Why Classic Movies Have Terrible Trailers

Like any other form of advertising, film trailers are as much a reflection of the decade's dominant marketing trends as they are the films they're selling.


Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, originally released in 1994, has aged gorgeously. It's one of those rare films that can be watched and re-watched for 20 years and remain as shocking, vivid, and irresistible as the year it was released.

The 1994 trailer, however, now seems corny and dated by comparison.

It begins with dramatic piano music and a solemn voiceover, which is interrupted by the sound of gunshots and animated bullet holes through a frame that touts the film’s Best Picture accolades at Cannes. The rest of the trailer is a haphazard montage of moments from the film, interspersed with black frames that feature single words in red typeface: "Loyalty," "Betrayal," "Crime," and so on, before revealing this hokey tagline: "You won't know the facts... until you see the fiction."

Pulp Fiction lampoons itself in a way that captures director Quentin Tarantino’s still-appealing puckishness, but the devices it uses seem old-fashioned by today's standards. But this isn’t just a particular quirk of Pulp Fiction’s promos. Watching the trailer for any classic film years after its release can be a disorienting experience. Many trailers don't hold up at all, even when their full-length film counterparts do.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, a trailer is made from pieces of the film. It's meant to encapsulate what the film is all about. And yet the narrative structure of the film trailer, as a format, seems to evolve more rapidly than the narrative structure of film.

Why is that? Ultimately, it’s because a trailer is built around the advertising ideas and dominant media of its time. In other words, a trailer is as much a product of its media environment as it is reflective of the film it’s selling.

"The trailer is the single most important piece of advertising about a movie," said CBS Films co-president Terry Press. "There's nothing else that comes close. And if you have a bad one, and people go apeshit on the Internet and don't like it, some filmmakers never recover." (Indeed, the trailer is important enough to the movie-going public that The New York Times published an interactive feature last year devoted to dissecting the trailers of new films compared with the chronology of the movies themselves—and more recently, Wired produced an entire series celebrating and analyzing our national obsession with coming attractions.)

It may seem like the Internet age has upended some long-standing traditional formula for trailers the way it has upended long-standing traditions in virtually every other form of art and entertainment. But a look back into the history of the movie trailer shows that film previews have almost always been in the process of evolving, almost always directly influenced by the pop-cultural landscapes that created them.

Coming attractions have been part of the movie-going experience for a century now. (In the early days, movie houses ran trailers after a film's conclusion rather than before a film began—they were called "trailers" because they trailed the feature film.) In the blockbuster-rich 1940s, film trailers were built around how you might sell a moving picture to a stage-going audience, or to someone listening on the radio. It was the era of "the hypersell," according to Press: "If you look at the ones in the ‘40s, there were so many movies and so many people going to movies, they were all sort of over-the-top with the copy, like, 'This is the greatest movie of the year!' They used big, giant claim-lines."

For instance, check out the trailer for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story:

The time between cuts, and the overall pacing, drags by today's standards. It runs nearly four minutes long. The tone is completely over-the-top, promising a "star-packed, laugh-laden, romantic smash." The trailer opens and closes with the title card and actors' names in lights—again, an image that evokes the stage more than the silver screen. (This makes sense, on one level: The Philadelphia Story was written as a play and proved a hit on Broadway, also starring Katharine Hepburn, before it was adapted to film.)

In the 1950s, as television came into its own, the narrative devices in film trailers mirrored what people were seeing on TV and in print, the influential media of the day. In the trailer for 1954’s Rear Window, the narrator sounds as though he could be selling toothpaste in the typical, polished-but-hyperbolic tone you'd hear in TV spots of the era. At one point (around the 1:40 mark), lead actor Jimmy Stewart breaks character to turn and address the audience about the film, looking directly into the camera—a narrative style that was a hallmark of 1950s-launched programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.

The trailer concludes with two frames that look like print ads; they're text-heavy and voiceover-free, left for the audience to read: "SEE IT! If your nerves can stand it after Psycho. And see it from the beginning of course."

Advertising tends to evolve when audiences become desensitized to whatever device is being used to lure them in. That's by design. Here's how media thinker Marshall McLuhan put it in 1977:

The concern of the advertiser is to make an effect ... He sets a trap to catch somebody's attention ... The [advertisements] we might select now as the great ads of the year would probably not get the same vote 50 years from now.

So it makes sense that after a period of hypersell in the 1940s and 1950s, film trailers entered a period of relative realism, featuring more minimalist montages in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that filmgoers saw concept trailers "not selling what the movie is” but rather “selling what they want you to think the movie is," Press said.

But the 1960s and 1970s brought remarkable contributions to the canon of American film, with masterpieces from filmmakers like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Stanley Kubrick. It’s easy to see how breathtaking motion pictures yielded trailers featuring little other than material from the films themselves. So, whereas the film trailers made in the decades before and after this period rely heavily on written copy—either a voiceover script or glowing excerpts from film reviews, for example—film trailers of the 1960s and 1970s were relatively spartan.

"I look at trailers from the '60s, and they're true to what the movie is," Press said.

Watch the trailer for 1967’s The Graduate, and you'll see what she means.

It's long enough to include some of the most iconic shots of the film—Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock framed by the crook of Mrs. Robinson's knee, and the disruptive wedding scene from the film's climax, for example. The latter might seem excessive for a preview—it’s a scene that reveals plot points a viewer might not want to know before watching the story unfold.

Today, avoiding spoilers is a luxury. They're everywhere, and the immediacy of Internet discourse makes them hard to evade. But audiences have actually been lamenting spoilers for more than 70 years. The New York Times wrote in 1938 that moviegoers resented trailers "because they sometimes give practically the entire storyline and are bubbling over with superlatives about the new film."

Directors are sometimes resistant to showcasing a film’s best material in the trailer, but often winds up in the trailer anyways because it helps convince audiences to see the film. Some of the best-known lines from film classics are the ones that were sold to us first in previews, including, "We're going to need a bigger boat," (Jaws, 1975); "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," (Chinatown, 1974); and "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" (The Graduate, 1967).

The Graduate's original trailer also features music from the film's legendary soundtrack, and the trailer is voiceover-free—which helps it better retain the feeling of the film. And like other trailers of its time, it's long. One YouTube comment:

this is a trailer? more like the movie in 3 and half minutes.

Film trailers were so lengthy in those days because they could be. Today, there are restrictions on how long and how loud trailers can be: The Motion Picture Association of America regulates the latter, but the MPAA's Marilyn Gordon said in an email that trailer length is "determined through conversations between the distribution companies and the exhibitors."

But the defining characteristic of film trailers today has nothing to do with length or noise. Contemporary film trailers are notable for how distant they are from one another, stylistically and in distribution.

"You see a trailer for a Michael Bay film, and the movies themselves are more like fireworks than they are like narratives," said Richard Abramowitz, a producer and founder of distribution company Abramorama. "There are explosives, colors, action, quick cutting. The focus is on spectacle rather than story or character. On the other hand, if you see a trailer for a movie like Enough Said, where the film is about character and the dialogue is essential, you'll see an emphasis on character and dialogue."

And many filmmakers have finally learned to "show, not tell" in recent decades, Abramowitz says. It's why old taglines seem so unnecessary today. (For example, "Breakfast at Tiffany's: It's delicious!" and "Jaws: See it before you go swimming,” might have been scrapped had these films been released today.) Other devices—like starting a trailer with "in a world"—go out of fashion because they're repeated to the point of parody.

These distinctions have a lot to do with production and they have everything to do with dissemination. Films today are promoted everywhere and all the time. People watch trailers on-demand online; trailers are even recut and extended for this purpose. Horror films routinely set up street-level guerrilla marketing campaigns. For instance, a robotic demon baby has been terrorizing pedestrians in New York City this month as part of the marketing campaign for the film Devil’s Due.

But the curious thing about the film trailer is that, while the Internet has certainly changed the way consumers view it, it's long had a format that seemed custom-built for Internet sensibilities.

"Trailers inherently lend themselves to online viewing and to the new viewing habits because with a trailer, you have to capture someone's interest immediately," Abramowitz said. "It has to be short. And if you don't start out with a bang, you're going to lose interest."

Trailers have also long been optimized to reach their target audiences. It's why if you see a Batman flick in the theater, you'll be inundated with trailers for similarly action-packed films. But the Internet has effectively niche-ified audiences, swapping out broad genres like "action," "drama" and "romantic comedy," in favor of the granularity Netflix suggests—titles with "a strong female lead," or "visually striking gritty movies." Films are defined not just by their own features, then, but also by the qualities that resonate with the audiences who watch them.

Filmmakers are now targeting super-specific audiences to the point that a trailer might be a nearly dialogue-free montage set to the music of a band with the kind of fans the filmmaker hopes to attract. The trailer for last year’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for example, was almost entirely Of Monsters and Men music and just a quick blurb of dialogue.

A similar example is the trailer for Sofia Coppola's 2010 film Somewhere:

If you're someone who already knows she loves both Coppola's aesthetic style and Julian Casablanca's voice, the trailer has overwhelming appeal. But there's potential danger in this kind of approach for the person trying to decide whether to see a film, since the story—the aspect that's most abstract in the trailer—may not actually hold up. (I watched the trailer for Somewhere maybe a dozen times anticipating its release, only to be disappointed after seeing the film.)

"It happens all the time," Press said. "It's a consumer's biggest complaint: 'The trailer made me want to see the movie, and I got there, and the movie's terrible.’"

But there's a way to be smarter about how we watch trailers, if you start thinking critically about the narrative scaffolding behind them. The structure changes over time, but is easy to spot once you've identified a given style in any era. There are dozens of examples on YouTube of trailers recut to make a horror film seem like a comedy, or vice versa. Here's When Harry Met Sally re-cut as a horror film:

And The Shining recut as a romantic comedy:

"There's a grammar to them," Press said. "So let's talk about mid-range drama: You have scene-scene-scene-scene, then usually some familiar song that you already feel good about. If you've ever sat in a movie theater and watched 12 of them in a row, they all have a montage at the end with a crescendo of music. You become acclimated to that grammar."

The most compelling thing to watch for, Press says, is the trailer that breaks from convention. One of those most memorable examples in recent movie history is a fitting one, 2010’s The Social Network—a movie about the birth of a digital environment that has changed the way trailers are viewed.

"I remember David Fincher did this thing for Social Network where it was so not the grammar that people were used to," Press said. "It was kind of like a Facebook ad at first. People didn't know what to make of it. I always pay attention to those ones."

A good, surprising trailer, then, is just like everything else in life, she said: "If you don't recognize it, it's kind of exciting.”