As part of my activities at Leuphana University of Luneburg I have been asked to give a 50 minutes presentation of my research project next Tuesday. I have everything ready, I think, so here is it, in bits and pieces. I’ll post the first part today and the second one tomorrow but the two are strictly related, so in case you’re interested, I advise you come back from the next post.
In the vast and dispersive environment of digital media, television continues to occupy a special position. In the last decades, epochal changes have reconfigured the identity of the medium as it existed until the 1970s. A large number of publications address the pressing question of what television is today and often the answer is to declare the end of television as we knew it. This nebulous expression evidently applies only to a certain “we,” a readership old enough to have had the time to digest the transformations that the medium has endured in the last thirty years. As of today, most of the revolutionary changes Amanda Lotz described in her 2007 book The Television Will Be Revolutionized are not so revolutionary anymore so that, for all its internal differences, the era of “matrix media” seems to have finally settled in. This expression is coined by Michael Curtin (2009) to address the flexible and dynamic configuration of contemporary television. No longer a broadcast or network medium, television’s mode of communication is today characterized by “interactive exchanges, multiple sites of productivity and diverse modes of interpretation and use” (13) of contents. Certainly, the level of participatory practices that media users engage in with their favorite media productions has expanded to become part and parcel of a proactive televisual experience. Furthermore, in the matrix era the medium experiments with marketing strategies aimed at profiting from multi-platform operativity, multi-format content delivery and 360-degree programmings.
My research locates itself within the boundaries of this ebullient horizon, to focus on a microcosm relating mostly to the American and British phenomenon of “quality television” shows. Within this context, I explore the functioning of trailers: how they contribute to express and consolidate specific discourses of distinctiveness by means of aesthetic choices that supposedly perform the sophisticated identity of the shows they advertise. Beyond contributing to brand specific channels, I ask whether it could be advanced that trailers also brand a culture of production and consumption based on the exchange of cultural and affective capital. To do so, in my research I will use textual analysis of selected trailer campaigns, availing myself, when possible, of interviews with trailer designers, as well as of scholarly and journalistic literature on this topic. Trailers are easily available in a number of formats. I will stick to analyse only official trailer campaigns, retrieving my samples on the official web pages of the promoted shows, on YouTube and on DVD.
This presentation deals predominantly with the theoretical issues I’m encountering in the first phase of my research. I will be discussing what trailers are, how they operate and how my interest in them relates to the study of sophisticated television programming which I take from my PhD studies. Since I am also working on a case study for an upcoming publication, I will also briefly present its preliminary findings.
Trailers are a neglected object of analysis. As commercial clips designed to promote cinema and television programs (and more recently a larger array of productions, including video games and books), they routinely figure in industrial papers and magazine articles, but rarely and only recently, in academic work. In the scant publications on the topic, scholars correct the imbalance that usually foregrounds the trailer’s commercial operativity by making their formal and discursive functions the object of in-depth investigations. Although through trailers “the use value of narrative […] is subsumed to its exchange value” (Kernan 2004: 10), their aesthetics and modality of expression account for a distinct class of media texts. Keith Johnston’s research trailers are regarded as “unique short films in their own right” (2008:152) modeled to sustain multiple viewing and favor immersion, whereas Lisa Kernan maintains that trailers are “a unique sort of cinematic gyroscope in which a host of contradictions are briefly […] sustained in balance” (8).
My study of the trailer engages with this uniqueness, focusing, for the most part, on formal issues. Participating in the very recent surge of interest in the topic, testified by the multiplication of web pages where trailers are collected and, occasionally, discussed, I explore its ephemeral aesthetics where an informative imperative and impressionistic display of technical prowess create a special form of advertisement. Like I anticipated, I analyze television trailers, whereas basically all the academic, journalistic and grassroot sources I consult focus on their cinematographic, predominantly mainstream and American, homologues. Certainly, Hollywood has a consolidated tradition of trailer production and looking at this genealogy helps determining how some of the core features of these texts have proved resilient to the upheavals wrought by the matrix turn. Among these are the norm dictating the interaction of narrative and spectacle, as well as the diegetic appeal of genre, story and stars which trailers always foreground to incite awareness and expectation.
So what exactly are trailers? A trailer is a very short clip that is circulated before the launch of new productions along with other promotional materials such as posters, interviews, magazine features and behind-the-scenes documentaries. More than its marketing associates, the trailer is evocative and sensational: its narrative space filled with “ellipsis and enigmas,” (Kernan 2004: 8) its rhetoric rich in hyperboles and associations, its structure juggling sameness and newness. Typical of the trailer is its compressed format of an average of 150 seconds, expressionistic editing and, more recently, transmediatic circulation. If trailers have for long been broadcast primarily in theaters and for the benefit of the cinematographic audience, they are now produced to go viral and be consumed through different media. The growing trend of watching trailers on iPods and mobile phones aids in the process of self-differentiation that media enact by way of industrial synergies and technological accretions. Focusing on “the new mobility of trailers” Keith Johnston observes that “modern distribution techniques have created a shifting and interactive relationship between film studio and audience” based on portability and a new intimacy with media texts (2008). These texts circulate within an “interactive, asynchronous intermedia milieu” (Curtin 2009: 19), augmenting the processes of “overflow” that Will Brooker (2001) detects in the patterns of interactivity in which media contents are embedded today.
Indeed, an investigation of the trailer’s operativity must necessarily take into account the technological aspects of its production and distribution and their effects on consumption practices. Already in the pionieristic studies of André Bazin and Charles Barr (from 1950s and 1960s), the compositional elements, optical work and editing techniques found in postwar trailers are related to Hollywood’s experiments with widescreen technology. These trailers (mostly for 3-D movies) were devised to “come out of the screen” and “touch” the audience (id: 38), providing an over-the-top experience that the competitive medium of television could not emulate. Today the opposite happens: audiences are invited to step up to touch and contaminate the trailers, engaging in prosuming activities that alter the original text, only to, most of the times, be appropriated by the industry and turned into an additional source of accumulation for big corporations.1 Either way, these examples show that watching trailers has for long been conceived as an immersive experience where the distance between the images and the audience morphs turns into a membrane that allows for contact, interaction and exchange. I aim to return to this issue at some point in my research as the operativity of television trailers, especially in terms of their viral potential, is often enhanced by their small format, with advertising companies creating bespoke versions for portable screens and original versions devised already for remediation (Grusin and Bolter 1999).
The adaptable nature of the trailer’s design also returns us to the connections between its commercial and narrative identities: the uniqueness of the mobile trailer being both a means to embed it in our daily routine and a work of art in its own right. In this sense, the trailer embodies a double articulation between narration and promotion. Trailers are both sample texts and agents of upcoming textualization, providing a privileged venue for interested audiences to access the imaginary worlds of audiovisual productions. They preside over the thresholds which consumers of media cross to become viewers and sometimes fans, engaging with programs on a more or less intense participative level. As Kernan poignantly observes, “Trailers’ unique status as cinematic promotions of narrative – and narrativizations of promotion – enables a treatment that transcends a mere marketing critique and has the potential to contribute to a social history of desire” (Kernan 2004: 2). I take up this issue of desire when I analyse Boardwalk Empire’s trailer as a means to refresh HBO’s past fortunes as a platform of quality programming. Right now I would like to say a few more words on the trailer’s textual nature as a means of affective engagement.
The extent of the implications relating to industrial interventions in the fashioning and exploitation of collective desires is that promotional ubiquity redefines the experience of spectatorship, hybridizing it with that of a persuasion to consume. In Jonathan Gray’s “Television Previews and the Meaning of Hype,” (2009) promotional videos figure prominently as a class of marketing tools that operate by converting the interpretive processes prompted by trailers into economic indexes. Gray incorporates some of Kernan’s considerations on the emphasis that trailers put on the appeals of genre, story and star, suggesting that hype is itself an agent of textualization which provides productions with an added emotive value (36). By focusing on interpretation in the cycle of media distribution/consumption, Gray and Kernan’s text-based studies investigate how trailers prompt recognition and identification in the prospective viewer. The trailer’s semiotic chain produces meanings that resonate in positive or negative ways with the viewer’s cultural background, whereas its marketing creates hype. Studies of these two aspects of media production underline the ability of marketing to activate a feedback loop based on interpretive attitudes that would determine a product’s success in terms of the number of viewers it preemptively draws to it. Emphasis is laid on the teleological foundations of promotion, that is on how viewers’ reactions determine recognition and revenue return.
Another structural issue of trailer research therefore relates to expectation. Trailers work within the anticipated temporality of immaterial capitalism by mobilizing a spatio-temporal dynamics that converts the spectacular and narrative features of the clips into an exchange value in themselves. Not only editing, postproduction and the rhetoric of stardom accentuate the trailer’s appeal, the very mechanism of attraction they activate automatically positions the text as “a commodity for sale” (Kernan 2004: 10). This move, in turn, is rich in implications about what the industry expects its consumers/viewers to want. According to Kernan, “The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see […] with a kind of pregnancy or indeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments — we desire not the real film but the film we want to see. This filling-in of trailer enigmas with an idealized film thus heightens trailers’ promotional value, as well as the visibility of the production industry’s assumptions about what its hypothetical audience desires” (13). Here Kernan focuses on the trailer’s address and its power to turn the audience into a distinct category of consumers stirred by desire. Indeed, spectatorship must be engaged as part of the cinematographic text: a component that is mobilized and needed for the trailer’s performance to actually take place (2004: 5, 6).
The anticipative gesture of the trailer is to condense in a few minutes the hopes and expectations of a body of potential viewers, making sure not to alienate any, yet providing a strong ideological address that allows only certain sets of interpretations to form. A fundamental aspect to keep in mind in analyzing a trailer is represented by its ‘loose’ relationship to the actual film it is promoting. Trailers use falsification in the interest of promotion, providing elements that are not necessarily present in the marketed product, or that are abstracted and related to meanings that do not appear in the film.3 The liberties that the trailer takes undermine its supposed mimetic relationship with the marketed show, making it an incredibly dense and multifaceted object of research.
Of course three decades of audience studies have made us aware of the infinite signifying potential of the text and of the pull that desire pulls on decodification. My interest, however, rests not in exploring the way audiences respond to the ideological pressures of trailers, as in the fact that they operate as much to create movie goers and television spectators as to turn these into consumers of other media. Today, the allure of trailers radiates beyond the boundaries of the television and cinematographic text, to attach to a range of other materials. Trailers figure prominently among the bonus features of DVDs, for example, as well as commodities on sale on iTunes and Apple online stores. Beyond being essential to the replication of the media event, they also call attention to themselves as microproductions whose power of attraction exceeds promotion. Again, Kernan writes that “Trailers are a specific, persuasive kind of attraction [where] essentially the announcement (of a not-yet-seen film) is the event.” (2004: 17)
The trailer’s attraction of something to come accounts for the exceptional temporality of anticipation which takes place at the intersection of present as well as deferred future pleasures. We can envision this experience as an ephemeral encounter that trails at the edge of narrative sense (see Kernan 2004: 8-9). To focus on this liminal quality is to disjoin the trailer, for a moment, from its commercial function and foreground its expressive modality of presentation which plays on intensity and spectacularization. Indeed, a special place is reserved to montage and expressivity in trailer research. Gary Wythoff (2007) uses the concept of the “ludic grid” to describe a presentational mode that acts in a performative fashion to entice the audience viscerally. In the ludic grid causality or continuity are eschewed in favor of “impressionistic displays of force […] [that] have no reference to the parts around them […] remain[ing] atomized and isolated” (21). These moments of spectacle create what Wythoff envisions as an “alchemical theatre” (id.) that aims at stupefying the viewer, asserting a desire to establish a deep, sensory connection. On the same note, Kernan observes that the compressed nature of trailers imposes that each shot be saturated with “excess signification” (10).
This play between code and desire, signification and affect is, I believe, the most salient feature of trailers whose impact rests on the ability to retain attention, trailing on the ineffable appeal of efficient microexpressivity. Intimately bound to this aspect, is the interweaving of sameness and repetition that is at work in every trailer. As I have shown, whereas rhetorical appeals structure the trailer, the excess of signification set in place by the ludic grid guarantees that each work be different from the next.
The TV trailer
There exist a number of important differences between how movie and television trailers function. Concerning the movie trailer, Wythoff observes that “The catalyst for the inner workings of the trailer itself is in [an] implicit privileging of the film as a whole that promises fulfillment” (2007: 6, my italics). While the pull of the absent whole represented by the promoted movie is at work also in the case of television, the very nature of the latter medium, at least in my case, is to provide a serialized body of media artifacts. Yet, it is interesting to note, at least in passing, that the invention of the trailer in the early 1900s was prompted by the need to promote series and serials, a typology of feature films which aired in separate installments in the course of different weeks. Like the contemporary shows I analyze, these features made ample use of suspenseful plots to elicit curiosity. Indeed, the term trailer refers to the final part of the celluloid reel that was initially employed to protect the film and on whose surface words and texts began to appear that invited the audience to come back for more adventures of a same narrative.
Seriality works so that pleasure is given and retained, with the productions’ ability to administer and defer it influencing the audience’s bonding (or lack thereof) with a program. The logic governing this narrative genre is that content is the lure for more content and that story is intrinsically and in itself a promotional tool. As marketing forms of appointment viewing, television trailers are themselves serialized, appearing not only in the days and months preceding the premiere of a show, but also in the time lapses that separate one episode from the next and in between seasons, sometimes filling in gaps of years. Trailers for television shows thus contribute to preserve the practices of routine viewing that structure the medium, absolving a function that is different from the sort of event viewing that the cinema calls for. Part of the identity of television is actually it’s ability to maintain difference in repetition, incessantly providing modified versions of familiar narrative formats. Indeed, as a domestic medium, television was, from its inception, conceived to endorse a sense of security and familiarity which serialized narratives worked to enforce.
Given the serialized nature of television shows, the amount of trailers that circulate is very high, including multiple texts that vary in terms of production values, narrative disclosure, aesthetic presentation, cast appearance, etc. Furthermore, the category of trailers also includes featurettes, spots, previews etc.5 We can speculate that these videos are very different among themselves, with the ones produced to introduce shows or each season’s pilot and closing episodes probably being the most spectacular and engaging ones. To address these differences I employ Gray’s definition of “entryway” and “in medias res” paratexts (2010: 18). The former are “those we encounter before watching a film or a television program,” the latter “those that come to us in the process of watching or at least interpreting the film or program” (id. my italics). The implications I draw from this analysis are that entryway paratexts are more elaborate, as they are endowed with the task to set up horizons of anticipation for as-yet unknown works. For my case study of Boardwalk Empire’s trailer, I focus on an entryway text whose rhetorical and spectacular features best exemplify the discourse of uniqueness and repetition associated to the serialized nature both of television trailers and, as I am about to demonstrate, of quality programs more generally.
In a study of television trailers, however, the norm would be to pay as much attention to in media res texts, not least because they make up a majority in numbers. What I would like to do is investigate the play between the two categories of promotional objects and what they disclose about the challenge that certain productions encounter in competing among themselves and how this competition plays out in the trailers‘ aesthetics.
Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek. Teen Viewers, cultural convergence and television overflow”. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4(4): 456-72.
Curtin, Michael (2009). “Media Matrix” in eds. Graeme Turner and Jinna Tay. Television after TV. Understanding Television in the Post-Broadcast Era. Oxon and New York, Routledge, pp. 9-19.
Gray, Jonathan (2008). “Television pre-views and the meaning of hype.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(1): 33-49.
__ (2010). Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York and London, New York University Press.
Grusin, Richard and Jay David Bolter (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. London and Cambridge, The MIT Press.
Johnston, Keith (2008). “‘The coolest way to watch movie trailers in the world’: Trailers in the Digital Age.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into Media Technologies, 14(2): 145-160.
__ (2009). Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology. Jefferson NC, McFarland & Company.
Kernan, Lisa (2004). Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin TX, University of Texas Press.
Lotz, Amanda D. (2007). The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York and London, New York University Press.
Wythoff, Gary (2007). Becoming-Film: A Brief Poetics of Trailers. Honors thesis. Unpublished.