Coming Attractions

By Kirk Honeycutt

“Coming Attractions” is the most exciting, magnificent, super-colossal, awe-inspiring, heartwarming, blood-stirring movie ever made!!! Sorry, I think I’ve been looking at too many movie trailers.

Well, try out this honest hyperbole: Nothing has sold more movies to the American public, going back to the birth of the medium, than the movie trailer. “Attractions” is a one-of-a-kind documentary about the history and methodology of making trailers, produced by the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation. Strictly speaking, this is an archival and educational film. Legal clearance makes showing the film in theaters or on television far too expensive. Which is a pity since the movie’s entertainment value is every bit as high as its instructional value.
But then, why should we be surprised? Here is a movie that draws upon some of the most entertaining shorts ever exhibited in movie houses — a vast array of coming attractions dating back to the silent era. The film made a rare public appearance Tuesday at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater. The screening celebrated a donation of $750,000 by the foundation to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to expand its media marketing curriculum.

Smoothly hosted by The Hollywood Reporter’s Robert Osborne, the film is smartly divided into two parts. The first deals with the development of movie advertising from the days of Thomas Edison through the late ’50s. The second half deals with the reinvention of the trailer along with the introduction of nonlinear digital editing, then concludes with a brief primer on how trailers are made.

As the word might suggest, “trailers” were originally shown after a movie program to advertise upcoming attractions. These were text-only advertisements. The first trailer we would recognize as such, the “Animated Herald” or scene trailer, emerged around 1915. Paramount was the first studio to make trailers for its own films on separate reels that were shown before the main program. The year 1919 saw the formation of the National Screen Service, the now almost forgotten company that held a virtual monopoly on trailers and movie advertising for more than 40 years.

The trailers of the ’30s, ’40s and into the ’50s were extravaganzas of editing and hyperbole. Critic-historian Leonard Maltin cites the trailer for “Ben-Hur” as the most overstated ever. After watching it, few would disagree. One type of trailer that emerged then was the “hosted” trailer, in which an actor appearing in character or a name director such as Cecil B. DeMille or Alfred Hitchcock walked an audience through an upcoming movie. The optical printer, invented in 1933, ushered in visual effects such as wipes and dissolves that we now associate with that “golden era” of movie trailers.

But the formula of con and kitsch grew tired by the ’60s and ill-fit the more cutting-edge kinds of films coming out of Hollywood. The three pioneers of the new movie trailer were Saul Bass, who introduced graphic design and the key art concept to “The Man With the Golden Arm”; Pablo Ferro, whose trailer for “Dr. Strangelove” brought Madison Avenue slickness to the fore; and, of course, Andy Kuehn, whose trailer for “The Night of the Iguana” still hits viewers with its shock edits. Today, the Avid has further revolutionized trailers, making the editing process vastly more liquid.

“Attractions” doesn’t shy away from contemporary controversies: The “fire all the guns” approach has resulted in too many look-alike trailers. Many other trailers give away too much story. And market research often dictates how to make trailers, which doesn’t sit well with trailer makers. The film barely has time to do more than hint at the future that looms with the Internet and with video games, which are now major clients for trailer makers.

Written by Frederick L. Greene and directed by Michael J. Shapiro, “Coming Attractions” packs a lot of information into 128 minutes. (Jeff Werner directed Osborne as well as directing and editing “The Making of a Trailer” sequence.) But this is information that brings a smile to our faces. Which befits any movie starring Moses, King Kong, Hitchcock, Godzilla, Gable and Colbert, Taylor and Burton and a cast of thousands.

Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation
Director/editorial supervisor: Michael J. Shapiro
Writer: Frederick L. Greene
Additional written material: Scott McIsaac
Producer: Stephen J. Netburn
Executive producer: Will Gorges
Photographers: Jose Luis Mignone, Bruce Schultz, Edgar Llamas, Eric Engler
Editor: Dirk Meenen
Host/narrator: Robert Osborne
No MPAA rating
Running time — 128 minutes

Copyright 2005 The Hollywood Reporter