Film trailers were conceived in 1913 by Nils Granlund, the advertising manager of Marcus Loew theaters, when he spliced together rehearsal footage of The Pleasure Seekers, a Broadway play at the time, into a mini promotional montage that trailed after films shown at Loew’s theaters. Thus began the trailer industry, which was hardly an industry then, operated by theaters and studios themselves at first, but in ways that never fully capitalized on the potential for both business and stylistic expansion. Then Herman Robbins created the National Screen Service in 1919, a company theaters and studios could outsource to do all the work for them, expanding the idea of what a trailer could and should do.
The NSS held a virtual monopoly on the trailer game until the 1960s, when auteur filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick began cutting trailers for their own films. The market changed again in the 1970s to promote Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the world’s first summer blockbuster. That film’s subsequent success helped solidify the advertising model still widely prevalent in today’s trailer strategy: customize trailers to be viewed during prime-time hours of television viewership and then, to the point of near oversaturation, inundate the market with these trailers prior to the film’s release under the blanket hope that potential consumers know of only one movie opening that weekend and their only plan for that weekend will be to see that one movie.
In 1977, Sam Raimi, then a college student at Michigan State University, and his childhood friend Bruce Campbell, made It’s Murder, a short film they showed to Robert Tapert, who suggested they expand it into a feature. Raimi felt he had a better feature in him, and, along with Tapert and Campbell, scraped together $1,600 to shoot the short Within the Woods, which they then convinced a Detroit theater owner to screen before a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The end product–and the crowd’s enthusiasm for it–became a minor success the three filmmakers used to ensure further funding. They earned $85,000 by screening this short for potential investors, giving them just enough to produce Book of the Dead. After production, Raimi toured the country with the final product, coordinating deals with individual theaters to screen the film. This film, retitled The Evil Dead, was second only to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (another Spielberg blockbuster) on its opening weekend, and achieved a wildly lasting success, spawning a franchise, remakes, cult status, and cementing Raimi’s career as a director.
When two nerdy brothers, one of whom was an assistant film editor on The Evil Dead, wanted to produce their own film, they turned to Raimi’s model and filmed a two-minute trailer of the movie they had yet to make. Screening this trailer for potential investors at Suburban World Theater in Minneapolis, the brothers raised close to $550,000 from approximately sixty-five investors. These two brothers, now known simply as the Coen Brothers, used those funds to create Blood Simple, the first of many films in their ever-impressive oeuvre. A trailer’s typical mission is to present an enticing and artfully presented collage of what a finished film will be like, but Blood Simple and Evil Dead inverted this protocol, presenting potential believers a snippet of what was already alive in the respective filmmaker’s mind’s eye in hopes of being able to produce and project that vision to a larger audience. This inversion has been heavily influential to contemporary filmmakers, albeit in an updated form.
Grindhouse, the 2007 collaborative effort of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, featured five fake trailers between the double-billed features. These trailers were not only meta-explorations of the Grindhouse genre, but also directorial experiments in the art of trailer-making. After being uploaded to YouTube, they, too, generated cult-like enthusiasm. Of those five, three were produced: Hobo With a Shotgun, Thanksgiving (still in development), and Machete, which has spawned its own franchise with the sequel Machete Kills, and the next installment, Machete Kills in Space (also still in development). Aspiring horror filmmakers Jon Watts and Christopher D. Ford were so enthralled with these trailers, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving especially, that they produced their own faux trailer for Clown, even attaching Roth’s name as director, and posted it on YouTube. The trailer became a viral sensation, making its way to Roth himself, who, rather than demand his name be pulled from the fake trailer, was so enamored with it that he helped the duo produce a full-length feature of the story, even filming a cameo in the final production. Jon Watts, essentially because of his fake trailer jumpstarting his career, has just been named the director of the new, new Spider-Man reboot.
YouTube and other sites have become studios’ newest, most cost-effective, and successful aspect of marketing strategies. With the Internet, studios can now reach wider audiences for free, release “red-band” trailers that cannot be shown on television, and develop extended campaigns that include teasers, countdowns, and even footage-less promotions announcing a trailer’s release. YouTube is also the new sandbox where editors can play with trailers, giving them the Honest treatment and even fascinating recuts, like turning Mary Poppins into a horror movie and The Shining into the feel-good comedy of the year. Regardless of where trailers are broadcast, however, they are still regulated by the Motion Picture Association of America, the same regulators of film ratings. The MPAA, in conjunction with studios, decreed that trailers could be up to two minutes and thirty seconds long, with one longer preview allowed per studio each year. In 2013, the National Association of Theater Owners called for trailers to be cut down to two minutes. This significant cut in length could, they felt, generate trailers that didn’t divulge entire plots, acts, jokes, and surprises, and could also not have audiences sitting in theaters for close to thirty minutes before a movie even began, which could then allow more showings of films per day. Studios argued that the change in length could allow theaters to show ten trailers in the same amount of time it had taken to show only eight or less. Nothing much came from NATO’s battle cry, as you can see by watching any current trailer online or sitting through an act’s worth of trailers before any movie in any theater, but it has hopefully helped raise awareness that (a) trailers are too long these days; and (b) they fucking suck now because of it.
I’ve always loved trailers. I refuse to see a film in a theater if I’ll be too late to watch every coming attraction. I watch trailer after trailer online, sometimes for hours, subjecting friends to ones I’ve rated as “good,” telling them to skip ones I’ve designated as “bad.” Most of the time, I’m not as enamored with the movie being advertised as I am with the trailer itself, this small flash of images and sound edited into a single cohesive flipbook. I’ll watch a good one over and over again because it makes me feel a certain way and fills my brain with lovely dots I’m allowed to connect myself. I’ll even watch a bad one over again just to examine how bad it is and how little I want to see that movie because of how much the dots have already been connected for me.
In this way, trailers are wonderful Schrodinger’s Catnip: the trailer is a box, the film is the cat inside, and seeing the film opens the box to discover that cat dead or alive, a tanking 0% on RottenTomatoes or a Critic’s Pick in the New York Times. Just watching that good trailer again and again, though, the cat always lives, the movie is irrelevant, and the experience of the trailer is a repeatable, elusively changing experience. This, I think, is comparable to the feeling I get when writing early drafts: everything is borderline incoherent, but still raw, there are images that gnarl their way to the foreground, and scenes are skeletal with key moments of dialogue belted out by a character you don’t really know yet. Maybe that’s why, on particularly dry writing days, I wind up rewatching some of my favorite trailers, triggering a kind of a Pavlovian response: Okay, Brain, get off your ass and start figuring out how we get from that image to that sound bite.
The overall concept of a trailer should be synecdoche: this small portion is representative of the whole. This is why teasers have become infinitely better than trailers. They’re usually around a minute long, organized around a single monologue or minimal patches of dialogue, set to a single song or rhythmic sound that lasts the duration, and all editing is synchronized to the cues presented by the music and monologue. They can be visual tone poems, built and empowered by an audio-visual anaphora. They are also, in the interest of saving time, not burdened by cramming those stupid fucking critic quotables into every other cut. Full-length trailers, however, clock in at over two minutes, have too many song switches, too many punchlines, too many frantic cuts and edits, and always have at least two endings. Don’t show me everything blowing up and our heroes escaping with fire at their backs, show me the villainous creep with his finger on the red button delivering a whispered monologue, his voice carried over silent scenes on the precipice of action.
Maybe it’s time to admit, though maybe I’m too late: this essay is not turning out the way I wanted. The piece is over a week late, has been through nine drafts, and in a particularly solopsistic Adaptation-esque moment at one point featured jokey trailer scripts starring myself. I had intentions of making parallels between Peter Orner’s wonderfully compressed short narratives and the nature of trailers being short, enigmatic distillations of a film in an excitingly similar way. But then I saw the book trailer for Love and Shame and Love, which sent me down a rabbit hole, watching other equally shitty book trailers. As if regular trailers weren’t getting bad enough, as if those “On the next Mad Men…” nonsensical bullshit excuse for teasers weren’t frustrating enough, as if sifting through trailers for new television series, new video games, wasn’t time-consuming enough, now book trailers?
I get it, publishers are in a hard row, books need to get bought, but making trailers for books–at least the way they’re made now–is equivalent to going to a convention for calculus teachers and making jokes in rudimentary Italian about the importance of lawn care. It’s the wrong medium, directed to the wrong audience, performed in the wrong language–or at least a language publishers aren’t fluent in yet. Trailers have an interesting and evolving history with companies and editors dedicated solely to their construction, vast websites maintained to cataloguing them, and even their own awards ceremony. Books are, for the most part, a wonderfully solitary and personal experience. Book trailers, rather than capitalizing on that aspect, or the tenderness in sharing the love of a particular book with someone who has yet to experience it, are barrages of review quotes, ludicrous imagery, or, even worse, acted scenes from the book you no longer will be able to imaginatively concoct solely on your own without having to first hurdle over the poor renditions presented in that unforgettably forgettable trailer. I have never once bought a book because of its trailer, nor have I met anyone who has, but I have bought a book from a conversation, a friend grabbing me by the shoulders, looking me square in the eyes, and telling me, “You should buy this.” Why can’t book trailers try filming that instead?