Reads & Reels is happy to have Tori Galatro here today! Tori is a freelance writer and fellow cinephile. Welcome Tori!
Today, she will be discussing movie trailers and how they have evolved over the decades. The industry has used very specific marketing techniques over the years, and I personally find this very interesting.
One of my favourite parts about going to a theater is the anticipation of seeing trailers for the movies I’ve been dying to see. Lately, I’ve found that trailers are giving away far too much of the plot. Apparently, this is on purpose.
How Film Trailers Have Changed:
Five Amazing Techniques Classic Film Trailers Used to Entice Audiences
Film trailers have changed a lot from their early days. Today, trailers primarily focus on the film’s plot and the evocation of emotion through visual, audible, and musical cues. Many people complain that modern-day trailers focus too much on plot, giving such a comprehensive summary as to spoil every major reveal. There are some great videos and articles out there, like this clever video from Auralnauts, or this comprehensive article from NPR, that attempt to parody or summarize the formulaic beats these modern trailers all seem to hit.
But it wasn’t always this way. Film trailers from the silent era and the “Classic”, or “Golden”, age of cinema, up until the 1960s, used a very different formula to market their films to audiences. The following are five of the major trailer techniques of the era:
Actual Scenes from the Actual Movie!
Early trailers felt the need to justify their own existence. The trailer for the original King Kong kicks off with the text, “Look at these scenes RIGHT OUT of the picture!”. In the trailer for the first “talking picture” The Jazz Singer from 1927, a painfully awkward man standing on a stage in a coat and tie narrates clips from the film’s opening night, then proclaims, “Now, I’m going to show you a few scenes of what the crowd saw on the inside of the theatre”, i.e. clips from the movie. Listen to how clunky the promo is for this legendary film:
“How do you do ladies and gentlemen? This is Orson Welles. I’m speaking from the Mercury Theatre and what follows is supposed to advertise our first motion picture. Citizen Kane is the title, and we hope it can correctly be called a coming attraction. It’s certainly coming. Coming to this theatre. And I think our Mercury actors make it an attraction…”
Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?
The Features of Features
Early trailers sold movies like you’d sell a vacuum cleaner. The narrator would list the features (amazing costumes, a cast of thousands, etc…), the stereotypical scenes of the respective genre that would appear in the film (a sea battle, a chariot sequence, a tender love scene, etc…), the technical innovations being utilized (glorious technicolor, cinemascope, etc…), and the emotions you would experience when seeing the film (“You’ll thrill, weep, and laugh!“). Plot was an afterthought, and clips were only there to illustrate the features that the film had to offer. From the 1938 trailer for Tom Sawyer:
“Comedy, adventure, young love, and suspense… Whitewashing the fence! Pirates on the Mississippi! Midnight in the graveyard! Lost in the caves!…”
Nothing like a Good Gimmick
Movies, vaudeville, and magic were all closely associated in the early days, so the narrative voice or text in early film trailers was reminiscent of a magician about to perform an amazing feat, with lines like “No one had yet attempted…”. Trailers from this era had the ability to entice audiences by withholding information which could only be seen in the film itself, a technique that would be impossible today. From the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera trailer:
“So amazing is Lon Chaney’s make up in this amazing portrayal of the dread Phantom that, in order not to destroy your surprise, it is positively stipulated in his contract NO advance pictures of him are to be revealed.”
In the following years, such gimmicks were typical of horror movie promotion. B-movie mogul William Castle was a master at hyping mediocre movies with ridiculous publicity stunts like this. In one trailer, he claimed to have life insurance policies on every audience member in case of “death by fright”, adding that he wouldn’t cover suicides. In another trailer, he explains that the movie will have a “fright break”, during which you can get your ticket refunded and go sit in the “coward’s corner”. In yet another, the audience is invited to vote on the ending of the movie, like a “choose your own adventure”.
The Greatest Film the World has Ever Known!
“The supreme motion picture masterpiece of all time… this immortal photoplay… The eye of man has never seen its equal!.. Nothing like it before- Perhaps never again!” – Trailer for Ben Hur, 1926.
This kind of rhetoric, promising an audience that they were in for a once in a lifetime experience, was typical of the time. No one seemed to think that actual clips from the film did much to attract audiences. People needed to be explicitly told that a film was great with no room for interpretation. The narrator would often stress how popular and successful the film was in other parts of the country, and imply that anyone who missed it would be a social outcast. The Wizard of Oz trailer goes on and on about the book’s popularity, likening it to “wildfire in a wheatfield”, yet hardly features a single one of its, now famous, songs. One trailer from the era even claimed its film was “the best thing that ever happened“. If a film was politically or culturally important, the trailer was sure to explain that to you:
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a significant picture. It is significant because it emphasizes democracy in action.” – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington trailer, 1939.
The Authoritative Voice
Throughout the classic Hollywood era, it became commonplace for directors to appear in their film’s trailers to lend them authority and credibility with long patronizing monologues. In the trailer for Citizen Kane, Orson Welles awkwardly introduces us to each member of the cast in succession, assuring us that any we haven’t yet heard of were still very important. In the trailer for Snow White, a young Walt Disney introduces us to each of the seven dwarves in succession using dolls in their likeness, nonchalantly calling Grouchy “the woman-hater”. “The fabulous Mr. Alfred Hitchcock”, as one trailer called him, used his trademark dark sense of humor and deadpan persona to successfully promote his own films, such as Psycho and The Birds, barely needing to release a single clip to generate the hype he wanted.
These techniques from the past may seem awkward, funny, or old-fashioned to us now, but as audiences today are becoming desensitized to our modern trailers, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the past and see if we can learn anything. Next time you’re sitting in a movie theatre, watching the latest trailers and feeling bored of the same old style, think of these techniques and ask yourself: What worked? What didn’t? And what may be next?
What do you think guys?
I think the industry should revisit some of their old practices because currently, trailers practically show the entire movie! Or at least the important parts.
Thanks for hanging out with us Tori!
Tori Galatro is a freelance writer and total film nerd based in Austin, TX. She loves classic, international, cult, and indie film, and is always looking for opportunities to share her knowledge and passion through writing.
Images (4) Giphy