Trailers in the theatre

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Theatre

When you go to the theatre why don’t you see trailers?

This question’s been bugging me for a few weeks now. After all, when was the last time you went to the cinema and didn’t see trailers? Why the difference? In both cases you’ve got a captive audience of a few hundred (or maybe even a couple of thousand) people all facing the same direction and open to being entertained.

It’s not just the theatre either (and I’ll include plays, musicals, opera, dance and comedy in that). There’s rarely anything at concerts or gigs where the crowd is left standing around for 30-45mins waiting for the next band to set up.


Actually, ‘trailers’ is probably a bit misleading. I get that a noisy video trailer for an upcoming show might not hit the the right tone, but there are all sorts of things that can be put on a screen.

How about a (silent) slideshow of upcoming events? That wouldn’t be so invasive, would probably do the job and needn’t be too time-consuming or expensive to pull together.

Or you could put up:

  • info about fundraising campaigns (perhaps with a JustTextGiving code) or educational/outreach projects the venue is involved in.
  • mentions of social media channels people could subscribe to – many of them will be sat there with mobiles on them, after all.
  • links to extra info about the show. You could even put up a big QR code if you thought you could handle that much ugly all at once (not that many people would know what to do with it).
  • commercial adverts – sorry to get all money-grabbing, but why not?

I’m sure that, given five minutes thought, you could come up with all sorts of creative/fun/useful alternatives for those screens.


Setting up a screen (or projecting on to something else) temporarily can’t be that difficult – after all, I’ve seen more impressive things done on stage. At the Hippodrome alone I can think of three different ways I’ve seen screens used recently:

  • I saw Carlos Acosta there a few weeks back and at one point in the show there was a massive video piece projected on to a screen that filled the stage.
  • For my sins, I saw Strictly Come Dancing last year and that featured video contributions from one of the judges, with a screen wheeled on stage quickly each time it was needed.
  • The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Royal Gala Performance I saw last year (I know, get me) featured large TV screens placed all around the theatre.

Come to think of it, the NME used to bring screens to the O2 Academy for their tours. Between bands they showed promos for the magazine, the tour sponsor and the bands.

What I’m saying is it can be done and in various ways. Of course I’ve really not got much of an idea of the cost/logistics involved so am ready and willing to be shot down mercilessly in the comments.


I remember when we were offered the unit in the Bullring for the Created in Birmingham shop, the alternative was for the shopping centre to sell the window space to a display advertising company who would serve up adverts to the passing crowds. Those screens would have paid for themselves very quickly indeed.

Would the same be true for theatre screens? There might be a direct financial benefit in terms of tickets sold and funds raised. I’ve no idea about the logistics involved, there are some happily established cinema advertising networks out there. I wonder what it would take to tap into those.

What’s the obstacle?

Is it artistic? Financial? Logistical? Is there some indication that audiences would object?

When I raised the question on Twitter last week Tim Rushby at BCMG tweeted back saying:

Inside auditorium I haven’t met a director that would allow. In foyer I guess it’s a resource (lack of) thing

Which was interesting because, come to think of it, I can think of a few larger arts centres that use screens in and around their foyers, making their absence from auditoriums that bit more glaring.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t an amazingly revolutionary idea – someone must have looked into this before. Or someone must be doing it. I realise I don’t know much about the practicalities involved here and it’s been bugging me, so if anyone could shed any light I’d be grateful.

(Photo by AndrewC75)


Typical. I hit publish and minutes later find this post from about Sadler’s Wells (a client, no less) trying out cinema-style trailers of upcoming shows in 2009. I wonder how it went. Are there any more examples?

I’ll also link to this from Alistair Smith in The Stage who makes many of the same points but also adds some further thoughts.

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.

7 replies on “Trailers in the theatre”

  1. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why theatre isn’t very good at being cinema. And it’s because, I think, cinema is already amazing at being cinema and the theatre is pretty damn good at being the theatre.

    I go to the cinema quite a lot and I always want to get there in time for the trailers, not least because they’re often quite good. One of the reasons they’re quite good is because they have been made at huge cost – of money, thought and expertise. At the ROH, I tried very hard to raise the game of our trailers but, for lots of reasons I won’t go into here, it’s really difficult. This one,, for Romeo and Juliet at the 02 was one of the last ones I commissioned and probably the best – but it’s still for a very particular audience, and theatres rarely have the luxury of segmenting their audience between shows in the way that cinemas do. And I think the sad fact of the matter is that a lot of theatre trailers do a better job of putting you off than of selling you the show. I’d single out the Young Vic and the RSC as makers of particularly good trailers – and their sympathy with the productions and the idea of the theatre is such that I wouldn’t baulk at seeing them in the auditorium. But I think they are the exception.

    The paradigm of being in the theatre is still inherently different from being in the cinema. It’s more about the other people in the room, and it demands a more substantial suspension of disbelief. From pretty much the word go, it’s pitch black in the cinema and the whole experience – including the rake of the seats – has been engineered to help you forget about the other people there. The theatre however is an inherently social experience: lots of auditoria are still in horseshoe shapes (all the better for seeing the audience, rather than the stage), there are intervals, the seating is often designed so that it’s actually quite difficult to see the stage, but extremely easy to gaze into the enormous beehive of the woman in front of you. Also, people clap in theatres which they rarely – or reluctantly – do in cinema, even when seeing opera or ballet. Clapping is a massively collaborative act and it’s a key part of what makes the theatre the theatre. Seeing a trailer before the show (as opposed to integrated video within the performance) demands us to shift our type of attention not once but twice – it’s possible that trailers before a show might be a soothing preparatory act, but the progression through the forms of media might have quite a serious effect on the kind of attention we then offer the live performance? Perhaps not.

    So, in short, I think one of the reasons we go to the theatre is to be with other people. Whether we want to or not. We go to the cinema in part to be a part of a big commercial continuum, in which we get things sold to us – to become a part of the Hollywood system.

  2. Clare – awesome. Not sure how I missed that, so thanks. Funnily enough I had a look at Pearl & Dean’s website when writing this post.

    Rachel – interesting thought about whether you need to get into the right frame of mind before a piece of theatre. I’m guessing that echoes Tim’s tweet about directors not allowing video trailers.

    I think your point about theatre being good at theatre (not cinema) gets to the crux of why some theatre trailers are rubbish, or at least why they might be inappropriate before a stage production. I’d quite like to know why so many copy the format of a cinematic trailer when these things won’t be shown in a cinematic setting. Why not do something different and more appropriate (and perhaps easier) on the screen? Maybe something quieter (or silent) that doesn’t demand the whole audience’s attention while they’re taking their seats.

  3. “We go to the cinema in part to be a part of a big commercial continuum, in which we get things sold to us – to become a part of the Hollywood system.”

    This really is an absurd thing to say. Just because we sit in the dark in a cinema does not mitigate against it being a collective experience. I often enjoy theatre – opera even – but many times theatre seems to attempt the ‘cinematic’, and fails. Theatre audiences are, really, generally conservative, and quite easily satisfied – laughing loudly at stage business that in the outside world would be mildly amusing or just unfunny. . It may be a ‘system’, but a team of writers can often come up with something every bit as (and generally more) incisive, relevant, witty..etc, as most theatre.

    I’m not decrying the ‘live’ experience, but to say it’s requires a ‘more substantial suspension of disbelief’ also strikes me as a particularly subjective thing to say. I don’t think cinema audiences so readily ‘believe’ that Toy Story or Thor or Melancholia – rather, cinema audiences are concerned with authenticity and truth.

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