A SHORT HISTORY OF COMING ATTRACTIONS: Corrections, Exceptions & Affirmations

Wired Magazine recently (June 18, 2013) published a series of articles on movie trailers that was remarkable for its breadth, analysis and research. Lest these separate pieces fail to achieve adequate distribution and consideration, I wanted to do my part. In today’s post, I hope to high-spot and evaluate the article entitled “A Short History of Coming Attractions,” since having researched and written the definitive documentary history of the subject, I presume to know something about the matter myself.

The overview is broken up into the decades of the 40 and 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, 80 and 90’s and 2000’s and 2010’s, an organization approach which works better as a timeline than as history. My chief objection to this schematic is that the first 25 years of trailers are ignored, dismissed as “one-note origins in old Hollywood.” As readers of this blog are aware, that is a disservice to the sophistication, variety, innovation, and subtlety of early and classic trailers. Indeed, trailers were mini-movies from a very early period in their development, not, as the authors Palmer and Kehe would have us think, only in their later, contemporary phase. Indeed, given that the MPAA didn’t exist and didn’t constrain trailers to less than 3 minutes (now 2 is it?), one might say that early and classic trailers enjoy a stronger claim to the moniker “mini-movies” than their contemporary brethren.

It is, however, undeniably true, as Keith Johnston proved conclusively in his excellent book on trailer and technology (Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology), and as our documentary testified, that trailers are “defined by the business and artistic transformations in the industry.” It would be strange if they were not!!

In the 1940’s and 50’s, a period which Palmer and Kehe characterize as “Spectacular, Spectacular!” hyperbolic cards are said to be the engines of marketing communication: “Cards do everything in Hollywood’s early trailers: show titles, name stars, celebrate technology. But most of all, they sell the movie with outrageous superlatives—like ‘classic’ and ‘sensation.’ Hyperbole defines the era—nearly 80 percent of the trailers we watched use it in some way.” Whereas Palmer and Kehe insist on disruption and change as a characteristic of trailer development, I am persuaded that continuity and evolution are more accurate ways to consider their history.

With respect to Hyperbolic Cards, however, I should point out that while we current trailer convention has dispensed with much of the rhetorical excess of hyperbole and bombast, cards are still a critical feature of trailers, relied on for communication and impact. We use graphic cards (their visual presentation conveying the bombastic energy that today’s more prosaic copy has sacrificed to contemporary taste) for all of the same functions (title, cast, attitude, story, genre, etc.) while relying on the clever line, adage, or slightly-tweaked maxim to deliver a memorable marketing appeal.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Palmer and Kehe celebrate “NEW VOICES, The DIRECTOR AS STAR.” In writing about the trailer for Dr. Strangelove, they write, “Trailers reflect the new director-auteurs’ idiosyncratic styles. Not only is this trailer distinctly Kubrickian—it was cut by his title-sequence designer, Pablo Ferro—it literally captures the director: Flashes of Kubrick’s mug are embedded subliminally. Other landmark directors of the time, like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen, appear in their trailers as well.”

I had the chance to meet and interview Pablo Ferro, on more than one occasion, and I take exception to this characterization of his role in the making of the Dr. Strangelove Trailer. His account was widely confirmed by other advertising creatives of the era.

Ferro was, at the time that Kubrick asked him to do the main titles, a leading, Madison Avenue commercial editor and graphic designer and producer running one of the most influential agencies of the period. Kubrick brought him in because of his signature quick-cut technique and invited him to explore and re-imagine the trailer. As those who’ve seen the trailer and the film (and who hasn’t), it’s obvious that a different editorial dynamic is at work in both, testament, I think, and as Mr. Ferro asserts, to his vision, which Kubrick approved, applauded and valued.

As I’ve written elsewhere and on this blog, this is a landmark trailer. But I think credit belongs to Ferro, rather than Kubrick. (Just saying.)

For their drive by of trailers of the 80’s and 90’s, called, BLOCKBUSTERS RULE, Palmer and Kehe laud the contribution of Don LaFontaine, aka, the voice of God. True dat, however, the blockbuster era and its attendant saturation marketing and wide-release platform approach more properly belongs to the 1970’s. In describing Roland Emmerich‘s 1996 preview for Independence Day, they claim that “trailers return to their paint-by-numbers roots,” a claim I don’t exactly understand. Paint by numbers sounds dismissive and simplistic, which is, I think, inadequate to the technological and marketing magic worked by such trailers. The notion of “return” too seems inaccurate, considering the developmental arc they propose elsewhere.

For their take on the 2000s–2010’s, which they subtitle the RETURN OF THE AUTEUR, Kehe & Palmer argue that
“The accessibility of editing software expands the base of trailer editors. Boutique outlets with genre specialties emerge.” Yes, and no. Even during the 70’s and 80’s, when there were just a handful of trailer boutiques, they specialized. Kaleidoscope did blockbusters; Aspect Ratio became known for comedies; Kanew, in NYC, made its name cutting trailers for dramas and Oscar contenders. But certainly, Final Cut Pro has transformed the economics of the trailer industry, allowing scores of boutiques to enter the marketplace and compete for the work that previously only a few, well-capitalized companies could perform.

Editors, of course, have long been the key creative personnel in movie trailers, with the 1960’s auteur moment in filmmaking finding a counterpart in the trailer editing booth.

It is difficult, of course, to condense decades of creative experiment and innovation into a sentence or two. It’s the nature of the journalistic medium and heavy-handed editorial oversight to frustrate everyone involved: the writers whose subtlety and research gets short shrift; the reader whose curiosity and appetite remains unappeased; and the cranky specialist or academic who objects to the (over)generalization or simplification. Still, such an article provides an opportunity for me to offer a corrective in my own blog.

To their lasting credit, however, Palmer and Kehe have reminded us of some signal developments and landmark trailers within the periods they cover, and for that contribution, I am grateful.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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