Why Are They Called Trailers?

(Last Updated On: September 13, 2022)

If you like going to the movies, there’s a good chance you’ve decided to just go later than the prescribed start time because the trailers can run for an average of 20 minutes before the movie actually starts. Not to mention all the other ads for random things, but mostly for common theater beverages or membership cards. When you give it a think, wouldn’t the word “preview” be far more fitting? They come before the movie and are literally giving you a preview of whatever is going to be in theaters… Eventually. So why are they called trailers?

The First One

You can thank The Pleasure Seekers for the first ever trailer (at least in a theater). It was turned into a movie in 1964, but when the first trailers were rolling out The Pleasure Seekers was still a musical on Broadway. The trailer was put together by a guy named Nils Granlund and used rehearsal footage of the musical to boost publicity, and it caught on very quickly. You know, since marketing is about cramming all the advertisements everywhere all the time. 

Find Out Next Time

The more traditional trailers would come about with The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913). It was an adventure serial consisting of 13 episodes, with a tie-in novel coming out a few days after the serial dropped in theaters. Eventually it would become a movie in 1916. 

Advertisements for The Adventures of Kathlyn began in theme parks, but they were mostly used at the ends of each episode to promote the next one. Thanks to a producer named william Selif, each episode would end with a cliffhanger, and an additional bit giving the audience the classic “will the bad thing that might happen, happen? Find out next week!” It’s not the same as getting an ad for a different movie at your movie, but having something play at the end of a show to get people to come back worked enough to see more widespread use rather quickly. Because these ads played at the end of each episode, they got the moniker of “trailer.” You know, since they quite literally trailed content.

The success of these trailers had studios making their own trailers in a clamor for getting people into their products. 

Ads for Ads

By the 2010s we started getting teasers built into the beginning of trailers, because studios were afraid the audience would fall asleep and stop paying attention to the advertisement. Which is really more funny than anything else, since it tells you how little faith advertisers have in people to pay attention to things–but also how little faith they have in their own stuff to keep you watching.

Anyway, the teaser and trailer format caught on really quickly, spawning companies that just wanted to make trailers–or even just the music used in trailers. Between 1940 and 1980 the National Screen Service held a monopoly on trailer distribution

As for why our trailers moved to the beginning of movies? Well you probably figured it out already. By the 1930s, consumers were catching onto the trailer ploy–and once the movie ended and trailers started rolling they realized they could just… Leave. That didn’t please the movie industry very much, and as a result they slapped trailers to the beginning of showings. By then, the name “trailer” had already stuck, though. 

See if you can identify movies by trailer audio here.



About Kyler 705 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.