EARLY TRAILERS: Notes & Insights

I’ve spent several hours lately (with a few more to go) in the Archive Research & Study Center at UCLA, on the second floor of glorious Powell Library, watching dvd’s and vhs’ made from what remains of the relatively few trailers that survived from first decade or so of the industry.

In my post today, I wanted to offer some notes and then a few insights about what takes place in these early trailers. As regular readers may remember, I’ve been looking at the role of film and film marketing in emerging discourse of social control, mass psychology and propaganda, so I was especially attentive to rhetorical and visual modes of emotional and non-rational persuasion. (Spoiler: I found very little subtlety–but lots of bald attempts to persuade would-be audiences to part with the price of a ticket.)

Relative to the feature films that were then being produced, a/v film marketing of the 1910’s (1915, onward) is rather simple and unsophisticated. Nonetheless, the fundamental appeals of stars, spectacle and genre were already cemented in place. Notably absent from the trailers that I’ve studied (and UCLA has the best collection in the world) is concerted attention to the vital matter of story, a topic and an appeal considered essential by modern audiences.

While story elements are implicit in genre and in the scenes of spectacle or sensation that these trailers foreground, very little effort is expended to establish the situation–whether through graphic copy or subtitles–the conflict or the likely outcome. In this early period, it was felt that the audiences needed to pay to learn what happens, and that if they knew the plot or (heaven forbid!) the outcome, they’re curiosity would be sated before having parted with money.

Instead, Star power, glimpses of spectacle and sensation and their expectations of genres were considered sufficient inducement to those confirmed movie goers who watched a trailer in the theater. (Yes, this was the era before TV and the Internet. Trailers were only seen at the cinema, by the self-selected and repeat customer.

Of course, for many of the cine-plays, the plot was not especially interesting or essential to the enjoyment, despite notable exceptions, as in the film advertised above.

Copy is intensive in early trailers. Promises about what the viewer will see and what the producers have gone through to provide the entertainment in question fill the screen. The rhetoric of the copy is, as film scholar Lisa Kernan has so persuasively argued, derived from roots in vaudeville and circus advertising, featuring bombastic verbiage from the stage and the ring.

The vaudeville approach offers “something for everyone,” and this you see most obviously in copy treatments that promise “drama, action, comedy and romance” with respect to any particular film. Such appeals are rather common–at least in the eclectic and accidental archive of trailers that have survived. The Circus approach, for its part, is hyperbolic and “singles out the film’s attractions as the phenomenon or event that will draw audiences to the theater.” (pp. 18: Coming Attractions)

You can see both styles in evidence in the trailer above, and you will notice that the marketers have no shame and no hesitation about their role as promoters and pitch-men. There is nothing especially tricky or insinuating about their assertions: they are superlative: the best, the finest, the greatest, the most, etc. and so forth. Presumably, by the 1920’s, a seasoned movie goer would understand that this was the game being played and not fall for the same kind of promise being offered on behalf of so many different features.

Of course, then as now, films that delivere hitherto unseen spectacles and revolutionary new ways of capturing experience and imagination do come along regulary. The difficulty is getting an audience to believe you when the the rhetorical bar has already been raised to the roof. Trailers offer one kind of visual evidence to a savvy audience, who can compare the spectacle or sensation being advertised with those they’ve seen elsewhere. Movie magazines, trade publications and review also provide paratextual support for the claims the marketers presume to make on behalf of the projects they represent.

In the courses I’ve taught and the lectures I’ve given, I make a point of describing continuities in the history of movie marketing across 100 years of development and experimentation. Sound, optical printing, projection, editing and other technological innovations have changed the look and sound of movie marketing, but the basics still apply. Audiences want to see scenes from the film, the “sample” as it were. And we–then as now–want to see the actors that we idolize or admire. We rely on the prior accomplishments of the writer, director and producer to persuade us of the quality of the present offering, and we feel confident knowing that a major distribution company (studio) is releasing the picture.

This early period of the film industry is referred to by scholar and critic Tom Gunning as the “Cinema of Attractions,” in order to underscores the near-universal appeal of those scenes, shots and spectacles that you had never seen before, or had only conceived of in imagination. Film was able to show us the world as if in a dream, a novel or an hallucination, and that magical power has remained an enduring driver of ticket sales and audience entertainment. Trailers, posters, publicity and promotion have exploited that appearl that from the beginning. Today, trailers let the visual evidence speak for itself. In the first decade or so of trailer history, marketers believed, perhaps rightly, that they needed to insist, verbally.

“Hands Up” (1918, Serial)
“Greed” (1924)
“Ben Hur” (1925)
“Silver Flyer” (1926)
“Peg O’ My Heart” (1922)
“American Venus” (1926)
“Great Gatsby” (1926)
“The Patriot” (1928) A lost film; the trailer survives
“Garden of Allah” (1927)
“The Red Circle” (1915)
“Flame Fighter” (1925)
“Kellum Talking Pictures” (1921)
Spider & the Rose (1923)

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About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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