Trailers Before Trailers: Inside One Of Hollywood's Biggest Trends And How It Might Evolve

If you're the kind of person who seeks out movie trailers when they debut online instead of passively watching them when you happen to be at a theater, you've likely noticed a trend that's become increasingly prevalent over the past year or two: three-to-five second mini-trailers, featuring snippets of what you're about to see in the full trailer, are being tacked on to the beginning of full-length trailers on sites like YouTube and Facebook. Call these things what you like – trailers before trailers, pre-trailers, or the industry-preferred term "bumpers" – but they have been annoying me and many of my colleagues for a while now, and since absolutely nothing else of any importance is going on in our country at the moment, I figured this was worth exploring further.

I first noticed this trend about a year ago and quietly hoped the practice would stop, but since I've only seen it grow in popularity over the past few months, I decided to reach out to some key players at the studios and some of the world's top trailer editing companies to learn more about these bumpers, find out why they came about in the first place, and see how they might evolve in the future.

Blame the Millennials

"The whole idea behind the trend really has to do with the millennial generation and their lack of attention," says Kazadi Katambwa, a producer at Buddha Jones, an advertising firm who crafted trailers for films like Wonder Woman, It, and Dunkirk. "If you notice, all the bumpers are five seconds long. Green bands in front of a trailer are [also] five seconds long. So what they discovered is that when people see the green band, they check out. So those bumpers are really just to keep people on until the main event, if you will."

Katambwa points out that the creation of bumpers was a reactionary measure taken by studios. "As far as the research went, it was 'People are clicking away. OK, how do we react to that? Let's give them bumpers.' So it wasn't so much that the studios tried to lead the way, it was more of a reaction to what the market is doing," he tells me. "If you look at social media, if you go back five, six, seven years ago, you didn't have any Instagram spots, any trailers on Twitter or Snapchat. It's a reaction to the changing market and what the audience is gravitating toward."

How Bumpers Are Devised

It may or may not surprise you to learn that a company can devote months of work to a full trailer, but the bumpers are often concocted at the last minute. "It's interesting because we spend so much time on the trailers – we can work on them up to a year on some movies – and there's a lot of research, a lot of voices in the room, a lot of trial and error to get it to this perfect place," says Carrie Gormley, Partner/President of Theatrical Marketing at Create Advertising, an agency that produced trailers for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Power Rangers. "And then often these teasers for the trailers are put together much quicker and without quite as much development. But we've been doing that for a year, so you know then what's going to pop. You know what the big moments are, you know the big shots that are going to grab people, you've done that work already. So putting them together usually happens much quicker than putting the actual trailer together."

It's also important to remember that studios regularly pay to include trailers as a pre-roll ad in front of other YouTube videos. If you're anything like me, you keep your mouse hovered over the exact spot where the "skip" button will appear on that ad after the first five seconds, timing your click perfectly to make sure you don't watch one millisecond more of any ad than absolutely necessary before you see the thing you actually came there to watch. Yes, I'm aware I may be slightly more intense about this than your average YouTube viewer, which is the audience the studios are attempting to target with these ads. But for people who aren't as ad-averse as I am, a flashy bumper for a trailer is far more likely to grab their attention and potentially delay their click of that "skip" button for a little while longer. When it comes to brand awareness, every second counts.

The Numbers Don't Lie

Not every studio is a participant in this trend. After an inspection of the YouTube channels of the traditional "big six" major film studios, Disney and Universal avoid the practice altogether, while 20th Century Fox opts to play just one second of the green band alert before the majority of their trailers. Warner Bros., Paramount, and Sony all use bumpers to some degree, but Elias Plishner, EVP of Worldwide Digital Marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment, tells me that their focus group testing resulted in data that's impossible to ignore:

"Simply put, movie trailers need to be optimized for mobile platforms, especially when you are competing with hundreds of other forms of content in social news feeds. Sony Pictures was one of the first studios to embrace this strategy and now after fifteen months of launching trailers in this way, the data could not be more clear...These 3-5 second bumpers have helped our mobile-optimized trailers increase both retention and interest by almost four times, versus the exact same trailer without the bumper. There is no question about it: this is the way to compete with short attention spans and the abundance of messages on these platforms."

After experimenting with them for a little while, bumpers have now become part of Sony's standard operating procedure.

The Cinephile Factor

It's clear that the studios are looking to reach as large an audience as possible. That's part of their job, after all. But what about me and you, cinephiles and movie lovers who appreciate trailers as an art form unto themselves and who may view these bumpers as either an annoyance or, at worst, a blight on the trailer editing industry? It turns out we're actually already being catered to, but we just might not know it. "The subset of movie fans and who prefer an untouched trailer are also a big part of our digital strategy," Plishner tells me. "So the hundreds and hundreds of websites that we syndicate trailers to right after we launch online will always get a pristine trailer that we have not changed in any way – the bumpers are not meant for these platforms where people are actively opting in to watch a specific trailer that they want to see."

I've chosen to watch trailers directly from the official studio channels on sites like YouTube and Facebook to avoid seeing ads from those third parties and pop-ups asking me to subscribe to their dumb channels. But now we know there's a catch-22: it turns out those third parties are the only places you can watch a pristine cut of the trailer without the bumper attached. So it's simply a matter of choosing the option that annoys you the least as a viewer. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather continue to give the studios my YouTube clicks and sit through their five second bumper than to reward some jackass who just reposts a version of the trailer to his own channel. But if you're not a fan of YouTube at all and you're still looking to avoid bumpers, here's a pro tip: Apple Trailers counts as one of the third parties that always plays a pristine version. That seems like a pretty solid alternative to me.

Trailers Before Trailers edit bay

The Future

If I've learned anything writing about the inner workings of Hollywood over the years, it's that studios are generally risk-averse. If a strategy has proven to be successful for them, it's a safe bet that it won't change any time soon. So if bumpers are here to stay, how might they evolve in the coming months and years? What new forms might they take? I tracked down some more industry insiders to find out.

"I think they may become something that's a little more targeted, like ads," says Jeremy Gelbaum, the director of Digital and Social at Workshop Creative, a firm that recently produced trailers for Rough Night and The Big Sick. "I think in terms of the next step of evolving, you may begin seeing some more unique content specifically created for the bumper." That's a good idea. So good, in fact, that it's already being developed.

Remember Carrie Gormley from Create Advertising? She told me that "targeting certain groups and making sure that [a bumper] attracts a group specifically is something that we find certain studios are spending more time doing than others. It feels like that's definitely where we've been seeing it evolve" – so much so that her company has actually formed a multi-cultural department that looks specifically at demographic targeting.

Monica Brady, a Director and Executive Producer of the Golden Trailer Awards (the ceremony I attended earlier this week), predicts that bumpers eventually may not spoil the big moments from the trailer you're about to watch, but could instead shift to showing you footage from a different movie altogether. "I think the algorithm will improve. I don't think you'll see the same little bit of the Baywatch trailer if you're about to watch the Baywatch trailer. I think they're going to cross-[advertise] it. 'They like Baywatch, they like comedies, they like summer comedies. Maybe something like Snatched.' They'll start cross-[advertising], and I think we'll see that improve over time. And whatever the next new platform is, the movie marketing industry will be on the forefront of coming up with something to use that to market films."


While most of the people I spoke to for this piece seem positive about (or at least accepting of) this practice, that doesn't apply to everyone in the trailer editing industry. A high ranking employee at a major advertising firm who asked not to be identified cautiously told me that they like the idea of preserving the integrity of trailers as they were. Before I began researching this topic, I assumed that source's ideological stance would be the dominant perspective I'd hear from the creatives who work on trailers for a living. I figured that as creators, they'd be as resistant to bumpers as I was as a consumer. But when I asked Kazadi Katambwa, the producer from Buddha Jones, about this, he reframed my mindset yet again.

"Any art form has to evolve," he said. "I'm not a purist where I believe trailers need to be presented one specific way. In fact, as far as marketing goes, that is the DNA of marketing: it's always changing, and it needs to be changing. If you don't have an element of surprise or some kind of shock and awe, you lose people's attention, because that's what the whole intent is – to grab people's attention. If you're giving them what they know, what they've seen, you are failing at marketing to them."

This rabbit hole about bumpers is the result of my initial frustration with them, but after speaking with people involved in making these things, I've come away with an understanding of why they're becoming increasingly important. I still don't like them, mind you, and a few holdout studios are proving that bumpers aren't technically necessary to market a film, but it's hard to argue with the onslaught of distractions with which this generation of advertisers must contend. And when hard data indicates that including a bumper on a trailer means the audience is four times more likely to watch it, arguing seems futile. It's simply a sign of our era. But maybe now I'll at least be able to see bumpers not as a bad thing, but as the next step in the form's continual evolution.

"The art of the trailer is always changing," Katambwa says. "If I give you a trailer for the first Terminator movie from 1984, it's going to look completely different from [the trailer for] Ocean's Eleven. It's an art form that needs to continuously change, otherwise you start losing your audience."