Monday, March 30, 2015

Apple #707: Movie Trailers

I went to an actual movie this weekend. In the theater and everything.  It's been many moons since I did that.

I saw It Follows, if you're interested.  In spite of the many questions I had -- what exactly happened with the guys on the boat?  What was the swimming pool plan supposed to be? Are there specific rules about how the transfer of following happens, I mean, do certain things need to be achieved? If you see it, you'll know what I mean.

In spite of all those questions, I liked it.  That conclusion does not seem like it would follow my list of questions, but it does follow that since the movie was set near Detroit in a landscape I recognized, and it did cool things with setting and the sense of time, I would find it eerily familiar.  It also follows that, since I can make many puns with the title, I would like it.

Screenshot from It Follows
(Image from Entertainment Weekly)

Anyway.  The point of all this is that a Daily Apple question emerged prior to said watching of said movie.  The friend with whom I went to said movie --we'll call him JohnCarpenter -- said, at the conclusion of the trailers, "Wait a minute. They're called trailers, but they show them before the movie.  Shouldn't they be called previews instead?"

Good question, JohnCarpenter, says I.

  • As you might guess, trailers once upon a time were shown after the movie.
  • Let's start at the beginning.
  • Long, long ago, back in the silent-era-stone age, before you were even a flicker in your parents' eye, movies used to be shown in a continuous fashion.  You'd pay your nickel, walk in and sit down at some point in the cycle.  There was a feature film, followed by several short films, including maybe a public service message from the Army or some government entity, a bit of newsreel footage, a cartoon or two, and then the feature film would start up again.
  • People would come in and sit through the whole loop.  Instead of getting up and leaving when they got to the end of the loop, they would stay and watch it all go around again.  All for one nickel.
  • In 1913, various theaters around the country began showing a 13-episode serial movie called The Adventures of Kathlyn.  Taking advantage of the fact that a lot of people liked reading serial publications in newspapers and magazines, the release of this film corresponded with the printing of the same installment in the Chicago Tribune.  

Screen shot from The Adventures of Kathlyn. Oh, the drama.
(Photo from Columbia University's  Women Film Pioneers Project)

  • The idea was that you'd read the episode in the paper and then go see it acted out, or vice versa.  Or if you read it one week, you could go see the next episode in the theater the next.  Or maybe somebody who read the Tribune would tell you about what they'd just read, and then you'd go see it in the theater.  You get the idea.
  • Here's a brief description of the serial, from the New York Times
"the serial detailed the experiences of Kathlyn Hare, the pretty daughter of an explorer (Lafe McKee). Kathlyn resided in a mythical India, fighting off unwanted advances from a handsome native, Umballah (Charles Clary), when not battling an endless array of ferocious jungle fauna." She also befriends native servants and frees the enslaved peoples. Naturally.
    • Interesting sidenote: the animals used in the filming of this serialized film eventually became the first animals to reside in the then-new Los Angeles Zoo. 

Newspaper ad from the Chicago Tribune for The Adventures of Kathryn. It's hard to see at this size, but the ad includes a list of Chicago theaters showing the movie. Eventually, some 200 papers ran the serialized story, and the serialized movie was shown in theaters around the country.
(Image from Carole & Co.)
  • Another innovation about all of this was that at the end of the movie episode for the week, there would a be a scene depicting one of the characters in a cliffhanger of some sort, and then a title card would be laid over the image, inviting patrons to return the following week to see what became of their favorite character.  The next week, the movie would pick up with that cliffhanger and proceed from there.
  • That little teaser at the end of the episode is generally considered to be the first trailer.
  • At about the same time, the advertising manager for Marcus Loew theaters (yup, still a big name in the movie theater business today) in New York City got an idea.  A play called Pleasure Seekers was being performed on Broadway, and he had a short little film made to promote it, including footage of the rehearsals.  This was probably the first short film advertising a production, and even though it was for a play, it's still fairly close to what we think of today as a trailer.
  • This short promo for the play was inserted among that continuous loop of short films & cartoons & newsreels. It fit in very well with all those other supplemental materials, so the theaters throughout the Loews chain started doing that, and soon other theaters did too.
  • By 1915, movie theaters were making their own short films to promote their feature-length movies.  They were pretty basic, with bits from the film spliced together, and maybe a title card at the beginning and end, maybe some text laid over the film.
  • Below is the trailer for Birth of a Nation (1915), and below that, a montage of several early movie trailers. You'll note that they are all silent movies. That Birth of a Nation trailer sure makes me want to watch it. Lincoln gets shot in it and everything. Except, oh dear, the KKK are the good guys. Boy, it's hard to see them as anything but bad guys now.

  • As movie-making evolved, incorporating sound and utilizing more complex filming and editing techniques, so too did the trailers.  One particular company, the National Screen Service or NSS, made trailers for all the film companies. Even as they used these new techniques, they tended to follow a similar format, since the trailers were all made essentially by the same guy.
  • Below is the trailer for King Kong (1933). Note the use of the text laid over the scenes from the film, which is a technique from the silent era, but also the use of voice-over specific to the trailer at the end.  That is a newer innovation.  

  • By Gone with the Wind (1939), they're still using the text overlay, but now they're interspersing the voice-over telling you how wonderful the picture is, with segments from the movie itself.

  • As trailers were becoming more advanced, movie theaters were showing more of them more often. Theaters were also moving away from running that continuous loop of one feature film and many short films throughout the day.  Now they had a few set times for the film, or maybe they were showing more than one film in the same theater, and they needed to get the audience out in between.  The trailers at the end of the film gave people the message: show's over, time to move on.
  • There is one additional suggestion for the early meaning of the word "trailer," which is a more technical one.  Lou Harris, former executive at Paramount, was quoted as saying that the piece of film that contained the trailer was spliced onto the end of the feature film.  So it really did "trail" at the end of the movie.

Back in the day, this is essentially how two pieces of film were spliced together -- with tape or glue.
(Photo from ULine)

  • Finding the date when theaters started showing trailers before the feature film rather than after is a little more difficult.  Many people say they began making the switch some time in the 1930s.
  • Film studios tried calling them something other than trailers -- "previews" "prevue of coming attractions" and so on.  But it was too late.  "Trailers" had stuck. 
  • A few final notes. You might call these trailers: 
  • Trailers are often made while the movie itself is still being made. Sometimes the trailer editors use the rushes -- the first prints made of a day's filming, which may or may not be kept in the final edit.  So it sometimes happens that a trailer contains footage or dialogue that isn't in the final version of the film.
    • In Casablanca's trailer, Rick says, "All right, Major, you asked for it."  But he never says that line in the film. 
    • The trailer for Terminator 2: Judgment Day contains several bits & pieces that are not in the movie -- on purpose. Director James Cameron wanted the trailers to explain how the Terminators were made, to address people's skepticism about how he could be in the sequel after he'd been destroyed in the first.
  • A lot of people say that Jaws (1975) was the first movie whose trailers were shown on TV,  but actually the practice started as early as the 1950s. Movie historian Keith Johnston says the first movie to put its trailers on TV was Born Yesterday (1950), starring William Holden and Judy Holliday.
  • But here's the trailer for Jaws anyway.  Because I want you to see how the voice-over has evolved, from telling you how great the movie is to telling you about the movie (though it still seems pretty shlocky).  It's also surprising how much of the movie it shows.

  • Moviegoers from the 1980s and 1990s will remember that nearly every single trailer started with a phrase like, "In a world . . ." or "In a time . . . " It was one guy who did the voice-overs for all those trailers.  No, it wasn't Morgan Freeman, it was a guy named Don LaFontaine.  Watch this mashup of trailers and be taken back to a time when there were still voice-overs in trailers, along with all the special effects.

Finally, I just want to point out that this entry about trailers was inspired by a movie called It Follows.  Do you follow?

The Straight Dope, Why are they called "trailers" if they're shown before the movie? November 7, 2007
Filmmaker IQ, The History of the Movie Trailer
The Dissolve, Becoming attractions: A brief history of film trailers
Priconomics, Why Are Movie Trailers Called "Trailers"? March 18, 2015
The New York Times, The Adventures of Kathlyn [Serial] 1913 Review Summary
Nicolae Sfetcu, The Art of Movies [ebook, unpaginated]
IMDb, Terminator 2: Judgment Day trivia

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