Woollen insists that this does not make such trailers deceptive advertising. “We’re still using those moments to convey the essence of a film.” He adds, “Sometimes, directors think that’s a cool thing.”

"It’s misdirection," argues Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film-studies professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. "[B-movie producer] Roger Corman had a shot of a helicopter exploding he used to splice in every trailer he worked on. Contrasting recent trailers with those from the National Screen Service era, he says, "Movie trailers used to trot out stars and superlatives. It used to be a tease. Now they want to show u something that will blow your mind, which is increasingly difficult to do. You’re going to see more violence, more destruction." Asked for recent examples of this trend, he says, "The Paranormal Activity trailers are all promise, no delivery.”

Indeed, audiences began to complain that trailers were too spoiler-y and that all the best action beats were revealed in advance. But this didn’t matter to studios, because these money shots got people to the theater. If moviegoers then left the movie annoyed that they’d already seen the best shots in the movie in the trailer, well, then they did so already having handed over their ticket money. To be coy and withhold your best CGI sales pitch was to risk some people not showing up at all to be surprised.

Paradoxically, even though fans may have groused about the lack of mystery in trailers, the increasing number of blockbusters based on geeky comics or franchises means that the big first reveals were scrutinized like tea leaves. And studios started turning them into events. In 1998, when Fox appended the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace to the incongruous drama Meet Joe Black, many a ticket-buyer eagerly paid full ticket price just to get the first glimpse of George Lucas’ new film and walked out before the Brad Pitt snoozer started. Trailers, which were and are, at heart, commercials, became an attraction. The Phantom Menace trailer was uploaded to the official Star Wars website and downloaded by fans millions of times, a good six years before widespread broadband service and YouTube made viral sharing of clips both easy and commonplace. Fans paced in front of their tangerine iMacs, impatiently watching the trailer five seconds at a time until it was finally full loaded.

2000s: Technology Trumps Tradition

One reason trailer campaigns start so early and include so many versions is to allow studios to market-test the trailers the same way they do the films themselves. Citing a recent Martin Scorsese hit as an example, Dixon says, Shutter Island had about 10 different trailers. When they finally fine-tuned it, “the movie earned more money than any Scorsese movie ever.”

Woollen agrees, citing his newly released trailer for the thriller Gone Girl (opening Oct. 3), about which he is otherwise sworn to secrecy. What he can say about it is this: “We do rely and pay attention to online feedback.” And if he were to make a second trailer for the film, it would likely be influenced by that feedback. “There are things we learn from that that go into the next piece of work,” he says.

While many trailers still maintain the three-act structure of the movies they’re selling (Setup, Conflict, Resolution – plus a button), voiceover has gradually disappeared since the late ’90s, Woollen says. “Technology has given us more sophisticated ways to do our storytelling,” he says, referring to the conversion of film from celluloid to digital, and of trailer editing from a manual process to one accomplished at the click of a mouse. “In the ’70s, they used longer scenes. We do all kinds of things now with scenes and dialogue to communicate an idea succinctly,” he says, adding that it’s not uncommon for trailer makers to splice dialogue from different parts of the movie to invent new scenes. “We’re much more aggressive with the raw material.”

Voiceover in trailers nearly vanished completely with the death of Don LaFontaine — a.k.a. “the voice of God” — in 2008. “A lot of executives complained that if a trailer didn’t have Don LaFontaine’s voice, it wasn’t really a trailer,” Dixon says. “He used to do four or five trailers a day. When he died, suddenly, they had to scramble, and the field opened up more. “There’s less voiceover because there are more [title cards],” Dixon says of current studio-commissioned trailers. “They just want you to get immersed in the experience. And they don’t want anyone else to reach that level [of LaFontaine-like ubiquity] and hold the studios hostage.”

Trailers have also adapted to the freedoms of the Internet. R-rated comedies have “red-band” trailers, full of NSFW scenes that can’t be shown in the “green-band” trailers that play for general audiences in theaters. (These are a great way to assure audiences that their gross-out comedy is actually gross.) And in films targeting fanboys/fangirls, where spoilers are an issue, the trailer may be full of Easter eggs or other clues that are discoverable on endlessly replayable online clips that critics dutifully and deeply dissect on movie-fan sites like this one.

"The Internet has opened up a whole new space for trailers to do all kinds of things they couldn’t do before," says Woollen." "We can get instant feedback. People are watching trailers on repeat. They’ve become a short-attention-span form of entertainment. It’s possible more people see the trailers now than see the movies."

And studios are again farming out trailer-making duty to outside production houses that specialize in short-form narratives. Some, like Wild Card, specialize in action blockbusters; others, like Woollen’s company, handle prestige dramas and art films.

Some directors — from indie low-budget sci-fi auteur Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) to punctilious miniaturist Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) to sci-fi auteur J.J. Abrams (Star Trek and Super 8) — still craft their own trailers, creating clips that match their own distinctive storytelling styles.

2010 and beyond: What’s Next?

While common stylistic tropes persist, viewers now expect trailers to be as unique and idiosyncratic as the movies they promote. These days, most movies have roll-out strategies that involve not just one trailer but several, beginning with short teaser trailers, released months before a film opens and made instantly available for Internet sharing. The latest innovation is the “tweaser” (a portmanteau of “teaser” and “Twitter”): a six-second teaser posted via Vine, as in this hyper-cut promo for 2013’s The Wolverine:

The Motion Picture Association of America — the same trade association behind Hollywood’s current rating system — also oversees the content of green-band trailers and caps their length at 150 seconds. Of course, those seconds add up when you consider that some movies are preceded by as many as eight trailers: that’s 20 minutes of assaultive, high-impact visuals that audiences must endure — like A Clockwork Orange's Alex — before they get to the feature they actually paid to see; what was once a great appetizer can now ruin your appetite. The MPAA has suggested cutting down on this advertising overload, but the studios (which comprise the association) have seemed less than willing to adopt such measures.

The proliferation of advance footage on the Internet — along with the wide availability of video-editing tools — has also enabled fans to make their own unauthorized trailers; whether the studios can figure out a way to harness that enthusiasm is unclear.

"I see trailers becoming more and more Web-centric," Dixon says. "Red-band trailers are proliferating on the Web much more. Trailers are being designed more for the Web, particularly when there’s a higher level of violence." He adds, "Trailers have moved online to such an extensive degree that their appearance in theaters is almost incidental."

In the meantime, we’re drowning in an abundance of trailers, with each movie’s multiple promo clips available at the click of a mouse. There seems to be no getting away from spoilers, Easter eggs, and money shots in clips that have all but upstaged the movies themselves.

Woollen understands the consequences of that growing mountain of hype — he frets if the industry will ever revert to “the less-is-more place.” Trailers, he maintains, will “always be about showing your assets.” He thinks for a moment and adds: “I would like to see it be more about the art of the tease.”

Photo: Getty