The Movie Trailer Evolution: from the 1920s to Today

A movie trailer is an audition of some sort. You can only hope that within a minute or two, you have charmed your way into the senses of your audience. You don’t have forever to impress a lot of people, and that’s what makes a trailer all the more fascinating.

Crafting an engaging trailer is just one aspect of the whole movie marketing process. Marketing is “business” within the business of producing a film. For instance, Marvel Studios spent more than $200 million in marketing the 2019 hit movie “Avengers: Endgame”. Of course, it was all worth it in the end, as Endgame accumulated north of $2.7 billion in box office gross.

Within that movie marketing process lies the creation of a trailer, which needs its own budget. Trailers may be created by an in-house department within the production company, or they may outsource it to another entertainment marketing company. Either way, a trailer has to achieve two things: encapsulate the movie’s themes and beguile the audience.

But little do people know that today’s movie trailers aren’t what it seemed it was a century ago. As in every facet of the cinema industry, the movie trailer evolution was a thing to behold.

The Start of the Movie Trailer Evolution

Have you ever wondered why the trailer is named as such? If its purpose is to give potential viewers a glimpse of an upcoming movie, why isn’t it called a “preview”? Apparently, there is a logical reason behind how the cinema industry coined the term “trailer”.

The first movie trailer could be traced back to 1913. Broadway show producer Nils Grunland, who was also a publicist and radio industry figure, came up with the idea of showing footage snippets of an upcoming Broadway musical called “The Pleasure Seekers”.

At the time, The Pleasure Seekers was slated to open at the Winter Garden Theatre on November 1913. This Broadway musical was under the umbrella of the Marcus Loew theater group, for which Grunland was working as an advertising manager. In what was considered an outside-the-box move back then, Grunland recorded some rehearsal footage from the musical and produced it into a short promotional film.

As you know, the movie theater in the early 1900s was considered a hub for social affairs and activities. Even after a movie ends, people stay in the theater to talk with each other and exchange pleasantries. It’s quite different from the movie theaters we have today, where people immediately leave the area when the film ends.

So, Grunland thought of showing the rehearsal footage after the main feature, which is why people called this movie marketing tool a trailer. Grunland’s simple yet unique idea turned out to be a game-changer in the cinema industry, as filmmakers and movie production companies saw the potential of a trailer in promoting a film.

Going back to Grunland’s contributions, it should be noted that his first trailer was for a Broadway show, not a movie. But Grunland continued to forge his identity in this path, as he would then produce trailers for upcoming Charlie Chaplin comedy films.

The Growth of Trailers in the 1920s

Grunland’s idea started quite a movement leading to the 1920s. The thought of providing the audience with a preview of an upcoming film even trickled to print materials. For example, the 1914 cliffhanger series “The Adventures of Kathlyn” by Harold MacGrath and Gilson Willets had preview cards that appeared in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. With the help of the newspaper preview cards, the cliffhanger series reeled in audiences every week.

Trailers quickly grew into a popular marketing tool; it came to the point when a separate organization began exclusively making the clips. Fast forward to 1920, the immediate rise of movie trailers gave birth to the National Screen Service (NSS). Based in Englewood, New Jersey, the NSS specialized in creating trailers for the exclusive use of film production companies. Along with producing trailers, the NSS ventured into other facets of cinema marketing, such as movie posters.

With its meteoric rise, the US-headquartered NSS eventually expanded into the UK in 1926. They also created trailers, posters, stills, and other advertisements for UK films.

How Trailers Moved To Pre-Screening

Up until the 1930s, trailers were shown after the main feature. The way that the theater operated was very different back then. Typically, a moviegoer would just pay a one-time fee, and they can watch every movie scheduled for the whole day. While this setup still happens in several film festivals, theaters today now charge an individual fee for each movie.

So from 1913 to the late 1920s, showing trailers after films was fine. However, the trend changed when The Great Depression hit the United States in 1929. With most people reeling from the economic downturn, movie businesses deviated from the luxurious theaters. Instead, more affordable theaters were built to accommodate the masses.

This setup change may have affected viewer tendencies, as cinemas observed that most of the audience was no longer staying after the movie. This prompted theaters to show trailers before the main feature, a structure that we currently see in most cinemas.

Of course, the previous way of showing trailers after the main feature is still not lost today. If you remember, recent Marvel movies show previews of upcoming films in the middle of the end credits. Therefore, after-film trailers still serve their purpose more than a century after their first appearance.

Trailers as an Evolving Art Form

Going back to what we mentioned at the start of this article, trailers only have a few minutes to make a lasting impression on the viewers. With that little time on their hands, it has to take the form of an artwork to create a striking impression.

Just like art, trailers evolved in terms of style and structure. The first wave of trailers, probably up until the late 1950s, only included the movie title, descriptions, and characters. For the most part, trailers were more filled with text rather than pictures or video clips.

But the game changed at the start of 1960 when the famous English filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock appeared in the trailers of his own movie. It was a brilliantly crafted trailer where Hitchcock gave viewers a tour of the main set of “Psycho”, which successfully built up even more suspense leading to the film’s release.

Thanks to Hitchcock’s creativity, trailers since then have taken a new form. Conventional trailers eventually became extinct, and more filmmakers invested in producing trailers that were beyond the norm. Consider the trailer for the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove”, a three-minute clip that featured a number of cuts and images from the film.

With trailers for Psycho and Dr. Strangelove making their mark in the 1960s, the voice-over era in the movie trailer evolution gained traction in the 1970s up until the late 1980s. You have the ever-famous Don LaFontaine, whose voice became prominent in trailers, particularly his “In a world of” tagline.

The voice-over style is still used in trailers today, but more elements have continued appearing in the last few decades. Strategies such as the “money shot” and the “button shot” appeared in the 1990s,  and technological advancements are steadily making an impact from the early 2000s up to current times.

Trailers Taking On Its Own Identity

Before the Internet craze took over most facets of human life, people would make it a point to get to theaters early to catch trailers. While it’s true that a handful of trailers are still shown before the film screening, watching a trailer at the theater doesn’t have much impact anymore. Most of the time, trailers for blockbuster movies are now shown on the Internet, particularly on YouTube and social media platforms.

Furthermore, today’s trailers are gaining hype as a separate event. Before the screening of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel put out multiple official trailers for the much-awaited sequel. In its first 24 hours, the first Endgame trailer gained 289 million views across YouTube and other platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

A movie trailer isn’t longer a promotional tool; it has taken on a separate identity. It has also become a money-making machine for movie studios, showing how vast the movie trailer evolution has become since its inception more than a century ago.