Trailer Trash


Nearly 100 years ago, a theater manager named Nils Granlun made a small promotional film to highlight a feature film opening the following week. It was the first, of what we now call, trailer. It was November 1913 when Nils ran his coming attraction. It ran after the main feature and was simply called ‘a trailer’. Exhibitors quickly learned two things. First the trailer was an effective marketing tool and secondly, running them after the film was not a good idea. People left and didn’t see them. They moved them to the front of features, but the name ‘trailer’ stuck. Now 99 years later critics are calling trailers, trash advertising.

Over the century of film making, trailers have changed with the times. Look at a trailer from the 40s, then one from the 50s, then one from the 60 and then one from this year and you can see the difference of taste, style, impact. Today too many trailers expose a 2 minute hyped up, quick edited version of the film. It usually gives away everything. Today’s trailers are not only for theaters but also for the internet. Last year, 10-billion video trailers were watched, ranking it #3, after news and user-created video as the most watched form of content.

The reason critics are calling trailers trash advertising is what is happening in theaters today. Distributors, aka studios, and exhibitors, aka movie theater owners, are getting awfully cozy about trailers, but haven’t let on why. These days, especially in big chains, more and more theaters are being paid to show more and more trailers. Yep, that’s right, the studios are paying the movie theaters cash incentives to show their trailers. This may help explain the butt numbing number of them splashing on the screen prior to the latest paint-by-numbers action film or estrogen fueled chick flick.

There are very few rules governing the use of trailers. The MPAA, the folks who give us those wonderful ratings, have decreed from high on up, that trailers should not exceed two minutes, thirty seconds. There is one exception to that rule. Studios can select one film a year to run 4 minutes. Other than that, there isn’t much stopping studios from doing anything they want.

The deals between studios and theaters may vary. It may be a direct buy. It be a trade or swap. In 2009, the estimated revenue to theatres directly or indirectly was $30 billion. Of course, knowing Hollywood’s expertise at creative accounting, even that number is suspect. The arrangement can take various forms. It can be lower film rentals on certain films, more promotions involving the theater but paid for by the distributor, a straight cash deal or more money in advertising. Most theaters will opt for any combination of these, but the basic premise makes both sides happy.

Even as we trash talk this practice, studios are now looking at lobbies as the next frontier. They see them as real estate. They are considering renting space from the movie theaters and doing promotions there as well. For exhibitors this is found money. They have been taking it on the chin from the studios for years. Today’s films are front loaded. The average film makes nearly 70% of its total revenue in the first week. It makes it tough for the movie theater owner to make ends meet. On top of that the average amount of film rental demanded by the studios has been creeping up. The practice known as ‘aggregates’ has aggravated the theater’s financial distress, but that is a different tale.

The practice of selling screen space for trailers offers a disturbing question. Are these trailers appropriate for kids? Consider this, a very popular PG film has that studio’s next film as a trailer before the film plays. It looks like a kids film, but it may PG13 or even R. If money is the key factor in running a trailer, will inappropriate trailers entice younger audiences to desire seeing a film? Probably.

Agree or disagree, there is one thing certain, we should be wary consumers. Trailers aren’t what they used to be. They are quickly becoming trashy advertising.

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