Coming Attractions: Who Picks the Movie Trailers We See?

By: Dylan Ris  | 
coming soon poster
It's not your imagination: Theaters show more movie trailers than they used to. iQoncept/Shutterstock

When you think of going to the movies, what comes to mind? Presumably the feature film, of course, and perhaps some intimidatingly large vessels of popcorn. Another thing that you may automatically associate with movie theaters is movie trailers. In fact, some people have been known to go to movie theaters for the trailers themselves.

Moviegoers know they'll be seeing trailers before their film, but few know about the sophisticated process that determines exactly what trailers they'll be shown. The formula for selecting trailers has many inputs and it goes deeper than many people realize.


How Did Movie Trailers Get Started?

Movie trailers are nearly as old as movies themselves. The first trailer to accompany a motion picture dates back to 1913, when marketer Nils Granlund cut together rehearsal footage of a forthcoming Broadway musical and used it to push ticket sales. A year later, Granlund created a trailer promoting an actual movie (starring Charlie Chaplin) as opposed to a live show.

Granlund's creations differed from contemporary trailers. For one thing, they were screened after the feature film, not before. That's why they're called trailers: they originally trailed the feature! Before long, theater owners realized it made more sense to show trailers before feature films – and not when folks were exiting the theater – but the original name stuck.


Early movie trailers served a utilitarian purpose, and they were traditionally made with readily available footage. Today's trailers can be large productions in their own right and some people have argued that they're about as entertaining as the movies themselves. There are even fan communities that debate which trailers were better than the movie they previewed, or which movie trailers were completely misleading.

Why Do Some Movies Have More Trailers Than Others?

Whether you love movie trailers or hate them, it's a given that your movie theater experience will involve watching several. But who decides which ones you'll see? Is it the theater owner? The film studios? The answer is both.

Film studios traditionally stipulate that theater owners have to screen certain trailers in order to get the rights to screen certain films. So, the theater that's showing the latest "Star Wars" installment might also have to show trailers for a few forthcoming Disney properties, as the studio that produces "Star Wars" is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios. The exact rules depend on the feature being shown. Big franchise films might come with more strings attached than an art house flick.


The other deciding party is the theater owners. Just as they choose which movies they want to screen at their facilities, they also decide how many trailers will be shown before a feature. On rare occasions, you might see one single trailer. Many national theater chains show five to eight trailers before a feature, a number that surveyed audiences feel is too high. Once the theater owners have shown the requisite previews required by the studios, they can choose the remaining trailers. The big chains may show all sorts of trailers, while independent theaters specifically promote films they plan to screen in the future.

The movies that have the most trailers are often the ones that draw the biggest audiences. A lot of people go to see big franchise films and comic book movies. Those tend to be the films with the greatest number of pre-show trailers. Meanwhile, a foreign language film in an art house cinema might not have any trailers at all.


What Factors Are Used When Pairing Trailers With Movies?

green-band trailer
A green-band trailer is always the color green and indicates that the preview is suitable for all ages. Motion Picture Association/Wikipedia

On the simplest level, studios and theater owners try to pair trailers with the audience who'd presumably go see their associated film. They often use something known as a "quadrant system" that divides cinema audiences into four groups: women under 25, men under 25, women over 25 and men over 25. (This system may have internally evolved to also represent other forms of gender identity.) Trailers are matched with the quadrants they presume are in the theater watching them.

For instance, an animated film with a G-rating is going to have plenty of viewers under 25, but most will be there with their parents, who might be interested in some adult content. Of course, none of that adult content should be inappropriate for young viewers, so this will preclude certain trailers intended for the "over 25" crowd. Ultimately, theater owners don't know as much about the people in their seats as streaming services might know about the person on the couch. That's one reason why they divide their audiences into such broad quadrants.


Just as movies have audience ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), so too do trailers. You can tell the rating of a trailer by the color of the screen that comes at the beginning. A "green-band" trailer is deemed appropriate for all audiences; you'll see these before all types of films. A "red-band" trailer is intended for "mature audiences only," and these may feature the same kind of edgy content you'd see in an R-rated movie.

It's up to theater owners to decide what types of trailers their audiences see. (Generally you would see a red-band trailer only if you were going to an R-rated movie.) If they have a policy against red-band trailers, studios will typically furnish them with green-band alternatives. This doesn't mean that audiences have to be shut out from seeing these red-band trailers if they really want to. Thanks to YouTube and numerous video streaming sites, they're only an internet connection away.


Do Production Companies Pay to Show Their Trailers Before Movies?

Traditionally production companies do not pay to show trailers before movies. Rather, producers and theaters benefit from an exchange of services. Theaters get to screen their chosen feature films, and in return producers and studios get to show their chosen trailers. (Theater owners traditionally don't pay a studio to show a movie. They set up a deal where at the end of its run in the theater, they split the ticket revenue with the movie studio.)

However, this system has shown cracks in the past decade, with some theaters now openly charging studios to screen their trailers. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that it was "common knowledge" that most of the big movie houses have deals worth millions with the major theater chains that allow them to show several trailers before movies and to get better placement for them. (The best place for a trailer is the last spot, just before the movie starts.)


The industry tends to be close-lipped about what transactions do or do not take place, but it seems more likely that smaller theater chains or independent houses don't have the leverage to be able to charge for trailers the way larger chains might.