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Is Hollywood Making Too Many Trailers?

We spoke to an economics professor along with one of the best movie-trailer makers in the business to learn more about the thinking behind this deluge of movie trailers hitting the internet.
April 17, 2015, 11:45pm

Still from the trailer to 'Birdman' (2014)

In the world of teasers, trailers, and promos, it's been a big week. The new Star Wars: Episode VII teaser trailer launched yesterday at a huge fan convention, and it already has over 24 million views. Zach Snyder posted a link to a teaser trailer for the real trailer for Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice on Wednesday. And we got a new Terminatortrailer on Monday that is so detailed, it actually makes the movie seem interesting. While, the people behind Mad Max: Fury Road also released a trailer on Wednesday that's mostly footage from older Mad Max movies.


With summer blockbusters trying to out-smash each other, and huge Christmas tentpoles like the new Star Wars looming on the horizon, the film industry depends on trailers to do the heavy lifting for their marketing departments. Last year, the 50 Shades of Grey trailer amassed 93 million views on YouTube. Between all the trailers, trailers for trailers, trailers comprised of old movies (possibly shown as trailers themselves), it begs the question: Are we in the throes of YouTube-fueled trailer mania?

Trailer to 'Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice' (2015)

The history and evolution of trailers as we know them follows fairly close to that of movies themselves. As Filmmaker IQ describes in an article titled "History of the Movie Trailer," "1913 would be what many historians consider year zero for the movie trailer… Nils Granlund, advertising manager of Loews Theaters, made a short little promotional film for the Broadway play Pleasure Seekers showcasing actual rehearsal footage." Meanwhile, in Chicago that same year, serialized screenings of The Adventures of Kathlyn , featured "a cliffhanger often with a title card inviting patrons to come back the following week to see what happens."

That's where the term "trailer" comes from—the advertisements for more installments or new movies would trail the feature presentation. From the early days up into the 1950s, the National Screen Service produced and distributed most movie posters and trailers. Their trailers, like the classic Casablanca, featured bold text, stuffy narration, and choppy shots of action and romance. When you think of the classic, old-school trailer, you're thinking of an NSS trailer.

Trailers from past eras

As directors of movies became auteurs, the trailer evolved into an art form. David Fear, writing for the Dissolve, described Hitchcock's trailer for Psycho as a "six-and-a-half-minute trailer that offers a personal tour of the Bates Motel and that sinister-looking house on the hill, complete with Hitch's pitch-black humor and some tantalizing hints of the gruesomeness to come." He goes on to describe Kubrick's experimental trailer for Dr. Strangelove: "Minimalist black-and-white title cards featuring single words flash by, stopping only to register a scene with a word or two of dialogue from the film—"Base," "Fluids," " Coca-Cola machine"—before whizzing off to the next image."


The release of huge blockbusters in the late 1970s and 1980s brings us into the pre-internet age of trailers. These were cut like mini-movies. Braggy and bombastic, they told you everything you needed to know about all the best parts of the film.

But now, with viral marketing, teaser trailers, and tentpole trailers being tied to other movie releases, we've become increasingly addicted to trailers. And studios often force their trailers on movie theaters, as Edward Jay Epstein wrote in his piece on the economy of film: "Often, getting the coming attractions shown involves the studios 'leveraging our goodwill,' as one studio executive explained. The studios will threaten to hold back a popcorn movie, such as the new Harry Potter or Star Wars sequels, unless the chain agrees to play a full reel of trailers."

This week's onslaught of big-budget, big-name trailers got me thinking about the economy and practice of trailers. To help me understand, I spoke to professor Jehoshua Eliashberg, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

"Based on the research that I've done, it is my belief that they make too few trailers," the professor explained. "Sometimes they make only one trailer, the idea being one size fits all. But in my opinion, there is room to make more trailers because the market is fragmented and different groups are looking for different aspects that attract them to the movies. So you have to generate these attractive aspects based on the market sub-group that you go after."

Trailer to 'Star Wars: Episode VII' (2015)

His call for more trailers surprised me. What about oversaturation? Professor Eliashberg explained, "The whole idea started with [ studios classifying] a movie with a single word, such as 'drama' in the 50s and the 60s. Later they realized it was an inappropriate description of a [film]. So now you can see more and more movies with multiple genres. Which means there is more than one message that should be sent to the audience in order to give the movie a fair chance of being described."


I wanted to know what it was like to work in the trailer business, so I talked to one of the best in the field, Mark Woollen. He and his company made the above-mentioned record-breaking 50 Shades of Grey trailer and the cutting-edge Birdman trailer, among many others. He walked me through the process of trailer production.

"Typically, the studios hire agencies like ours to work on their films. There's a certain amount of footage to work with and we're coming up with ideas, sometimes we're receiving dailies and receiving hundreds of hours of film." Woollen explained that when they get the footage there's rarely any special effects, music, or sound effects added in yet, and "the movie's still being edited and still being figured out sometimes as we're having to deliver the trailer."

As we spoke, one trailer from this week's deluge kept sticking in my mind. I couldn't get over just how little they revealed in the new Batman Vs. Superman teaser, and Professor Eliashberg concurred: " Quite frankly, I don't see the logic behind [releasing a trailer with almost no information in it]. Would that make you more educated about what the movie is about? I don't think that's a good use of the money. It's part of the major flaw that I see in marketing movies."

However, Mark Woollen disagreed. "I'm always a big fan of the less is more approach," he said, "and leaving something back that you promise they'll see if they go and see the movie." Nonetheless he admits that teasers for trailers are a bit silly. "In my personal taste, the teaser for the teaser for the teaser… it 's just kind of funny," he said. "It 's something that we joked about years ago when we did a short piece, 'Oh, it's a teaser for a trailer.' But now it's real."

Woollen expounds upon the purpose of trailers, saying they should be "about information, and they should be provocative, and it's really about teasing a film." But a trailer fails when "it's not serving the movie, and certainly when it's revealing too much. That's a pretty big trailer failure."

I love watching trailers in an actual movie theater—that's when I eat the popcorn with the most butter on it—but with the constant presence of spoilers, TV spots, teasers, and add-ons, the classic trailer can get lost in the shuffle. So what does the future hold if we continue in this trailer mania? Woollen's guess is that we'll "tune in someday and watch a trailer being built frame by frame." I sure hope not. I want to save some room in my brain for the movie itself.

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