In the 1950s and 60s these trailers served as a preview for upcoming 70mm and Cinerama titles, which toured around in the same way a band would today, with all the prestige and exclusivity of a live performance.
However, the history of cinema’s greatest marketing tool didn’t start in the roadshow era; in fact, there are three significant developments that were crucial to the trailer becoming what it is today.
The first filmed advertisement is created by the Edison Manufacturing Company for Admiral Cigarettes, featuring the simple message “We All Smoke”
(We All Smoke, The Library of Congress)
Nils Granlund, the advertising manager of Marcus Loew theatres, spliced together rehearsal footage of a Broadway play called The Pleasure Seekers at the Winter Garden Theatre. This montage was then used to promote the play following film screenings at Loew’s theatres; since it trailed the play, it was given the name trail-er.
Communicating a promotional message to a cinemagoing audience was used at screenings of The Adventures of Kathlyn—the second motion picture serial made by an American film studio, but the first to include an enticing cliff-hanger message at the end of the reel.
At the end of Chapter 3 of the serial, ‘In the Temple of the Lion’, Kathlyn is about to become prey to a lion when the film ends, before a short additional frame asked you to return the following week to see whether she escapes.
Granlund went on to create more montage trailers to promote upcoming films, including several Charlie Chaplin comedies, but very soon both cinema owners and studios were creating trailers. This was before the National Screen Service was created in 1919 by Herman Robbins, a company that cinemas and studios could employ to do all the work for them and who essentially enjoyed a monopoly on trailer production until the 60s.
Moving with developments in the films they promoted, trailers began to include colour and audio, but still largely followed a familiar formula. And while these were effective, it wasn’t until auteur filmmakers started cutting trailers to their own films that we could start to view them as an artform.
Orson Welles created a four-minute, self-contained ‘making-of’ featurette to serve as the trailer to Citizen Kane (1941), his first film. Unlike standard theatrical trailers of the era, it did not feature any footage of the actual film itself.
(Theatrical trailer for Citizen Kane)
Similarly, the theatrical trailer for Psycho (1960) contains no footage from the film, but instead Alfred Hitchcock himself takes the viewer for a guided tour around the Bates Motel. This epitomises the more unique and personal touch of the director inviting the audience to the world of the film.
(Theatrical trailer for Psycho)
The trailers to both Jaws (1975) and Alien (1979) follow a similar theme, first using slow, tension-building establishing scenes before moving into quick textless montages—with the latter including no dialogue at all. Both were effective in creating excitement for what would come to be the some of the first blockbusters in cinema.
(Theatrical trailer for Jaws)
(Theatrical trailer for Alien)
Trailers also diverged in form and purpose. Some used scenes and shots from the completed film to communicate the idea of the film as a whole and generate ‘hype’—which is still one of the most common forms of trailer today. Another strategy was to create an allure, only hinting at the completed product. This is more commonly regarded as a ‘teaser’ trailer, and while many of these still exist today and accompany later theatrical trailers, this early example of a teaser for The Shining (1980) demonstrates how very simple and enticing these can be.
(Teaser trailer for The Shining)
Teaser trailers are effective in reinvigorating interest in a film when release is delayed, as was the case for Superman (1978), or in capturing fan interest in popularly themed genre films like Batman (1989), which created a teaser trailer to reassure fans that Tim Burton’s adaptation was faithful to the comic book source material.
(Teaser trailer for Superman)
(Teaser trailer for Batman)
However, teasers still are most commonly used to generate publicity for modern films with lengthy production schedules, often using very little content from the completed film—just enough to create hype around the production, as you can see with this 2000 trailer for the entire The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
(Early teaser trailer for The Lord of the Rings)
It would be careless not to mention the development of specific trailer voice-overs which emerged in the 1980s. Many used voices such as Percy Rodriguez, whom you will have heard in the Jaws trailer, or Don LaFontaine, whose gravelly voice accompanied trailers to Die Hard and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, to narrate aspects of the overarching story.
These voices are integral to the identity of modern trailers, which now feature a semi-narrative that serves the same purpose—a structure that often includes a ‘setup’, ‘confrontation’ and ‘climax’. This has led a lot of cinemagoers to feel that trailers often give away too much and spoil plot points and jokes.
Modern trailers also have many other functions and forms; five-second mini teasers sometimes precede longer trailers, and TV spots and digital ads are often shorter compressed versions of full theatrical trailers. These all serve to grab your attention in an increasingly noisy digital space.
(Five-second mini teaser before the theatrical trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem)
Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan often like to do things the old-fashioned way and allow the product to speak for itself by premiering exclusive scenes in advance of other films. However, even his projects aren’t immune to innovations in marketing, which was why the trailer to his 2020 film Tenet premiered through an event on Fortnite.
(Fortnite Tenet Trailer Premiere, Gamespot)
And a 360 VR experience was made for Dunkirk (2017) in advance of the film release.
(Dunkirk VR Experience, Warner Bros.)
It seems that just as trailers moved from the end of features to the beginning, to our TV sets and handheld screens, they will pop up wherever a potential customer has eyes to see. Following the advent of Jaws and the summer blockbuster, the main strategy for movie advertising has been to create trailers which can be shown everywhere people watch content and to inundate these spaces. And while it’s likely that this trend will continue, because above all these are pieces of media designed to sell a product, I think we can hope there is still room for a bit of fun along the way.
(Teaser trailer for Barbie, Warner Bros.)