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Why is a trailer called a "trailer"? (1 Viewer)

Nick Pudar

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Interesting question that I never thought to ask before. I receive a newsletter that explores the linguistic origins of words and phrases, and this appeared in the Q&A section today:

Q. The previews of coming attractions in movie theaters are generally called "trailers", a term I have known from my childhood in the late 1930s. Why should they be called that? They do not trail behind the shows they are advertising; and (at least today) they invariably precede the main feature.

A. An intriguing question, and one which needs a little delving into the history of the cinema to answer. I have seen it argued in all seriousness that a movie "trailer" is analogous to the scent trail of a drag race, so trailing an advertisement before the audience in the expectation (or, at least, the hope) that it will be followed. But the real story is less fanciful. Back in the days when most film programmes were presented as double features, the piece of film advertising a forthcoming attraction was originally attached by the cinema projectionist to the end of the reel that contained the B feature or supporting film, so that it was shown between it and the main feature - so trailing the supporting film. These days, as you say, when cinemas usually show just the one feature film, the advertisements for forthcoming attractions have to be run before it to ensure a captive audience, so making the name puzzlingly inaccurate. It's more of a technological fossil than a linguistic one.
Seems like a reasonable response that makes sense. Does anyone have any other explanations?

Nick
 

Kelly W

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I think that's the right explanation. I knew it had to do with the fact that they used to come AFTER the feature (I never really thought about whether the film was "supporting" or whatever).
Even on old VHS cassettes, the previews came after the movie. And I don't mean that there was a screen that said, "Stay tuned after the movie for such and such." It was just standard practice that when the movie credits were over, the previews began (they "trailed" the feature). But I suspect that by now, any tapes that old have deteriorated too far to be watchable. :)
-Kelly
 

Kevin M

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Kevin Ray
Yes, in the older days of cinema the previews came after the feature. The name just stuck.
 

Joseph DeMartino

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Yes, in the older days of cinema the previews came after the feature.
No, as noted above they came after the first film of a double bill, the "B" picture, which itself came after the newsreels and cartoons. They came before the actual "feature" presentation, which was always the "A" picture. In cases where there was no "B" picture, the previews of coming attractions would be attached to the reel holding the newsreel and/or cartoons, and therefore still be a "trailer". When newsreels, cartoons and "B" pictures were eliminated from the theatrical film experience the previews stayed just where they had always been, immediately before the main feature, but retained their old (and now obsolete) name.

Regards,

Joe
 

Jack Briggs

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Entertaining. I'm waiting for guests, and I am going to start the evening with ... trailers.
 

andrew markworthy

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I always thought it made linguistic sense! I thought it meant that the trailers were 'trailed' (i.e. pulled along by) the main feature. However, the explanation offered seems far more sensible.

It depresses me I can remember double features being the norm when I was a kid, and then it degenerated into the main feature preceded by a short film which was so dire that nobody wanted to see it (my 'favourite' was a documentary on the Isle of Man motorcyle race which succeded in making the sport look dull, even from the on-bike camera views). This persisted until about 15-20 years ago, at least in the UK. Anyone remember that the animated half hour film 'The Snowman' (the perennial favourite of UK Christmas TV schedules) was originally intended as the short film accompanying ET? If I remember correctly, it got pulled because it was felt the plots were a bit too similar in feel.
 

Kevin M

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Kevin Ray
No, as noted above they came after the first film of a double bill, the "B" picture, which itself came after the newsreels and cartoons.
In cases where there was no "B" picture, the previews of coming attractions would be attached to the reel holding the newsreel and/or cartoons, and therefore still be a "trailer".
Yes, but not always. On some "A" features (according to the Fox Theater pamphlet that I have, they had for a time in St.Louis been hosting "Nostalgia Night At The Fox" where they would have the entire night's programing set up just as it would have been at the time of the Main Features release) the coming attractions often followed the Main feature which was preceded with various shorts and/or toons, it really depended on the theater's management at the time. Again this is according to a pamphlet from back in 1987.
 

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