Why Do We Call Movie Previews “Trailers”?

When you work the movie beat, the question you get most often when people find out what you do is the obvious one: “So, what’s out now that’s good?” (It’s a question too often answered, particularly in early spring and late summer, with eyes cast upward and a lengthy “Ummmmm….”) But, at least in this writer’s experience, the second most oft-posed question is one that’s popped up more frequently as previews for forthcoming movies have become more omnipresent in not just film culture, but pop culture in general. Why, I am asked, are such previews called “trailers”?

It’s not an unreasonable question. After all, the storage and transportation units that we hitch to cars and trucks, y’know, follow those vehicles — trail behind them, if you will — but trailers don’t come after the main attraction. They precede it. So how is it that the most commonly used term for them has exactly the opposite connotative meaning? Well, as with so many things in this fine language of ours, the term we use today was once accurate, is no longer so, and we just never fixed the damn thing.

The History of the Movie Trailer from FilmmakerIQ.com on Vimeo.

The two most-cited embryonic versions of the trailer both date back to the earliest days of commercial cinema. In fall of 1913, Marcus Loew’s theater chain advertising manager Nils Granlund put together a brief promotional film for an upcoming Broadway play called The Pleasure Seekers. The short, which featured rehearsal footage from the production, ran following the main feature at Loew’s New York City theaters.

A month later, a Chicago production outfit called the Selig Polyscope Company released The Adventures of Kathlyn, which was not the first serialized adventure story (shortened, as we all know by now, to “serial”), but the first to use cliffhangers at the end of its “episodes.” Paramount executive Lou Harris, in one of the first pieces of trailer history (a 1966 Los Angeles Times article titled “Movie Trailers Have Long Run”), described seeing their crucial addition:

One of the concessions hung up a white sheet and showed the serial “The Adventures of Kathlyn.” At the end of the reel Kathlyn was thrown in the lion’s den. After this “trailed” a piece of film asking Does she escape the lion’s pit? See next week’s thrilling chapter! Hence, the word “trailer,” an advertisement for a coming picture.

The term took hold fairly quickly; the Straight Dope website located an item using it in a 1917 edition of The New York Times (“A committee of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry yesterday began sending films known as trailers [advertising the bonds] to all of the 15,000 or more movie theatres in the United States. These films are seventy feet in length and will be attached to longer films that are shown at every performance”). Studios and theaters soon realized that they could advertise upcoming attractions to a captive audience — particularly those with built-in anticipation, like the latest Charles Chaplin shorts — and began producing crude trailers. But by the end of the decade, an independent company called National Screen Service began producing them (initially without permission of the studios), and within a few years, they’d become the studios’ outsource-of-choice, creating trailers, posters, and print ads for the majors until well into the 1960s.

But back to the question at hand: through the rest of the silent era and the early days of the talkies, “trailer” still accurately described the ads’ placement in the program; they ran after the main feature. But it’s not as counter-intuitive as it might seem now, because moviegoing was a very different experience in those days. Now, we show up at a set time, pay our admission, see a few commercials and a few trailers, watch the movie, and leave. In cinema’s early days, the program was not only bulkier — a double feature, cartoons, newsreels, short films, and trailers — but looser, running in a continuous loop from which patrons often came and went as they pleased. (It wasn’t uncommon to come in right in the middle of a movie and watch the entire program until that middle came back around; it’s where the expression “this is where we came in” comes from.) So if the coming attractions ran after the feature, it wasn’t that big of a deal; a good portion of the audience was sticking around anyway, to watch what followed. And if these commercials helped clear the room for more ticket-buyers, all the better.

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By the 1930s, however, studios and exhibitors began to realize the promotional value of trailers was great enough that they shouldn’t be burying them after the main program, but instead giving them the prime advertising slot of bumping up against the top of the movie, ensuring that patrons would be back next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. And thus the current tradition was born — even if the term attached to it was an inaccurate anachronism.

Further recommended reading on the history and form of trailers: Filmmaker IQ’s “History of the Movie Trailer,” The Dissolve’s David Fear’s “Becoming Attractions: A Brief History of Film Trailers,” and Vulture’s Matt Patches on “The Age of the Movie Trailer Money Shot.”