Why Movie Previews are Called Trailers

Daniel Ganninger
February 2, 2023
A movie projector

Sometimes the best part about going to the movie theater is watching the previews of upcoming movies, but these previews are commonly referred to as “trailers.” Knowing the meaning of the word “trailer,” it becomes obvious that these previews don’t match where they’re supposed to be. The answer is rather simple and comes back to how previews of movies got their start.

A trailer of a movie is likely the first glimpse of a new film you’ll see, and it largely determines if you would be interested in watching the movie. They’re often filled with gripping scenes and dramatic voice-overs that are there to entice us to want to buy a ticket to see the movie. The same concept was in place the first time a trailer for a movie was shown, but in this case, it happened to come after a movie was finished, hence the term “trailer.”

In the first movie theaters in the 1900s, there wasn’t much choice in what movie a patron was going to see. A movie would show on one screen, and there would be a set of cartoons before it showed again. Things changed in 1912 when an advertising manager named Nils Granlund made one of the first trailers for theaters owned by Marcus Loew (the namesake of the current theater chain). The piece of film was one-minute long for a Broadway show called The Pleasure Seekers, and the clip was shown after the movie. But Granlund wasn’t the only one with this idea.

In the same year in Chicago, William Selig was making print serial films, which were films of different episodes that told a story. As a teaser, Selig showed a snippet of the next installment after the other short movie was over. The first time a reference to these clips being used was a mention in a Los Angeles Times article by a Paramount executive named Lou Harris in an interview in 1966 when he was talking about the clip of one of Selig’s serials. After the movie had been shown at a New York amusement park, the executive noted there was a “trailed” bit of film that told about the next week’s exciting episode. This is what became known as a trailer.

This method of showing an upcoming release after the main feature in a theater began to become popular, and the movie studios started to make their own trailers around 1916. The first mention of these pieces of film officially as “trailers” came from an article in the New York Times in 1917 which talked about how the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry was sending trailers to movie theaters so they could be attached to the end of the feature films they were currently showing.

Many of these early official trailers by the studios had the same format that is used today; important eye-catching scenes from the movie while using dramatic voice-overs and text. Trailers seemed to get their name from where the extra piece of film was placed, which “trailed” the main feature. In the case of serials, it only made sense to put it after the main episode since this was what enticed people to come back to the theater to see the next episode the following week.

The trailer was also a tool to clear audiences out of the theater since movies that ran were shown in a loop, and patrons could simply stay for as long as they liked. For some people arriving at the theater, it appeared as if they were watching a clip about an upcoming movie before their main feature. This was because of the continuous loop of movies that were shown even though the trailer was placed after the main feature.

At some point, someone figured out that more people were more likely to see a clip about an upcoming attraction if it was placed before the main feature began. This became the preview set in the spot we know today, but the industry term for this type of movie clip continues to be referred to as a trailer.

Sources: Straight Dope, Priceonomics, Word Origins