Imagine a time, if you can, when cinema seemed so unique and strange, it didn't matter what movie you were going to see, but only that you were going. Whether dropping pennies into a hand-cranked Kinetoscope or paying nickel admissions for access to an afternoon of magic-lantern projection, early audiences seemed completely absorbed by the wonderful new invention.
But as time passed, people grew accustomed to the novelty of moving pictures. They became selective in their tastes, picking favorite stars and story types. Exhibitors, who had responded to the early boom in moviegoing by building elaborate screening palaces designed to accommodate their enthusiastic crowds, began running into problems with the system. First, when theater patrons showed up for an afternoon at the movies, they would stay as long as they liked. But even more important was finding ways to keep audiences showing up in the first place if they had not way to announce the movies they planned to show later in the week.
The studios, who owned many of the theaters and distributed films to the ones they didn't, were equally concerned with influencing people's moviegoing habits. Less than a decade into the first century of cinema, studios and theater owners alike were already desperate for two things: trying to interrupt the flow of the standard theater program while also promoting upcoming screenings. One solution addressed both problems: separate back-to-back pictures by displaying information about future releases. In those days, credits preceded the movie, which meant that as soon as the words "The End" appeared on screen, projectionists could flick on special slides labeled with the title and studio of other movies they were planning to show.
At the time, no one really considered the advertising potential of the new system. According to Jack Atlas, who headed up the trailer department at Columbia until 1973, these early post-feature interludes were merely "supposed to get people bored enough to leave the theater and make room for someone else."1 But by the early teens, studios were taking an active interest in the idea.
"The first trailer was shown in 1912 at Rye Beach, New York, which was an amusement zone like Coney Island," Paramount trailer division head Lou Harris told the Los Angeles Times in 1966.2 "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!"
Even before the studios got into the act, exhibitors were innovating ways to let audiences sample upcoming films. As the folklore has it, some would simply run the first reel of a new movie after the main feature, while others would choose a few of the most interesting-looking scenes and splice them together. According to a special report commemorating 100 years of movie marketing, "Sometimes these were simply cut from the print itself right there in the projection booth."3
Such guerrilla trailer-making tactics make for a good story, though Richard Kahn, former Advertising Coordinator for Columbia Pictures, doubts their validity. As Kahn points out, the projectionist "would have to get a hold of the film before its play date, and that would be impossible because the film didn't arrive on his doorstep until the night before he opened the attraction. It's an unlikely story." Whether or not the projectionists played any part, it's clear that theaters were quickly adopting the style of 'trailing' their features with special announcements, and many were willing to pay for the appropriate materials.
In 1916, Paramount became the first studio to officially release trailers, though they only bothered to spend the extra effort with their highest-profile films. By August 1919, the studio had set up its own trailer division and was actively assembling previews for all of their upcoming films. The other studios were slow to follow, which opened the door to a number of New York-based companies who recognized the profit potential in the movie-promotion business. Since none of the firms could actually gain early access to the footage they were advertising, these early companies concentrated on offering attractive slides rather than short filmstrips to movie theaters.4
For the most part, studios still dismissed trailers as an afterthought, a pesky side venture that the exhibitors could worry about. But as the studios began buying theaters and theater chains, they also became far more active in considering advertising strategies that would maximize the box-office take. In late 1919, just as studios were looking for a way to produce more effective advertising materials for their films, three New York ad guys joined together to form National Screen Service with the extravagant goal of overseeing the distribution of promotional materials for all the major studios. Most studios had neither the time nor the staff to manage such matters on their own. When presented with an ambitious upstart company willing to offer them an ideal promotional opportunity for nothing more than the actual cost of producing such materials, the studios lunged at their offer. Over the next few years, NSS sought out and secured contracts with the most significant producers in the industry. In exchange for delivering trailers to theaters around the country, the studios granted NSS exclusive advance access to footage from their upcoming films.
From its inception, NSS served primarily as a distributor of motion picture marketing materials. "From about 1927 until way into the '70s, National Screen Service distributed the one-sheets, stills, and trailers for all the major studios," says Kuehn, who started with the company's New York branch in 1960 and now operates Kaleidoscope, one of the industry's most successful trailer firms, in Hollywood. "However, with regard to the trailers, they had on staff a producer, sort of a copywriter / editorial supervisor, whom they assigned to each of the studios. The studio then supplied an editor from their staff to work with that producer in-house."
But as Jack Kerness clarifies, NSS did not make actually money from the production of trailers or other promotional materials. Now in his 90s, Kerness once served as an art director and studio-side liaison between Columbia and National Screen. "Back then theaters rented trailers," he remembers. "They paid for the use of the trailer, which after they used it went back to National Screen. They in turn paid the people who made the trailers, and the studios got a royalty on whatever rentals National Screen collected."
For the most part, studios already felt distracted enough worrying about producing the features themselves. NSS allowed them to exercise autonomous control over the promotional material without any of the attendant hassles. NSS produced whatever was needed and submitted it for approval, they distributed the materials and collected the rental fees, and they paid the salaries and charged the expenses back to the studios at cost. Though the studios were responsible for hiring the creative staff, providing the editing rooms where the work was actually done, and ultimately wielding final approval over the completed cut, NSS producers managed all aspects of the process. Typically, the same editor who worked on the feature itself (or at least a promising assistant editor) worked with NSS producers to construct the trailer.
As might be expected, almost all trailers produced during the period of NSS supervision look and sound alike, obnoxious feasts of spectacle and stardom with bombastic, superlative titles and narration by self-important circus-barker announcers. Ironically, in an era in which every film heralded itself with extravagant adjectives worthy only of another Gone with the Wind, producer David O. Selznick commissioned an understated picture book-style trailer to introduce the epic classic.
Aside from Selznick, Cecil B. De Mille and Alfred Hitchcock proved the only filmmakers shrewd enough to fully plunder the trailer's potential during the early days. De Mille crafted hammy, over-the-top trailers, though they managed to capture audiences' attention. Playing off of his own public persona, Hitchcock often appeared in a previews for his own films to make the same kind of tongue-in-cheek announcement fans might expect to see on his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For Psycho, Hitchcock takes audiences on a tour of the scene of the crime, pointing out the Bates Motel and walking them through Norman Bates's mansion. In the trailer for The Birds, Hitchcock announces an upcoming lecture on the relationship between man and bird, sarcastically lauding the ways in which we have dominated our feathered companions before a swarm of angry crows overtakes the screen.
In some of his other trailers, Hitchcock supplies additional footage relevant to the story. For instance, in the trailer for Rope, he stages a scene that precedes the film, a romantic afternoon rendezvous between Janet Walker and David Kentley, the victim who spends the entire movie stowed away in a trunk. In the next scene, Jimmy Stewart explains, "That's the last time she ever saw him alive, and that's the last time you'll ever see him alive," before introducing the other characters. Jimmy Stewart joins a standard preview narrator in introducing the characters of Rear Window in the trailer for that film. The trailer provides several clips that don't make the actual film (the newlyweds enjoying a quiet moment together, a woman he calls "Ms. Hearing Aid" sculpting "a very odd and strange art"), fleshing out the red herrings and drawing attention away from Lars Thorwald, the neighbor Stewart's character believes has murdered his wife in the actual film.
"You have to remember that every Hitchcock picture was 99 9/10 Hitchcock," 20-year Hitchcock assistant Peggy Robertson explained to New West magazine. "It was always Hitch, and the trailers worked the same way."5
While certain filmmakers were taking advantage of the medium, few trailers really demonstrated any sort of original flair. Looking for some way to distinguish their product, the studios began detaching themselves from NSS dependence to establish their own trailer departments. As Richard Kahn, who was with Columbia when it left NSS in 1960, puts it, "It's like the ebb and flow of the ocean: The whole question of whether someone should do these in-house or job them out varies with the attitudes of those in charge. After long periods of using outside creative boutiques and looking at the very large expenditures that are incurred by contracting out, someone will eventually say, 'You know, we could do this a better in-house.' So most of the graphic and print creative are brought back into the studio. After a period of time with these heavy in-house expenditure and payroll, someone will say, 'You know, it would be a lot cheaper if we did this on the outside, on a contractual basis,' and the stuff is jobbed out again."
As audiences began to demand more of their movies, they also became more critical of the hollow promises offered by movie trailers. Tired of backlots and phony locations, popular sentiment forced studios away from Hollywood to New York and London, resituating their shoots on location and unveiling extravagant pictures like Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the weary public. At roughly the same time, the entire trailer industry underwent a drastic upheaval.
Though competing firms had been around since the beginning of NSS, offering their own trailers and advertising alternatives to theaters at lower prices, none of the companies had really been able to challenge NSS's virtual monopoly over the business. However, as the studios began searching for fresh alternatives to the stale trailer formula, new outside companies entered the picture ready to apply their own, more sophisticated advertising techniques.
"There were two people already in the trailer business whose work I admired," recalls Kuehn, who left NSS for MGM in 1962. "One was Esther Harris in London, and the other was Max Weinberg, who was doing the UA work in California. He was just starting to get into the use of subtler title treatments, other kinds of graphics, and she had a strong narrative thrust to her work. She was into very strong storytelling; everybody else was just bragging about the stars, using phony-baloney adjectives to try and entice people into the films, which by 1960 was very passé.
"One of the things I definitely stopped doing was using the first names of stars. Under National Screen Service in Hollywood, they would say, 'Well, Rock and Doris are back together again, and guess who's along for the ride? Tony!' My theory was, if you were dealing with a really big star, you didn't have to bill them until the very end. What I did was try to get the audience used to the star as the character, started telling the story of the film and didn't mention the star's name until the cast runout at the very end."
Whereas the studios had previously handed down the job of assembling trailers to whichever idle editors weren't currently preoccupied with an ongoing project, in the early '60s, they began hiring specialists with backgrounds in advertising to help modernize the trailer. Working without the same background in feature work, the new breed quickly abandoned traditional continuity editing (Hollywood's classical linear style, meant to inconspicuously supply narrative information) for a new aesthetic approach distinct to movie trailers.
Appearing at key moments in the evolutionary process, several trailers helped establish the developing style. For instance, the Dr. Strangelove trailer interspersed titles with scenes from the movie, pioneering a distinct new graphic feel. In 1960, Federico Fellini cut his own trailer for La Dolce Vita. By simply setting a series of stills to a congo beat, Fellini offered a relatively subdued alternative to the then-common overkill tactic and profoundly influenced the style of the time.
In turn, Kuehn began toning things down in his own trailers. The movie Night of the Iguana didn't really offer any sot of score he could use in the trailer, so Kuehn went out and hired a musician to create a special piece of sexy jazz music for the preview. "Off-Broadway, I saw an actor in an off-Broadway show that had a really hairy voice that I liked and I brought him in and I taught him how to do voiceover," he recalls. "It was James Earl Jones." The campaign was a huge success, drawing attention from the ticket-buying public as well as the media. Q Magazine called Kuehn's work the first modern advertising campaign for a movie.
"So through the '60s, everybody started getting more modern in their trailers, and National Screen became more and more just a distributor," Kuehn says. "Their guys that retired weren't replaced. And the new heads of advertising that came in began to follow the technique of using this more modern advertising / scientific approach to the whole trailer thing."
In 1969, Kuehn left MGM to join Dan Davis at Kaleidoscope, effectively initiating the era of the trailer boutique. Prior to the formation of Kaleidoscope, studios had contracted out special assignments to independent vendors, primarily in the area of radio where men like George Suski and Floyd Peterson ran their own production companies. For instance, while at MGM, Kuehn had hired Peterson to set up the recording session with Jones for Night of the Iguana.
Unlike previous vendors, Kaleidoscope set out to manage the entire trailer production process, serving as the model for dozens of similar companies. At Kaleidoscope's lead, the most talented people in the business realized that they needn't work within the confines of the studio advertising departments. If handled correctly, independent trailer making could prove a lucrative creative / business venture unto itself: Art for advertising's sake. Almost overnight, a number of trailer houses sprang into existence, quickly establishing their own unique relationships with the various studios and specializing in different genres and approaches.
One of the first to follow Kaleidoscope's lead and set up his own trailer production company, Jeff Kanew combined talents with film editor Gary Allen to form Utopia. Kanew, who later went on to direct the films Revenge of the Nerds and Tough Guys, produced more than 500 trailers in his day, many of them for television. In the late '60s, studios were just beginning to realize the potential impact of television, both as a source of competition for movies and an additional venue for disseminating information about them to the public.
Utopia was one of the first firms to acknowledge the quicker, more aggressive style advertisers were already using to cut television commercials. Applying similar techniques to film, Kanew experimented with spots for movies like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, using approaches that involved "cutting a sort of jingle thing to music and not using a lot of copy. That seemed to be more fun and got the same message across without hitting people over the head."
In 1967, Embassy Pictures presented Kanew with The Graduate, a curious little movie the company had no idea how to market. Kanew immediately fell in love with the movie, latching onto its most distinctive merits to sell the picture. In the preview, Kanew intercut snippets of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and "Scarborough Fair" with sharp dialogue quips and key scenes, compressing the story into a hilarious 3 1/2-minute montage.
"From that point on, that's what I tried to do as much as possible, which is, not rely on copy as much as letting the movie speak for itself. With good movies, that always worked. With bad movies, you had to take a more proactive advertising approach, disguise what they are or heartsell a little bit, come up with gimmicks." Kanew applied similarly complementary tactics to trailers for Midnight Cowboy (in which, at the studio's request, he replaced music from the film with the song "Everybody's Talkin' At Me"), Last Tango in Paris (a series of still shots accompanied by provocative copy), All the President's Men, and Rocky.
While independent vendors redefined the bounds of trailer aesthetics, studio execs were coming to a number of pivotal realizations that would drastically alter the way they handled movie trailers. Both factors would eventually push NSS out of the trailer-production arena altogether.
"The people running the marketing departments, top people, realized that [the theaters] were advertising our product and decided to make it easy for them," remembers Kerness. "Let's not put this puny charge on it. What are we making on it? Hardly anything by comparison from what you make on the movie. So, what started diminishing National Screen Service was exactly that: We were no longer charging the theaters or the exhibitors for the use of our advertising. All they had to do was ask for it, and we'd send them tons of posters, just in the event that they would use it."
NSS continued to develop previews for upcoming films even as the studios hired outside companies to design their official preview announcements. However, without access to the actual footage, NSS trailers were a poor substitute for the real thing. What exhibitor would want to pay for a generic NSS trailer when they could request one directly from the studio free of charge? By 1975, NSS had been reduced to nothing more than a distribution agent for promotional materials, hired by studios to ensure that their trailers reached theaters on time, and within a few years, studios and theaters were communicating directly with no need for a middleman.
Meanwhile, a movie called Billy Jack finally forced studios to acknowledge the potential of television in marketing movies. Until the early '70s, studios had been lackadaisically using television to advertise their films, rarely even spending the extra expense needed to generate color spots. Throughout the 1960s, they would occasionally make saturation buys in certain markets, snatching up cheap fringe time to announce the newest Flipper movie or Elvis's latest picture, a technique that always paid off at the box office.
But in 1971, Billy Jack changed everything. After its disappointing initial run, in which the film grossed a meager $2 million before disappearing from theaters, writer/director/star Tom Laughlin sued Warner Bros. for misdistribution of the movie, forcing the studio to make huge television buys in markets before four-walling the film all over the country. "Four walling" was a relatively common distribution practice in those days, whereby the studio could go in and "buy out" the screening venue, taking over the theater temporarily and keeping whatever profits came in rather than sharing revenue with the exhibitor. It wasn't until the release of Jaws in 1975 that studios seriously tried a nationwide platform release, the blockbuster tactic used today in which the same movie opens on the same day in theaters all over the country. On its second time around, Billy Jack grossed $22 million, a phenomenal amount of money for such a grassroots success.
"All of the sudden, the whole industry took note," Kuehn remembers. "We were working on three movies in particular in which television came into play The Exorcist, Jaws, and The Sting and suddenly, we were off and running," Kuehn recalls. "The studios were willing to spend a few million bucks to open a film with television advertising, and the grosses jumped astronomically. Those three films, each in their first year of distribution grossed over $70 million."
Neglected and underutilized for so long, television became an undeniably important factor in the marketing campaign for any movie, which meant that the style of trailers would have to constantly evolve in synch with television advertising in order to keep up. In 1979, Kuehn told the Los Angeles Times, "The only other thing I can think of that has a two-and-a half to three-minute format is a song." Two years later, television would provide another three-minute format that would radically alter trailer editing forever. On August 1, 1981, MTV premiered its first music video, "Video Killed the Radio Star." Completely restructuring the connection between film and music, already an indispensable element of the movie trailer, MTV brought the trailer industry into a new realm.
"When MTV came along, of course that just contributed to the speeding up of the cutting style that we had already started with trailers," Kuehn explains. "It recognized that the retention, the ability of the audience to observe, had grown faster because of television: It's not a matter of lack of attention span, it's a matter of how much information people can grasp at the same time. And MTV showed, especially if you're working with music and trailers are almost always wall-to-wall music, regardless of how they're cut you can move this much faster.
"In the process you accomplished two things: One, you can get more information across. Two, you can hide your flaws more easily. Once you establish that fast-cutting style, because of the speed of things, you eliminate the qualitative judgment that comes in a slower cutting style. And since part of a trailer's job is to cover over, to not reveal weaknesses that are inherent in the film, fast cutting is a good way to do that."
These days, fast cutting has reached such an extreme that the more old-fashioned method of letting a trailer quietly unfold can often have a more dramatic impact on audiences than information overload. Confronted with the 10-minutes sensory meltdown that precedes any visit to the theater, moviegoers react strongly to the trailers that stand out from the others. Sometimes, the trailer that makes the most dramatic impact is the one that uses understated title cards instead of the same Voice-of-God announcer or an ethereal singing voice instead of blaring rock music or the exaggerated fanfare of a full orchestra. In general, trailers are louder now than ever before. After extensive complaints from theater patrons, the MPAA recently passed a sound rule putting a cap on the maximum volume for trailers.
"It became a competitive thing," explains Bethlyn Hand, Senior Vice President and Director of the Advertising Administration for the MPAA. "One producer would go to the theater and would say, 'Well, how come my trailer wasn't as loud as his trailer?' And so it gets higher, higher, higher until you're bursting your eardrums."
But as the industry develops, trailer editing hasn't necessarily gotten easier it's actually more competitive now than it's ever been just faster. With the introduction of new technology, such as the Avid editing software used universally throughout the industry, and flashy new effects, editors can rapidly assemble several cuts and compare between the various approaches.
"Everything has changed since we've gone to Avid," says David Sameth, who oversees trailer production for DreamWorks. A decade earlier, Sameth worked with a radically different system of editing at Universal. "The basis of how you create a trailer, the thinking, might still be the same as it was when we cut on film, but it's a whole different world when you go, 'Should we try this? Well, it'll take a day an a half,' as opposed to, 'Should we try this? Well, it'll take 30 minutes.'"
A startling proportion of the trailer industry hasn't been in the business long enough to remember how trailers were edited before the introduction of the Avid. But trailer makers seem most excited about developments in the mechanisms studios use to deliver trailers to prospective audiences. Most studios already post their trailers to the Web for download. Now, they dream of the next logical step, custom-tailoring trailers to appeal to specific users.
"For the first time, we're really able to talk one-to-one with a potential consumer, and I think that's going to be very, very exciting," believes Anthony Goldschmidt, president of Intralink. "As we are able to compress finishing time, I think that there's an opportunity to create regional trailers. I think that there's an opportunity to create trailers for the internet that would be completely different than the trailer you would create for a theatrical experience. It should be. It should be today. To just run the same trailer on the Internet, even though it gets four gazillion hits, may not be the best use of the footage that was selected for a theatrical experience. Our job in the future, I believe, will be to try to reach everybody who potentially should like this particular movie, through whatever research we have available to us."
As the system currently works, studios spend millions of dollars printing their trailers to celluloid and shipping them out to exhibitors around the country. If they prepare multiple versions of a trailer (for instance, DreamWorks issued special spoof trailers for Chicken Run designed to run with the films Gladiator and M:I-2), they can only keep their fingers crossed that the projectionists will attach their trailers to the appropriate films.
However, as digital projection becomes a fixture in future theaters, studios will be able to control which trailers play before their films and may eventually try crafting custom versions for specific screenings. According to Sameth, digital projection will solve the current problem of trailers playing out of context, giving studios much more flexibility in promoting their films.
"It's going to be so much better," he says, "and so much more lucrative for people who do trailers also, when we can cut them like TV spots. If we put out a trailer for a comedy that audiences don't think is funny, we'll be able to recut it and re-uplink it to all the theaters."
And what about Hollywood's little emergencies? Today, once a trailer seeps out into the world, the studio can't get it back. But with digital projection, studios won't just have the power to nix any trouble-making previews, they'll also be able to immediately replace them with more effective advertising.
Goldschmidt outlines one possible scenario: "There's a situation all the time in Hollywood where they've got a movie, it's a comedy and it's a love story, they've got a star in the movie, and everybody loves this guy, and suddenly he gets picked up on Hollywood Boulevard with a hooker. Holy jumpin' Jesus! What are we gonna to do? Got a movie coming out in three weeks. Well, you ride it out.
"I believe in the future, if your decision is to do something, you will be able to do something. You'll be able to cut a trailer where suddenly instead of being in every scene, he's only in 10 percent. We could ship a digital trailer that could take a completely different position, and we could ship in 24 hours. I don't think we can do that now. There's too much postproduction time spent and delivery time. Because the time is going to be in creating the piece, once it's created, we can ship. Theaters will accept digital, they will have digital receipt. So, suddenly everything changes."
That's the way the industry works, it adjusts and evolves in rhythm with everything around it. "I look back at things I did 10 years ago and I laugh," Sameth says. "Just look at the style of older trailers. It's very different, and I'm sure it'll keep changing." But no matter how much things seem to evolve, no matter who is cutting the trailer, where they are doing it, or how it reaches its audience, the basic premise remains the same: Trailers serve as the liaison between an upcoming film and its audience. Whether crude, hand-lettered slides or sophisticated, half-million dollar montages, trailers continue to tantalize audiences with the idea that in Hollywood, there's always something more to look forward to after the movie they paid to see.
Works Cited:1 Turan, Kenneth. "The Lure of Trailers." American Film. October 1982: 53.
2 Thomas, Kevin. "Movie Trailers Have Long Run." Los Angeles Times. 25 October 1966: Part IV, Page 10.
3 Thompson, Frank. "Drawing a Crowd: 100 Years of Movie Marketing." 25th Annual Key Art Awards Exhibition Catalog. Los Angeles: Hollywood Reporter, 1996. 10-24.
4 For specific dates, I am indebted to UCLA doctoral candidate Lisa Devereux Kernan, who outlines Vinzenz Hediger's findings on the history of National Screen Service and the trailer industry in a special Appendix to her forthcoming dissertation on movie trailers:
Kernan, Lisa Devereux. "Appendix 2: Chronology of National Screen Service and Hollywood Trailer Production." A Cinema of (Coming) Attractions: American Movie Trailer Rhetoric. 2000. (in submission)
5 Goodwin, Micahel. "The Lost Films of Alfred Hitchcock." New West. April 1981, 87. (Quoted in Kernan, 294.)