Why are short movie previews called “trailers”?

Today my Inquizitive Mind sat thinking why movie previews are called trailers when they are actually shown before the actual release of the movie and not after as per their name.

A trailer is a significant part of a movie’s marketing strategy. In fact, it is so important that it can make or break the bank account of the producers. The studio’s future is all dependent on this mere two-and-a-half minute preview released months in advance. Once a preview of a highly awaited movie is released the Social Media go haywire contemplating the story of the movie. The trailer is like a book cover, it is often said “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, but we somehow always do. A trailer creates a curiosity and buzz amongst the viewers that millions of people watch it within hours of its release.

But amid all this buzz over the trailers, the bigger question that we never put a thought into Why are these previews called trailers? Now that this question has come forth you’d be astonished. Though this wasn’t the scheme of things always, but the word has stuck till today.

What I found out was that these commercials of the movies were originally shown at the end of the movie screening. So the word ‘trailer’ came up from the fact that these movie commercials actually the actual movie. This practice of placing the advertisements at the end of the movie reel was soon phased out, as the people did not wait to watch the commercials once the movie ended. The timing of the commercials changed but the name stuck.

The first known trailer was a brainchild of Nils Gralund, the advertising manager for the Marcus Loew theater chain. The moviegoing experience was totally different in 1913 than what it is today. That time you would pay your admission into the theater and could sit and watch as many movies or whatever was playing on the screen be it to feature length movies, short films or cartoons. Nils came up with a profitable idea to fit in little commercials before the next movie starts. He revolutionized the film marketing by showing a short promotional film for the musical ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ back in November 1913.

Loew adopted the practice of practice showing promotional films which became a sudden hit among marketers. The Lincoln, Nebraska Daily Star described it as “an entirely new and unique stunt”, and that “moving pictures of the rehearsals and other incidents connected with the production will be sent out in advance of the show, to be presented to the Loew’s picture houses and will take the place of much of the billboard advertising”.

william selig
William Selig
Source: Los Angeles Times

The film marketers were mad over this idea and adopted it quickly. But the idea did not stop just to movies. In the same year, a producer William Selig brought the popular serial format of stories from the newspaper to the big screen. His masterpiece plan was to produce a short action-adventure story in installments that always ended with some sort of ‘cliffhanger’ to bring back the viewer next week. (This is the same concept used by most TV Series today and is quite successful). Selig solved the major problem of repeat viewers. He would put a brief teaser for the next part of the film after the main feature film with some sort of suspense in the end.

You’d be surprised that viewers fell victim to a simple trailer like the one followed by Selig in his first serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn. The previews consisted of a small footage from next episode accompanied by questions to the audience. They went like “Does she escape the lion’s pit? See next week’s thrilling chapter!.

Text trailer
Text trailer from the movie Attack! (1956)
Source: Wikipedia

Well, this was the story of idiot box adopting the idea of trailers, but it didn’t take long for the movie industry to realize the full potential of this idea. Initially the practice was ineffective amongst the movie goers, but the late adopters modified the original plan and began showing these movie commercials after the film. Up until 1950s most of the trailers consisted of few key scenes from the movie, augmented by large text describing the story. This practice changed in the 1960s with the coming up of “New Hollywood”. The trailers became text-less and voice over gained popularity.

The trailers have completed a long journey since they began in 1913 with accounting to almost 10 billion views on Youtube. Today trailers stand at 3rd position, sitting behind ‘News’ and ‘Music’ which is quite an achievement.

Saksham Dewan

Saksham Dewan is a blogger from India, a quizzer, a chess player, and a finance enthusiast. He is a student at Shaheed Sukhdev College of Business Studies majoring in Finance. He loves to write on topics he startled by, be it be anything. To fulfill his quizzing dreams he also runs a Business Quizzing Blog, bizquizwhiz.com not only to pursue his interests but also help others preparing for such quizzes.