You would think that from the birth of filmmaking and film projection, trailers would have emerged as an essential mode of marketing, advertising and promotion. Instead, it took 18 years from Edison’s triumph to the first rudimentary and barely recognizable audio-visual promotion for an audio-visual entertainment. Why?

The simple answer is scarcely conceivable today. And what’s different, augurs favorably for employment and careers in marketing, publicity, promotion, as well as entertainment, their parent industry.

Quite simply, there was no need for specialized marketing tools given the already vigorous demand for films supplied; moreover, the cost-benefit analysis was unfavorable, given the modest risk of time and resources required by the one reel films that dominated the period. The market didn’t yet demand the expenditure in resources and creativity a trailer represents.

FROM 1894 TO 1912
For the first 20 years of movie marketing, print was exploited as the medium for informing, publicizing and promoting film.

Signs & Billboards: How Films Were Originally Marketed

Glass slides, familiar to audiences from “magic lantern shows,” a technology dating to the 17th century,

A Magic Lantern: Projection Technology Since the 17th Century

joined print  in 1903, when the Lubin company created a bare-bones graphic title on glass for “Mephisto in his Laboratory.”

The design sophistication and quantity of glass slides swiftly increased—as you can see in these examples from the early 20th century.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the economics and ecology of the movie biz were changing. The dominance of the commodity one-reel “feature,” was waning, its eclipse by longer, auteur directed, star-driven, bigger-budgeted films competing with similar productions signaled evolving audience sophistication and maturation of taste. A glut of expensively-produced product required better marketing, in a word: differentiation! The trailer was at first the accidental and then the obvious response.

Promoting story: According to Vinzenz Hediger—an eminent trailer historian at University of Frankfurt in Germany–the first previews emerged within a transitional moment in the film biz to serve the needs of series and serials, a low-hanging branch on the evolutionary tree of feature films.

Serials were a brilliant, if reactionary, move by the major studios and distributors to differentiate their products and compete with the features. Collected, the reels of a serial are as long as a feature; persistent characters and situations imitate their sophistication. But Serials were cheap and easy to churn out. They also enjoyed this important marketing advantage: each episode functioned as an advertisement for its sequel; each cliff-hanger ending eliciting curiosity and desire for the rescue, the surprise, the twist or the expected salvation, that only the next installment could satisfy.

What Happened to Mary (1912) &  The Adventures of Kathleen (1913)
In 1912, the distributors of the Edison series “WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY,” were inspired to use the “trailing” end of the celluloid—the unexposed end of the reel used to wrap and protect the film—to deliver the most basic and most salient information to an audience that had just consumed an installment:


Only words on text, and prosaic words at that. No scenes, no call to action, no cast run, not even any “genre” cues, but the Trailer era had begun. In 1913, Tribune’s “The Adventures of Kathleen,” asked audiences whether “she would escape from the lion’s den,” which succinctly implies story, genre, implied spectacle and call to action! If you wanted to know what happens to this intrepid heroine, you’d have to come back to the theater. A mere two years later, trailers were recognizable as such: The Red Circle (1915)

Once audiences got a taste of audio-visual advertising, slides and print could never aspire to any role beyond collateral.


What these “text-only” trailers make explicit is the logic of the series itself, in which content Is the lure for more content; in Lisa Kernan’s useful phrase, narrative rhetoric becomes promotional rhetoric. But this demand for further incident and resolution of conflict is still the engine of movie marketing today; a promise made to an audience that wants to know what happens next.

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

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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