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Movie Trailers, Then & Now

My mom asked me this question the other day and I had no idea what the answer was.

I definitely took a course in film promotion and we definitely had an entire section dedicated to trailers. I guess I wasn’t listening? Anyways, after doing a little research I have an intelligent response to a question I should have been able to answer in the first place.

Movie trailers were originally screened after a film had been shown. They trailed the feature and therefore became known as trailers. But the “trailing” method didn’t work for long, since audiences often left after the film was over rather than sitting through the promotions. Soon, theaters and promotion companies discovered that it made more sense to screen the trailer prior to the featured film, rather than after – thus forcing the viewers to watch.

The first trailer ever produced was screened in an American theater in 1913. The trailer was a short film promo for The Pleasure Seekers, a musical that was about to begin performances. After the successful stunt, the Lowe’s theatre chain adopted the practice and trailers rapidly grew in popularity.

The original trailers were highly formulaic, consisting of a few key scenes, narration, and hyperbolic title cards. Until the late 1950s the majority of trailers were produced by the National Screen Service, which streamlined a very methodical editing process. The goal was to create a great sense of interest: showing enough of the coming attraction to create buzz, while using restraint in editing to sustain intrigue.

The 1993 trailer for King Kong is an excellent example of a typical promotion of the 1930s, characterized by sensationalized texts and font, and claims that if the viewer comes to see the film they will be viewing something they could have never imagined.

In the 1960s trailers evolved as movies did too, signaling the arrival of the “new Hollywood.” Popularized by Eisenstein’s montage theory, stylish trailers with quick edits became the norm.

The trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) shows the dramatic change in style that these promotions underwent during the 60s.

Contemporary trailers have been developed into seamlessly edited mini-version of the features they are promoting. Today, the maximum length of a trailer is 2 minutes and 30 seconds, as defined by the MPAA. And according to The Hollywood Reporter, theaters screen an average of four to seven trailers before the actual movie they came to see begins.

So there you have it. That’s why trailers are called trailers, rather than starters.


  1. Pingback: 3 Movie Trailers That Totally Misled You (Pt. 1) | CineRanter

  2. Pingback: Previous Posts Revisited | J V V

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