ODAY'S film previews aren't what they used to be. Recent promotions for "Jack the Bear," "Point of No Return," and "Born Yesterday" reveal so much of the plot that few surprises are left for the viewer. Other trailers have been downright deceptive. Those for "Crush" and "Indecent Proposal" hint at explicit sex scenes, but the films contain tame love scenes and mere snippets of nudity.
Steve Martin summed up these practices in the preview he made for "The Jerk": "We made this preview of coming attractions," he told the audience, smiling out from the screen. "We took the best stuff from the picture and stuck it all on one reel. They're gonna think this picture's loaded. We even got stuff from other movies on it. By the time folks figure that one out, we're going to have their money, and we'll be in the Bahamas!"
"Trailers have a mind of their own," says George Suski, a Hollywood-based independent filmmaker, a veteran of more than 20 years in trailer-making ("Lilies of the Field," "Doctor No," "Halloween," "An American Werewolf in London"). "They were originally designed to tease audiences to come to the film. They told you just enough to get you interested.
"But somewhere along the line it was decided to show you more and more. Now trailers are longer; they are more expensive and more explicit," Mr. Suski says.
The history of the "coming attraction" is as old as the history of the movies themselves. The term "trailer" derives from the silent days. Lantern slides of coming attractions were projected after the main feature. In the late 1920s with the advent of the talking picture, short "teasers," as they came to be called, preceded the bill.
Dominating the business was National Screen Service, a New York-based company under the aegis of its president, Herman Robinson, and its producer, the legendary Max Weinberg.
The "golden age" of National Screen spanned the late 1920s through the '50s, precisely those decades when the vertically integrated studios in Hollywood controlled the majority of commercial film production, distribution, and exhibition. There was nothing timid about these promotions. The adjectives and superlatives - usually in capital letters - cannonaded off the silver screen.
About the 1927 "Ben Hur": "Lavish Grandeur. Daring Gorgeousness. Three Years in the Making. Magnificent Majesty." "Dinner at Eight" boasted: "The Most Glamorous Production of All Time." A horror film called "Devil Doll" proclaimed: "The Strangest Story the Screen Has Ever Known." And "Gone with the Wind" reserved for itself the most hyperbolic enticement of all: "THE MOST EAGERLY AWAITED PICTURE IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ENTERTAINMENT."
Historians know that trailers are often valuable barometric readings of the social attitudes of the day. There were the racist crudities of the 1943 "Bataan" ("Out of the Eerie Depths of a Jap-Ridden Hell!") and the sexist titles accompanying virtually every 1950s monster movie ("See Martian Monsters Abduct Luscious Lovelies!"). And, there were the promises of "Thousands of Milling Extras" in the 1950s intended to lure viewers away from their newfangled television sets.
Rare indeed was a preview that was as modest as that which preceded Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane": "It's a coming attraction. At least, it's coming to this theater, and we hope it's an attraction!"
As the studios lost their monolithic power in the 1960s and the independent film companies appeared, so too did the hegemony of National Screen gradually yielded to independent companies like Kaleidoscope Films, the Kanew Company, and Seineger Bloom Productions.
Consequently, the face of trailers began to change. Kaleidoscope's Andrew Kuehn, "The King of the Coming Attraction," produced the groundbreaking trailer for "The Night of the Iguana" in 1964. It was virtually an original product, made independently of the movie itself, with new scenes, music, and narrative (James Earl Jones). Screen Magazine praised it as the first sophisticated advertisement of an American movie.
Kaleidoscope's trailers for "Jaws," "Star Wars," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," were supercharged with flash cutting, graphic images, and percussive sound. The tag line that really sold "Jaws 2" - "Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back into the Water" - first appeared in the Kaleidoscope trailer.
Kaleidoscope's trailer for "Superman," on the other hand, revealed very little. It generated great excitement by depicting little more than cloudscapes and graphics.
"The `Superman' trailer is already a legend," George Suski says, "but, you know, they did it that way because they didn't have any footage from the movie to work with! Besides, they could afford to be subtle because the name `Superman' was already recognizable all over the world. But there's nothing worse than a subtle trailer if there are no stars in it!"
SUSKI, who used to bring in trailers for a total cost of $1,500 back in the 1960s, says that now the lengths and the budgets for these "mini-movies" are greatly inflated.
"Trailers can be as long as four minutes now and can cost as much as a low-budget feature. You hear the stories: that [Steven] Spielberg's trailer for "1941" cost almost $400,000.
"There's talk right now that the preview for [Arnold] Schwarzenegger's new movie, "The Last Action Hero," will cost somewhere in the vicinity of $800,000, although Columbia denies it.
"More and more, the studios are realizing that trailers are their major advertising medium. So they are spending more money and using more talent. If you look at them apart from the features they promote, you realize that they are complete in themselves. They are an art form. They have always been an art form. People are only now catching up with that," Suski says.
Meanwhile, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Ratings Code is keeping a close watch on today's trailers. They are still shackled to the MPAA "G" rating, no matter how salacious or violent or "adult" the product is that they promote. "You can't have nudity in a trailer, or profanity," says John Bloom of Seineger Bloom Productions, "and there's a rule about not having the victim and weapon in the same frame - and no blood."
Inevitably, this creates problems. The trailer to Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" depicted a river of blood pouring out of a hotel elevator. The MPAA questioned Warner Brothers about the blood and was told it was just "rusty water." However, when the trailers went out to the theaters, there was such an outcry from viewers that the MPAA demanded their recall.
In the final analysis, perhaps it's the movies that are betraying the trailers, and not the other way around.