“HANDS UP” (1918) – The very first promo trailer pioneers motion picture B to B communications

One of several posters for the 1918 serial “Hands Up!” Starring Ruth Roland

Researching early trailers at UCLA’s Powell Library, I came across 2 versions of a promo trailer for “Hands Up!“, a 15 part 1918 serial starring Ruth Roland and George Chesebro.* Rather than a traditional trailer– a communication between the film’s producers/distributors and a likely audience of ticket buyers– these two motion picture advertisements were created by the distributor to persuade exhibitors to show the film. As such, they represent the earliest motion picture business to business communication i’ve ever encountered. Happily for me, as a trailer enthusiast, they are also replete with scenes from the film and all the other kinds of information that is typically leveraged to appeal to audiences.

Apart from its listing of cast, director, writer and studio, the promo describes the various marketing materials that are available to support the publicity and advertisement of the film, as well as the simultaneous “trans-media” exploitation of the material. The “screenplay” was to be published as a story in Motion Picture Magazine around the time of release, on the cover of which an image dedicated to star Ruth Roland was to be featured. Here’s the gist of the communication from Pathe Exhange (the distributor/studio) to hoped for exhibitors:

It opens with a credit block constituted by separate graphic cards specifying the provenance of the film in terms of distributor, author, producer, star Ruth Roland (with credits) and star George Chesebro. A series of representative scenes follows featuring romance, horseback stunts and life-endangering thrills. Cutting to an establishing shot of the wild-western setting, a card explains that “here is a sample of the rugged…[setting]”

Next, the lavish expenditure that has been committed to the project is emphasized, with the “Throne Room of the Incas” and the “sacrificial chamber” specified. Making plain its objective, a card from Pathe Exchange explains “What we are doing to help you [the exhibitor] cash in big profits.” Specifics follow, card by card with visual aids indicated in parenthese:

“A nationwide Billboard campaign on ‘Hands Up’ has been undertaken by Pathe. These stands will be posted by Pathe in upward of 500 cities.” (Key art is shown)

“Ask Pathe representatives for details of our offer of these magnificent posters absolutely free of charge.”

“’Hands Up’ in serial form will be out in the Motion Picture Magazine on sale early in August. The October Cover features picture [sic?] of Ruth Roland. This story will be read by over two million people.” (Transmedia avant la lettre, as it were.)

And yet more cards describing promotion materials available to exhibitors:

“Here is a list of the advertising helps we have prepared in order to help you cash in Big Profits with Hands Up.” (Notice the repetition of “cash in big profits.” Pathe, presumably, is only interested in “big profits” for its exhibitors. Strikingly, there is no balancing mention of the possibility of a big risk, in terms of initial outlay for the film and foregone opportunity costs.)

This promotional business to business trailer was not the only one made, nor miraculously, the only one to survive. A variation includes traditional trailer rhetoric combined with direct address to the exhibitor: “Hey Mr. Exhibitor: Make 15 weeks of profits,” by booking the 15 part serial.

This trailer begins by characterizing the film as a “Cyclonic Western Serial,” a figure of speech which makes neither meteorological nor generic sense, but nonetheless captures the film’s excitement and energy. “Hands Up!” is offered in 15 episodes, a relevant detail the companion promo elides.

To the introduction of author and producer provenance, it insists on their collaboration (as opposed to?), mentions director George FitzMaurice, whose “supervision” is specially indicated. We see Ruth Roland posing glamorously, like the established star she is, while George Chesbro appears on horseback.

Next, the “Phantom Rider,” makes an appearance, his mysterious identity positioned as an attraction to draw viewers, episode by episode, in order to satisfy their curiosity. He is followed by a string of villains: “The Adventuress,” a soft, scheming socialite in contrast to the doughty, rough riding heroine Roland; and pitiless Incan Leaders, “custodians of treasure,” whose cultural motivation is assumed.

We see George and Ruth in romantic clinches, performing stunts astride and falling off of horses. Without transitional cards or scenes, we next find Ruth imprisoned in a tower, escape from which imperils the heroine as George rides to the rescue. Yet again she is captured and yet again she gets-away. The attentive exhibitor will have a clear notion of the picaresque story line of the series and its “cliff-hanger” articulation. Conflicts are raised and resolved in tongue-in-groove fashion from one episode to its successor.

The rugged, realistic landscape (probably somewhere in LA county) earns a star turn, followed by emphasis on the lavish sets and the heavy expenditure needed to produce the series.

The promo addresses its audience directly, detailing “what we’re doing to help you the exhibitors make money.” Tie-ins and cross-media promotional efforts are dscribed. One poster, of three that are available, is spotlighted. One sheets and lobby cards constitute further “advertising helps,” that will surely “guarantee” a week of profit for every one of the 15 weeks of the series.

Whereas the viewer of a movie trailer in 1918 had little more than a dime or a nickel and the investment of some free time at stake in buying a ticket, the audience for these promotions is making a significant business commitment of time, money and opportunity cost. He (or she) will want to hear strong arguments whose accuracy it would be prudent to confirm. Nevertheless, in this animated precursor of a powerpoint presentation, the business argument is thin relative to the aesthetic one.

That may be because the exhibitor already knows that a good serial is a good investment; what is most significant to him (or her) is whether the product meets or exceeds the standards he maintains, and whether the distributor is one he trusts, one he can rely on for the marketing support promised and required. Stars, directors, authors, lavish sets, interesting secondary characters, cliff-hanger plots, horseback stunts, genre and romantic chemistry are the strong “arguments” that an exhibitor is called upon to assess, and they are that part of the negotiation which is impossible to contractually fix. They are, however, filmed and tendered in earnest in this fascinating document of the sophisticated and thoughtful marketing that occurs before a film ever screens for a paying audience.

* “All that apparently remains of this fifteen-episode chapter play is the promotional reel sent to exhibitors in an effort to encourage them to book the series. That reel, included on the DVD boxed set More Treasures from American Film Archives, suggests the series was a doozy. There’s impressive and exciting footage of stars Ruth Roland and George Chesebro mixing it up with the villains of the piece, Inca Indians who believe Ruth’s character is the reincarnation of a beloved native princess. It’s a tremendous shame, of course, that so many silent serials have crumbled to dust over the intervening decades, but thank goodness someone had the foresight to save the remnants of this one.” — From the User Reviews section of IMDB

Creative Commons License
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

* Chesbro entered the Army and was replaced by George Larkin for the remainder of the series.

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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