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A History of Movie Trailers Reveals How Filmmakers Have Made Marketing Part of Their Art

A History of Movie Trailers

At the Dissolve today, my colleague (and occasional Time Out New York editor) David Fear has a great piece on the history of movie trailers, which of course doubles as a history of movies themselves. It begins with the seven-minute come-on for 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which like the film itself often stops dead to present the then-astonishing spectacle of a man speaking aloud, and winds up the decidedly more oblique pitch for Cloverfield, which obscured not only the movie’s premise but its title. It’s easy to feel that trailer-mania has gotten out of control, especially when merely revealing the logo for an upcoming superhero film can send fans into paroxysms of excitement. But it’s interesting to note how many of the trailers Fear cites — at least half, by my count — were masterminded by the films’ directors themselves. Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic Psycho ad was a masterful exercise in building anticipation (and the Master of Suspense’s personal brand) without showing so much as a frame from the actual film. The trailers for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and The Shining are the work of a director who was famously controlling about how much, or how little, information about his films was released beforehand — you might call him the first spoiler obsessive — conveying a tantalizing sense of mood while keeping the films themselves a mystery. The more recent Independence Day and Cloverfield take a money shot-driven approach, but the former is overstuffed where the latter is coy; the first makes you feel like you’ve already seen Independence Day, where the second leaves you unsure what you’ve seen.

J.J. Abrams, the guiding light behind Cloverfield‘s trailer, is a modern master of stoking fans’ anticipation; given the mixed reaction to his finished products, you might say the advance campaign is his medium par excellence. What’s apparent looking over eight-plus decades’ worth of clips is how the best directors have often taken an active hand in their own marketing, essentially treating pre-release advertising as an overture to the film itself. One of the reasons Shane Carruth insisted on self-distributing Upstream Color was so he could exercise control over every aspect of its release, which included leading, over his publicist’s objections, with an photo of a glass of ice water and a dog-eared book — a quizzical image that only acquires meaning after you’ve seen the film. Wes Anderson’s trailers, like the recently released one for next year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, are as unmistakably his as any of his movies. The skills that make a great filmmaker and a great self-promoter are not one and the same — don’t hold your breath waiting for Kelly Reichardt to up her Klout score — but there’s no escaping the extent to which trailers and other forms of promotion can influence, either by enhancing or warping, the way a film is received. 

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