How did the term movie trailer come about when in reality, trailers are actually previews of films? You have to go back to 1913 to find the answer, which is simply this: the very first trailers were not shown before feature films—they were shown after — i.e. trailing the movie.
When people went to the movies in 1913, the majority would stay in the theater for most of the day. The audience would watch whatever was showing— whether it was a feature-length film, cartoons, newsreels, or even short films. The first trailer wasn’t even for a film, but for a Broadway play that was on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in midtown Manhattan.
Broadway producer Nils Granlund is credited for coming up with the idea of a trailer. Granlund decided to take advantage of the audience members sitting and waiting for the next movie to play, so he developed a short film to advertise upcoming plays in between screening rotations at the movie theater. For the first trailer, Granlund used rehearsal footage from the play The Pleasure Seekers.
The short promotional film about the play created buzz and bolstered publicity for the production. He also, unknowingly, revolutionized film marketing.
Granlund’s idea quickly evolved. Later that same year, producer William Selig produced short-action story installments for serial movies that always ended with a cliffhanger that urged people to come back next week to find out if the hero escaped certain death. These brief teasers were always shown after the main feature, with the idea that the audience would leave the theater wanting more.
These trailers included brief footage of the film accompanied by text that screamed questions at the audience, like “Does she escape the lion’s pit? See next week’s thrilling chapter!” This idea worked so well that studios were soon cutting their own trailers. The traditional movie trailer that we know of today evolved from these serial movie trailers.
Starting in 1920, the National Screen Service started producing and distributing movie trailers on behalf of the movie studios. Eventually, the National Screen Service exclusively developed movie trailers and did so for more than four decades.
It was in the 1930s when it was decided too many audience members were leaving right after the film (see below for possible reason), so the movie theaters started to show trailers before the feature film. However, the name trailer stuck. Today, these entertaining previews will probably always be known as movie trailers and their production is nearly a genre upon itself.
What changed in the 1930s?
During the silent film era, literacy was a necessity for film-goers, and a day at the movies was enjoyed by the more “sophisticated”. However, both the Depression and movies with sound forever changed the framework of movie audiences.
The Depression pushed movie companies to stop building luxury movie palaces and build more neighborhood theaters that were appreciated by working-class audiences. And, with the dawn of the talkies, crunchy popcorn and refreshments were brought into movie theaters and suddenly going to the movies became an activity anyone could enjoy and afford.