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I've Always Wondered ...

How are movie trailers selected?

Janet Nguyen Oct 21, 2022
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Reader Mitch Weisman from Baltimore, Maryland, asks:  

How are previews determined for each movie? Some cartoon movies show previews for PG-13 films, while some Marvel movies will show G rated previews.

There’s a deliberate process that goes into selecting the trailers before a movie, one that involves rules, studio requirements and, of course, business considerations for what will get customers coming back to the theater.  

Movie theater chains told Marketplace that they stay within one rating below, or above, of the movie being shown. That’s because of rules from the Motion Picture Association that inform the types of trailers that can accompany the film being shown based on its ratings. Movies that are rated R, for example, can’t be shown alongside G or PG movies.

“Almost all cartoon movies are PG now so a lot of PG-13 trailers are actually approved for those depending on the type of movie that it is,” said Don Massingill, director of operations at Premiere Cinemas, a chain of movie theaters with 22 locations in six states, including Alabama, New Mexico and Texas. 

But he noted that Premiere tries to stick with G or PG trailers for PG movies. 

The chains VIP Cinemas and GQT Movies — which work together and have dozens of locations across several states, including Florida and Kansas — also aim to stick with either the same rating or lower than the moving being shown. 

“But occasionally on a PG movie, when there’s not much content out there, we might play a PG-13 trailer that appeals to a younger audience,” said Josh Ward, director of operations at VIP Cinemas. 

If that’s the case, Ward said that these chains will aim for a “softer PG-13.”

Massingill noted his chain will do the reverse — put a kid-friendly film trailer, or one that’s G-rated, before a Marvel film. (The Marvel films specifically released as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all rated PG-13.) 

“Marvel movies tend to bring families,” he said. “Because of the fact that the people are bringing kids into it, we will play G or PG movies on a Marvel movie.”

Ward said his chains will also play trailers of movies with lower ratings on a Marvel flick.

“But also, the rating doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for a young audience. So even though it’s a PG movie, it could be a just wholesome movie that’s for an adult audience, but it just doesn’t have violence,” Ward said. “That might make sense for a Marvel movie, or certain different action-type movies.”

Ward pointed out that sometimes they won’t even know the rating of some movies they’re playing trailers for if they’re being released six to nine months in advance, since they’re normally not rated until eight to 12 weeks before the movie is released. But it is easy to figure out the rating those studios are aiming for. 

The MPA, previously called the MPAA, has received criticism for its ratings system. Some argue that it’s more lenient toward films that have violent content, granting them PG-13 ratings, while giving higher ratings to films with sexual content or strong language. 

An overview of movie-trailer placements 

Film studios will generally stipulate that the theater play a couple of their future releases prior to any of their movies that are shown. 

Massingill said that Premiere plays a max of five trailers — a decision he makes based on agreements with and requests from film studios, along with his own judgment. He said that theaters do not charge the studios, at least at Premiere. 

A Los Angeles Times piece from 2013 said that some theater owners had begun charging companies to play their trailers after they realized “the value of having Hollywood’s target audience already in the theater.” It’s a move that went against the understanding that both parties mutually benefited without the need to pay — theater owners would theoretically get returning customers, while studios got the word out for their future films. 

“Everybody says, ‘No, no, there’s no money ever paid to show trailers,’ but we know that’s not the case for some of the big boys,” Rafe Cohen, president of Galaxy Theatres, told the LA Times. 

Massingill said that for “Black Adam,” a PG-13 film that stars Dwayne Johnson and premieres today, the studio behind it (Warner Bros.) required Premiere to show the trailer for the movies “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “House Party.”  “House Party” is rated R — a rating above “Black Adam” — while “Shazam” has yet to be rated.  

The movie chain will then get to choose the other three trailers. 

He added that while he’s gotten requests to show trailers for movies debuting next summer, the theater chain ideally likes to show movies that have closer premiere dates. 

“We’re more interested in keeping people coming back to the movies on a regular basis,” he explained. Hence why he ultimately decided to choose “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “One Piece Film: Red” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” which are all slated to come out within the next two months. 

The next “Black Panther” is another film Massingill has to decide the trailer slate for. Nearly two dozen film studios sent requests to have trailers placed before the move. 

“I have to kind of whittle that down,” Massingill said. 

R-rated trailers

Not only do movies have their own ratings, but the trailers themselves do, too. 

Most trailers have green-band labels, which means the MPAA has deemed it OK to watch for viewers of all ages. But there are some known as red-band trailers, which show more adult-oriented content. Think “bawdy moments,” “lewd humor” and “curse words,” according to Focus Features.  

Massingill said Premiere is picky about showing those. He and other corporate staff watch the trailer, then “have to agree that it’s suitable.”

They then tell their theater managers: “‘Look, if you do not feel comfortable showing this to your audiences, you don’t have to put this on here. Here’s another option,’” he said. 

Of course, now trailers are posted on YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms, enabling people to see film trailers without regard for the rules that govern them inside the theater. 

But for some people, watching the trailers on your computer can’t replicate the experience of watching them inside a theater. 

As a kid, Massingill said he wanted to get to the theater on time when he was going to the movies so he could catch them. “There’s something exciting about seeing it in the dark room, on the big screen, with the great sound system,” he said.

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