The art of Bonsai previews

Trailers consist of a series selected shots from the film being advertised. Since the purpose of the trailer is to attract an audience to the film, these excerpts are usually drawn from the most exciting, funny, or otherwise noteworthy parts of the film but in abbreviated form and usually without producing spoilers. For this purpose the scenes are not necessarily in the order in which they appear in the film. A trailer has to achieve that in less than 2 minutes and 30 seconds, the maximum length allowed by the MPAA. Each studio or distributor is allowed to exceed this time limit once a year, if they feel it is necessary for a particular film.

We’re obsessed with movie trailers. People are watching more than a billion trailers a year on YouTube and searching for trailers more and more every year. And these numbers continue to grow as studios focus film-advertising dollars online. As soon as the latest movie teaser goes live, the web freaks out. Entertainment sites like IGN and Vulture post shot-by-shot deconstructions—some outlets like Slate even have dedicated trailer critics. Fans pull scenes apart and piece them back together as YouTube parodies. And the trailer editors, along with their studio overlords, monitor comment boards for instant reactions. In short, these previews have become a thriving industry, almost as popular as that of the movies they’re teasing. But it wasn’t always this way.

The trailer came into being in 1913 when the Loews Cinemas company created one for the musical, The Pleasure Seekers, which was playing on Broadway. But the early days of trailers were usually maladroit and audiences immediately knew they were being sold something. The Bishop’s Wife in 1947 gave a knowing nod to such tactics with a self-referencing trailer staring David Niven and Cary Grant on their way to film a promo for the movie.

Until the 1950s, American trailers were produced by the National Screen Service, although some directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford liked to produce their own. In the 1960s film directors took a keener interest, leading to more stylish trailers. Plot spoilers in trailers still existed into the 1970s although trailers were less brash than today. “This is Universal’s extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel, Jaws,” intoned the gentle voiceover on a trailer for Speilberg’s shark fest which, during its three minutes, showed so much footage and dialogue, it was akin to an abridged version of the film.

By the 1980s, trailers were more vague and teasing. Today, producers of trailers understand they are not selling a narrative but an abstract representation of one. They tend to make films seem like an offering (“the producers of Film X bring you…”) and they stick to strict time limits of two minutes and 30 seconds as laid down by the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Fractions of a second make all the difference in whether a joke ‘lands’ or doesn’t or whether a montage builds to the right climax or whether a drama trailer just plays,” says trailer editor Mark Woollen

As exciting as some hollywood trailers can be, for most of them the studios seem to be sticking to the same patterns over and over. Often not showing the creative depth of a good film, or even more often making a bad movie look exciting. But that remains the main purpose of the trailer: selling the movie. Hollywood has figured out a perfect trailer template that seems to work in the marketing department, the unfortunate down side to selling to mass markets.