Richard J. Leskosky | Coming soon: A film trailer near you

Richard J. Leskosky | Coming soon: A film trailer near you

You probably wouldn't say you particularly like watching commercials, except perhaps for the advertising extravaganzas shown each year during the Super Bowl. But there is one sort of commercial that most people enjoy and even seek out — the movie trailer or preview.

Movie studios have used trailers to promote their films for more than a hundred years now. They're called "trailers" because originally they were attached at the end of motion picture reels. In 1919, studios began shipping them on a separate reel, and they came to be shown at the beginning of the program — where audiences would be more likely to watch them and pay attention.

In those early days, a film's director or editor would have crafted its preview, and the studio would have charged exhibitors for trailer reels. Now they're sent free to theaters, often already attached to feature films, and the directors and editors of the features they promote generally no longer participate in their production (Stanley Kubrick was a notable exception). Instead, the major Hollywood studios maintain their own in-house trailer production units, and some 20 independent companies specialize in the making of such previews.

Trailers are the most effective way to generate interest in an upcoming film. Studios exploit that by releasing them also online (most notably, on IMDb, the studio's website and the individual films' web pages). For more expensive productions or films where potential audiences might need more information, studios will issue a series of trailers, beginning with a "teaser" with minimal information a year or more before the film's scheduled release.

As a production continues filming, more footage becomes available for trailers, but because they are generally made before the film's final editing, you might see scenes in the preview which ultimately do not make it onto the screen or else an alternate take of a scene which does appear in the final release.

Over their century on the screen, trailers have evolved, and different styles have come and gone. The earliest previews consisted mostly of a scene from the feature. Then they began focusing on the actors starring in them. The invention of optical printers allowed preview makers to splash laudatory printed phrases across the screen. Voiceover narration contextualizing and praising the scenes it accompanied became popular (so many trailers began with the late voiceover actor Don LaFontaine's baritone "In a world ..." that the phrase became a cliché, a joke and then an object of Hollywood nostalgia).

To sell their feature (the purpose of their existence), previews have to hook potential viewers with a good story. But that story might not necessarily be the story the feature tells. Besides not having access to all the footage shot, the preview maker may see something else in the material and emphasize different aspects from what the feature's director and editor might intend. The preview for "Terms of Endearment" (1975), for example, made the multi-Oscar-winning family drama look more like a comedy by omitting virtually any indication of its multiple marital infidelities and one of the main characters dying of cancer.

Though ancillary works of art by their very nature, some previews have achieved classic status of their own. In a six-and-a-half-minute trailer for "Psycho," director Alfred Hitchcock gave viewers a tour of the Bates Motel and home, hinting at the horrors perpetrated there with the same wry, sardonic delivery he used in his television series' introductions and bumpers. And the trailer for "Jaws," at Steven Spielberg's insistence, rather than showing the Great White, instead described in voiceover its predatory nature while the camera gave the audience a shark's eye view gliding through off-shore waters and up to the swimmer who was its first victim.

Current previews display several contrasting approaches. The "Breakthrough" trailer tells the film's whole plot: A boy falls through the ice into a frigid lake and drowns but then miraculously revives and recovers with no significant damage. It also includes traces of the film's emphasis on the religious faith of the boy's mother (Chrissy Metz) and their pastor's (Topher Grace) moral support. The preview for "Mr. Link," the puppet animation feature about a British cryptozoologist (Hugh Jackman) helping a Bigfoot (Zach Galifianakis) find possible relatives in the Himalayas, conveys the humor of the film perhaps too well — about 80 percent of its verbal and physical gags show up in the trailer.

The trailer for "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum" doesn't bother with plot. It assures you that Wick (Keanu Reeves) uses a lot of guns (and a sword or two) and Halle Berry is in the film as well — also using several guns. What more do you need to know?

The previews for "Avengers: Endgame" have embodied a different trend unique so far to Marvel productions — namely, being deliberately misleading to keep fans guessing about the actual content of the film and to preserve the film's surprises. They include scenes that do not appear in the film, but more significantly some scenes have had important elements removed to conceal major developments. Vigilant fans lit up the internet with theories when they noticed that a couple of group shots seemed to have empty spaces where there might logically be someone standing or walking. I'm not aware that anyone guessed correctly what was going on, but it certainly helped maintain an intense buzz over the film.

Previews for "Avengers: Infinity War" conversely included a shot of the heroes charging into battle en masse which included a character or two not actually in the corresponding scene in the film. Marvel/Disney will no doubt continue this practice, and it will be interesting to see whether other studios making superhero films will follow suit.

The Golden Trailer Awards honor achievements in trailers, credit sequences, and posters, including the Dan LaFontaine Award for Best Voiceover, the Golden Fleece (best trailer for a bad film), and Trashiest Trailer. The 20th Annual Golden Trailer Awards ceremony will stream Wednesday, May 29. More information is available at

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at

Topics (1):Film