Meta Movies – Trailers, Free Samples & Self-consciousness


I have tried to use this blog to denaturalize and defamiliarize my subject. I’ve wanted to introduce critical distance into the appreciation of these short commercial films that are so universally enjoyed, so frequently consumed and so easily dismissed and (for the most part) quickly forgotten. And I’ve wanted to explain how they do what they do, since trailers have a very important function to perform, and it’s that job which, presumably, makes them what they are.

And yet what they are—-dense, short film texts that excerpt and recombine scenes from a feature film in order to appeal to audiences’ abiding interest in stars, spectacle, story and genre-—are meta movies, as much about themselves as advertisements and short films, as about the feature they promote.

(See the excellent, abstract, and completely self-reflexive trailer for Comedian above, which makes fun of copy clichés and the deep-throated voice-over actors who make them resonate.)

You see, what I’ve noticed in the process of “denaturalizing” trailers for my students is that trailers denaturalize their companion films. By excerpting and recombining the film, by addressing and soliciting the audience, trailers make plain the fabrication of the film itself, its similarly produced and designed nature, its commercial quality. There’s nothing surprising that an advertisement, as a kind of meta discourse, would offer insight into the product. But that insight is contrary to, if not in contravention of, the objectives and achievement of classic continuity editing—still the dominant and the defining approach to filmmaking in our industry.

Hollywood films, to an extraordinary degree, are edited and presented to maximize their seamlessness, to minimize their artifice, and to shape the perspective, point of view, and visual experience of their audiences. Rules and conventions direct where the camera should be positioned, how time and space should be portrayed, and where the eye should be directed or allowed to linger, all in service of what is considered a natural style of story telling. The surface of the film, its material reality and mode of production is expected be transparent when not invisible. What’s important is what we are shown, not the showing itself.

Trailers obey different rules and conventions, and eschew the “natural” style of storytelling in favor of the self-conscious and mannered. The only thing natural about a trailer is its origin and its family resemblance to other trailers. Meta-phenomenon like trailers can never be natural; they’re always mediated, usually complex, hybrid (at least) and quintessentially self-conscious.

We often call trailers, “Free samples distributed to a proven consumer.” I’ve said it hundreds of times myself. But it’s not really true. If you think about free-samples that a non-entertainment business might make available, they usually consist of a small version of the product being sold. (Think medicine the Dr. might offer; a cheese square, or chips and salsa at the grocery; a thimble full of frozen yogurt from Pinkberry.) There’s no such thing as a small portion of movie. Even clips taken straight from the film, without any kind of marketing inflection, are only fragments of a larger, integrated whole.

Trailers are clearly not samples of the film as a whole. Instead, they are their own self-contained films, made by rearranging the elements of the feature they promote into their own story presentation, narrated with extra-diegetic elements like graphic cards, voice over, titles, and graphics to fulfill their marketing objectives. Trailers aren’t free-samples, but alternate versions and simulations of the film. They are bait that is always already switched. Imagine that when you next gobble up a cheese square on a toothpick at the deli counter it is packaged and labeled, “this is the cheese that you want to buy.” Do you see the analogy, or lack thereof?

When trailer scholar Lisa Kernan described the scandal of trailers, their disclosure of the contradictions that underlie the industry, I think she was describing trailers self-conscious quality and self-critical ability as a inescapable aspect of their hybridity. Their meta-phenomenality is powerful and productive, not merely derivative. While is it a truism that trailers are subordinate to and determined by their films, we should also remember that insofar as every film that expects to be distributed needs a trailer, feature films are developed and produced and distributed in compliance to the extant or incipient marketing vision of their trailer.

Movies enchant, seduce, transport and mesmerize by making their status as manufactured objects and commercial enterprises invisible. Trailers enchant, seduce, transport and mesmerize by telling us what they are, what they’re going to do, and then doing it.

How does this help a would-be trailermaker or copywriter? Generally speaking, the more one understands about one’s industry and creative practice, the more likely one is to succeed. Specifically, it helps explain why self-reflexivity is a tried and true formula of movie marketing. And, as you can see from the trailer for Comedian as well as those for hosted trailers as a class, and countless others, it’s a reminder that trailer makers have options and resources traditional filmmakers don’t.

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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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