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Why Are Movie Previews Called 'Trailers'?

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There is no part of a film's marketing that's more important than its trailer. An entire film's financial success—and a studio's very future—can be determined by a mere two-and-a-half minute preview released months in advance of a movie's premiere. Case in point: More than 13 million people watched Warner Bros.' first Wonder Woman trailer on YouTube within 48 hours of its release—giving the movie the type of buzz that executives can only dream of.

But amid all the hype attached to trailers, there's one big question that we don't really think about: Why are these previews even called trailers when they're shown before films? 

Well that's just the thing, they weren't always played before movies—and the very first trailer on record wasn't even for a film. It was actually for a 1913 play called The Pleasure Seekers.

As pointed out in the above video by FilmmakerIQ, the moviegoing experience was much different in 1913. You would pay your admission—usually just a couple of cents—and you could basically sit inside a movie house all day and watch whatever was playing, often a combination of feature-length movies, short films, and cartoons. To take advantage of the audience members sitting and waiting for the next movie to play, Broadway producer—and movie theater advertising manager—Nils Granlund came up with the profitable idea of advertising upcoming plays in between screening rotations at Marcus Loew's East Coast theater chain. By using rehearsal footage from The Pleasure Seekers, Granlund put together a short promotional film for the play, creating buzz and bolstering publicity for the production. He also, unknowingly, revolutionized film marketing. 

In the spirit of cramming advertising into every nook and cranny of our lives, the idea quickly evolved. That same year, producer William Selig brought the popular serial format from the newspapers to the big screen—producing short action-adventure story installments that always ended with some type of thrilling cliffhanger that implored people to come back next week to find out if the hero escaped certain death. Well, how else do you get an audience back for more? Selig figured the best way to do this was to have a brief teaser for the following episode play after the main feature, so the audience would leave the theater wanting more. This was the first step toward a traditional movie trailer. 

These initial trailers for Selig's first serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn, were usually nothing more than a brief bit of footage accompanied by text that screamed questions at the audience, like "Does she escape the lion's pit? See next week's thrilling chapter!" This idea worked so well that studios were soon cutting their own trailers, as opposed to the individual theaters doing it for them. After that, trailer production was outsourced by studios to the National Screen Service, which held onto a trailer monopoly for more than four decades. 

Trailers soon became big business, eventually moving to the familiar position we know today, before a movie begins. This ensures more eyes on the product, and probably made more sense once the serial storytelling model was phased out. So while the term "trailer" might not make sense anymore—especially since these previews are mainly viewed on YouTube nowadays anyway—we're too set in our ways to change it now.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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