The Anatomy of a Movie Trailer

Movie trailers may ultimately just be commercials for movies, but they have developed into something more than just another form of advertising. Unlike most advertisements, movie trailers are something that people want to see. They’ve become a staple in our modern day fast-paced consumable pop culture environment. They give us momentary glimpses into the future and they help stoke our excitement for upcoming entertainment options. Today, trailers are critical in determining the financial success of a film, and as a result we’re putting more effort into making and watching them than ever before.

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Trailers got their name because originally they were added on to the end of a film. Back in the 20’s there was no internet upon which to see clips of upcoming movies. There were no TV’s upon which commercials could air. Theaters could advertise upcoming films with posters, but a poster can only show off so much. Trailers were invented as a way of trying to convince the audience to come back next week. By putting the trailer at the end of the film, it remained fresh in the audience’s mind as they walked out the door. It gave them something to think about and look forward to. Older films featured their credits up front, so there were no long ending credits that the audience had to sit through. The film simply ended and then the trailers were shown.

These early trailers were simple and crude, especially in the silent film era. Early trailers typically had name cards that would describe the film along with production stills. Eventually, actual clips from the film were shown. It was important in those days to sell a film on its star power. Famous actors and actresses were mentioned clearly and informatively and clips often showed them at premieres looking glamorous. Once sound became available, narrators were used to fill audiences in on the details of what they could expect if they watched. There were no traditions and formulas to follow. Trailer lengths fluctuated from film to film, sometimes running more than 10 minutes.

Trailers proved to be very successful. Audiences enjoyed the idea of seeing an upcoming film in motion as compared to a painted billboard or radio advertisement. As film studios figured out how to capture audience’s attention, they began putting more effort into marketing. To do a better job at attracting audiences to theaters, studios began to hire outside firms to do advertising and create trailers for their films. From the 1940’s through the 1980’s most film advertisement was created and distributed by the National Screen Service. The NSS signed exclusive agreements with many film studios , which brought some form of control and familiarity to the process of creating a trailer. They used a formulaic approach with text to describe the film, and memorable scenes from the film to show it off. They incorporated music and sound effects in order to create a more polished product that would become very familiar to a whole generation of theater attendees.

Starting in the 50’s and the 60’s, more films started putting their credits at the end. As production crews grew larger, there were more and more names that needed to be kept track of. Audiences didn’t want to stick around through the boring credits. As a result, trailers were moved to the beginning of the film. Studios did not want to lose the valuable time that they had to tell audiences about their new film. Although this move ensured that there would be an audience in the theater to view the trailer, the disadvantage was that now it would be easier for audiences to forget about the trailers they saw when they walked out after the show. Therefore, trailers had to become even more memorable than before. Filmmakers had to capture their audience’s’ attention and make them remember later on. As a result, trailers became more aggressive, funnier, and more creative in order to make that lasting impression.

With all of this increased competition between trailers, the MPAA created a limit for how long a trailer could be. That limit was set at 2 minutes 30 seconds. Studios had 2 minutes and 30 seconds to convince you memorably that their next film was worth paying money to see in theaters. The time limit eliminated the possibility of some trailers being extremely long in order to limit the time available for other trailers. Theaters were only willing to alot a certain amount of time before each film to trailers. As audiences became more interested in trailers over the last two decades, the amount of trailers shown before films has steadily increased. So much so, in fact, that in 2014, the National Association of Theater Owners created a non-mandatory guideline that movie trailers should be 2 minutes long or less. Although this isn’t a mandatory requirement, it has been followed fairly consistently, and allowed for more trailers to be shown before feature films than ever before. The MPAA also allows each studio to have one trailer that is an exception to the 2 minutes 30 seconds rule. Note that these limits only apply to trailers shown in theaters. On the films’ or studios’ websites they are allowed to show longer “extended” trailers.

The MPAA also currently requires a rating card to be displayed in front of every movie trailer. Traditionally, the rating card was green and simply said “this preview has been approved for all audiences”, but in 2009 that changed. In 2009, the MPAA added red and yellow rating cards. These were meant as warnings that the trailer featured more mature content. “Green Band” trailers maintained the “approved for all audiences” label, but added text showing the rating of the film. “Yellow Band” trailers are used to indicate restricted content that is only supposed to be shown on the internet. These “Yellow Band” trailers are rare and won’t be shown in theaters. “Red Band” trailers with the red cards indicate that there is mature material in the trailer. This is similar to an “R” rating for a film. “Red Band” trailers are only allowed to be shown before “R”, “NC-17”, or “Unrated” films. Note that a “Green Band” trailer can be a trailer for a movie with any rating. It just means that the actual footage shown in the trailer is appropriate for all audiences.

As the importance of trailers has increased over the years, so has the need to get these trailers in front of audiences as soon as possible. This is complicated by the higher production values and quality that today’s trailers often feature, which means that they take longer to make. To overcome this problem, film studios often provide pre-production film cuts to be used in trailers. Other times, they will send out a shot of a particular scene that the director is not using, which means that although the scenes you see in trailers are featured in the film, they may look a little different in the trailer. Similarly, the music that is featured in trailers is often not the same as what ends up in the film. Movie scores are commonly completed in post production, while trailers are typically created during production. Trailers often feature popular music in the trailer. This music may not show up in the actual film, but because it is so well known or has a connection to an idea shown in the trailer, it adds interest. Some trailers take it a step further by creating entire sequences or scenes that aren’t even featured in the film itself. These trailers are called “special shoot” trailers. These “special shoot” sequences are for promotional purposes only. They can be simple, such as a character addressing the audience directly, or more advanced requiring unique special effects.

The method a trailer uses to promote the film can vary. “Teaser” trailers are special trailers that are typically released before a formal trailer. “Teaser” trailers tend to feature more “special shoot” content and narration than regular trailers. “Teaser” trailers are also typically used to show only glimpses of a film rather than introducing the audience to the story or characters. Normal trailers may tell the story of the film as an overview in order to help the audience understand what makes it interesting. They could also introduce the audience to an important and interesting character by showing a series of short clips. At other times, a whole scene or sequence from the film is used to make an important point. The common feature with all of these methods is that the trailer needs to make the audience connect emotionally with the film that is being promoted.

One of the most important aspects of any trailer is the ability for that trailer to make the viewer interested without giving away too much about the film that is being advertised. This, above all else, is perhaps one of the more important differences between a trailer and an advertisement. Traditional advertisements and commercials want to give their audience or readers as much information as possible. They want to clearly explain why their product or service is better than the rest. In order to do this, you need to show what it is that makes your product or service better than everyone else’s’. For movies, this doesn’t work the same way. Trailers can show impressive moments of the film to convince audiences that this film is worth seeing, but if you give away too much, audiences won’t be impressed. Furthermore, part of what makes film so great is that it is somewhat interpretive. If a trailer tells you to what a film is supposed to be or how it is supposed to make you feel, the experience of viewing the film won’t be as impressive as if you had discovered these aspects on your own.

Trailers have come a long way. First as a cheap effort to get butts into theaters, they have become much more complicated and sophisticated. Today they are almost considered a separate form of media, a form of art. Websites, organizations, and production companies exclusively devote themselves to the production, distribution, and review of trailers. Film studios have figured out how to make trailers impactful and interesting for wide audiences without taking anything away from the film itself. As we look towards the future of film, one thing that is for certain is that trailers will remain an important part of how film connects with audiences.