On The Origin of Trailers

Movies have barely been around for a century, yet they’ve arguably undergone as many evolutions and alterations as several art forms that have been around for centuries. One could also argue that movie trailers have evolved with them. Over the past century or so, movie trailers have become more than pre-show rituals; they’ve become events of their own. What were once  trivial “coming attractions” spots have burgeoned into events in and of themselves. Trailers aren’t just placed in front of movies; they’re cleverly marketed, flashily premiered, and sometimes even cannily previewed. I doubt whoever made the first movie preview ever thought that someone like me would be on FirstShowing, trolling the site in hopes of finding the teaser trailers of the Super Bowl teaser trailers. Why have they outlived other traditional pre-show entertainments, such as the newsreel and the short cartoon? Because, to take a page out of Dawkins’ book, they evolved just like living animals–they adapted to their environment. While they’ve maintained a basic running time (2-4 minutes) and a basic purpose (entice viewers to spend money on yet another movie), they’ve changed dramatically in both style and substance.

Take a look at some of the trailers for mid-20th century studio classics–films like The Maltese Falcon and Sweet Smell of Success. These trailers, coming a little over a decade after the first sound film, sell not just the individual movie but the glamour of the cinema itself. The trailers are awash in wipes and other showy transitions. They often linger on just three or four scenes, usually the most dramatic in the film. Typography is ostentatious, and the words often move around on the screen. Said words often praise the film (“like nothing you’ve seen before”) or the actors (“Mary Astor–greater than she was in The Great Lie!”). Sometimes, as in the trailer for Citizen Kane, the director even addresses the camera to hawk his movie to you. To get an idea of just how out of place this would look these days, just imagine George Lucas looking you in the face and saying “Guys, you’re gonna love these prequels!” Then again, as I previously stated, their goal was not just to get you excited about the coming attraction, but high on the idea of going to the movies. Stars! Cool transitions! Pretty words! Famous directors! Mommy, mommy, can we go?”

As the newfangled excitement wore off, it became necessary to focus on hawking the product much more than the medium itself. Thus, those making trailers began to focus much more on plot. From the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age up until the late 90’s, many trailers used a trick I like to call stop-the-story. A narrator, usually one with a voice that made whatever they were talking about sound like the most important thing on the planet, would relate several key events from the plot, but withhold the climactic resolution. The trailer for The Terminator is an excellent example–we learn that there’s a robot out to kill Sarah Connor, and that she goes on the run from him. We don’t learn, of course, if and when said robot catches up with her. Another great trailer in this vein is the one for The English Patient. We hear about the mysterious burn victim, get a glimpse of his past, but never find out much about his future. These sort of trailers, which relied heavily on voiceovers, were ultimately so popular that they became ripe for parody–heck, even Geico took a crack at them.

Thus, in order to avoid becoming irrelevant, trailers changed yet again. Instead of employing outside narration, they focused on sound and images directly from the film, focusing less on reciting the full plot than in assembling a string of knockout sounds and images–“money moments”, if you will. The epic final trailer for the less-than-epic (in my opinion) The Dark Knight Rises is a perfect example. A decade ago, one can imagine said trailer beginning with a voiceover–“Evil has taken over Gotham City.” Instead, we get a brisk series of split-second images–bridges falling into the river, Bruce Wayne plummeting to the ground, Batman surveying Gotham atop a tower, Catwoman riding her bike into the sunset. These images overlap with intriguing audio bites, such as “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne.” We don’t know how exactly these moments fit into the story, but we know that they’re stunning, and (ideally), we’re compelled to see the film in hopes of A) seeing how these moments figure into a bigger picture and B) seeing more like them.

As I hope I’ve made clear, movie trailers have a history all their own. They also have plenty of fans willing to poke fun at that history. In recent years, YouTube has runneth over with “re-cut trailers”–movie previews doctored so that they advertise an entirely different product. The best of these trailers skimp on typography, and use music and selective editing to totally repurpose a film. Adding a rather meta dimension to the proceedings, these trailers often poke fun at not just the movies but at movie trailers themselves. By using abrupt jump cuts and a creepy, out-of-context Gene Wilder monologue, one YouTube user turned Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory into a horror movie spoofed, but they also spoofed the cheap scare tactics used in  traditional horror movie trailers. Using an abundance of cheery music, another trailer takes  all two minutes of Taxi Driver‘s non-violent scenes and turns them into a romantic comedy in miniature. At the same time it gets a laugh in at the expense of cheesy 90’s romcom trailers, with their hokey voiceovers and sappy taglines (“At the corner of hope and destiny……there’s always a Taxi Driver!”) The success of these “re-cuts” further proves that trailers have become an art form of their own, anticipated, analyzed, and even parodied. That’s because they, like movies, have hung on, fought their way forward, and changed with the times.

Original: The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Les Miserables, The English Patient, The Terminator, Sweet Smell of Success, Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane

Recut: Fiddler on The Roof (Mash-Up with You Got Served)Taxi Driver (Romantic Comedy), Dumb and Dumber (Inception style).



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