A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why are they called "trailers" if they're shown before the movie?

November 6, 2007

Why are the previews of coming attractions that we see before a movie called "trailers"? They don't trail behind the movie, they come before it. Shouldn't they be called "preceders"?

Your logic is unassailable, G.M., and if such previews were being given a name only now, yes, "trailers" would be a counterintuitive choice. But as you imply, it's a perfectly reasonable thing to call an ad that's shown after a movie, and back at the dawn of the film industry, that's in fact when trailers were shown.

According to Paramount executive Lou Harris, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times of October 25, 1966, the first trailer was screened at Rye Beach, a New York-area amusement park, in 1912:

One of the concessions hung up a white sheet and showed the serial "The Adventures of Kathlyn." At the end of the reel Kathlyn was thrown in the lion's den. After this "trailed" a piece of film asking Does she escape the lion's pit? See next week's thrilling chapter! Hence, the word "trailer," an advertisement for a coming picture.

Harris goes on to note that Hollywood has periodically tried to introduce other names for these clips, like "Previews" or "Prevues of Coming Attractions," but trailer has remained the preferred term within the industry.

A few points here: One, if the coming attraction happens to be the next installment in a serial, of course you'd show an ad for it after the preceding episode, not before. And two, Harris seems to suggest that the word trailer refers less to when the clip was screened within the sequence of the program than to how the actual piece of film was used – it was stuck on the end of the main attraction and thus trailed behind.

Those familiar with early movie-theater logistics have pointed out that trailers shown after the feature served an important function beyond that of enticing patrons to come back for future shows: they also helped clear patrons out of the current show. Early theaters typically screened a variety of films in a repeating loop, and it was standard practice for customers to come in whenever they wanted and stay as long as they wanted. Theaters, and the movie studios that owned them, were therefore always looking for ways to keep audience turnover brisk. Apparently it was felt that running trailers between the features helped break up the hypnotic flow of entertainment, giving viewers a chance to snap out of it and at least consider moving along.

In its entry for trailer the Oxford English Dictionary provides quotations showing the word used in the sense meaning "promotional movie clip" from as far back as 1928. But in the New York Times of June 2, 1917, I found this passage in an article reporting on the movie industry's participation in a campaign to sell U.S. war bonds:

A committee of the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry yesterday began sending films known as trailers [advertising the bonds] to all of the 15,000 or more movie theatres in the United States. These films are seventy feet in length and will be attached to longer films that are shown at every performance.

Always fun to outdig the OED. Note that this explanation, like Harris's above, suggests a concrete basis for the term: a trailer is a short film that literally trails from the end of a longer one.

In her 2004 book Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers the late film scholar Lisa Kernan traces the development of the format. An early leader in the trailer game was National Screen Service, which in 1919 began making "crude 35 mm film ads from transferred film stills (without the studios' permission) and sold them to exhibitors to run following feature films." Seeing a major advertising opportunity, the industry was soon providing NSS with footage, and the company enjoyed a monopoly on trailer production until the late 20s, when the studios first started making their own trailers in-house.

It was in the 30s that trailers evolved beyond simple newsreel-style sequences of movie clips to include some wipe effects and more sophisticated graphics, and by the end of the decade they had their own narration and musical scores. Along the way, of course, someone apparently figured out what to us may seem entirely obvious: whatever the supposed benefits of showing trailers at the end of the show, more of the audience is more likely to stick around for more trailers if you screen them before the movie that everyone came to see.

References:

Sam, "Vintage: Trailers", allmovietalk.com

Cerone, Daniel, "The Great Movie Come-On: In This Summer's Hot Box Office, Trailers Are What Pulls 'Em In," Los Angeles Times, August 5, 1989, VI-1

Debruge, Peter, "A Brief History of the Trailer," MovieTrailerTrash.com (site visited September 2007)

Kernan, Lisa, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (2004); an excerpt containing her discussion of the history of trailers

Last, Jonathan V., "Opening Soon: Where the Coming Attractions Are the Trailers Themselves", OpinionJournal.com

Quinion, Michael, "Film Trailer", WorldWideWords.com

Thomas, Kevin, "Movie Trailers Have Long Run," Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1966, C10

Wilton, Dave, "Trailer", Wordorigins.org, April 28, 2007

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