NEWS CYCLE TRAILERS: Pull the Stunt and Let the Amateurs* Market the Film

Sacha Baron Cohen has been confounding interviewers and interviewees since his break-through Ali G days. A comic descendent of Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman, he’s a fearless and occasionally brilliant performance artist and a consummate because shameless and gonzo promoter of his latest incarnation and film creation.

In the clip above, Cohen appears in character at the most recent Academy Awards red carpet broadcast and dumps an urn of ashes on Ryan Seacrest, a celebrity news event that’s recapitulated in a slide show with commentary and which, not accidentally, constitutes an outsourced preview of his upcoming movie, The Dictator.

I wanted to write about the trailer for The Dictator, inspired as I was by the movie poster about which I posted about some months ago. But then I noticed this :35 celebrity news report from TNC (or the Trending News Channel), a creation of Slate Magazine described as “a crowdsourced video newscast, constantly updated with whatever stories are piquing the interest of your fellow Internet users.”

Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard describes TNC as the producer of “twice [now thrice] daily, quick-turnaround pieces on water-cooler talk and memes of the moment,” cross posted to YouTube as part of its relationship with Slate, one of 100 + media partners for its recently unveiled exclusive content initiative.

Essentially, this “news” item, whether coordinated with the studio marketing department releasing the Dictator, is a trailer. It provides the title, the star, the tone, the characters (General Admiral Aladeen–a bearded, sunglassed Cohen in dress whites with gold trim, flanked by his supermodel praetorian guard) and a “special shoot” scene that’s not in the movie, but which captures its flavor and comic sensibility.

Of course, publicity stunts and promotional appearances have been part of movie marketing since the earliest days. Indeed, Publicity, Promotion and Exploitation departments were what Marketing used to be called until the 1970’s. And as with any such stunt or appearance, there’s a strong possibility that it won’t “come off,” attract sufficient attention or appeal to audiences, a risk that is also true for traditional trailer making.

In this case, however, Cohen’s red carpet antics nearly upstaged the show, pissing off America’s sweet heart, Mr. Seacrest, and meme-ifying instantly. As a reward, TNC made this wonderful piece of movie marketing, which audio-visually is nothing more than a series of slides over which calorie-lite but promotionally heavy news “copy” is read.

Here’s what you’ll see:

1–Establishing shot of Academy Awards Red Carpet: Angelina Jolie Showing Leg
2–Slide of Sacha Baron Cohen (SBC) as himself.
3–Slide of SBC as Generall Admiral Aladeen (GAA) with supermodel attaches/bodyguards
4–Slide of SBC as GAA emerging from car; head of Oscar statue in picture
5–Slide of SBC as Borat.
6–Slide of SBC as GAA with supermodel attaches/bodyguards backstage.
7–Slide of SBC as GAA with urn
8–Closeup of Urn containing ashes of Kim Jong Il, fellow dictator.
9–SBC dumping ashes on Ryan Seacrest
10-SBC wiping ashes from gob-smacked Ryan Seacrest.

Here’s what you’ll hear:
“There were plenty of daring fashion displays at the Academy Awards, but none were as unpredictable as Sacha Baron Cohen’s. He showed up on the red carpet in character, despite warnings he’d be removed from the show for such a stunt.
The Borat actor’s latest creation, Admiral General Aladeen from his upcoming movie The Dictator, had bodyguards, promised death to the West (and the Academy), and was carrying an urn containing the ashes of his late fellow dictator and “doubles tennis partner” Kim Jong-il. Cohen proceeded to dump the ashes all over Ryan Seacrest, giving new meaning to the old red carpet chestnut ‘Who are you wearing?'”

So far, this TNC vido has 843K hits, which is but a fraction of the times this footage has been played elsewhere, with presumably similar messaging. I must assume that Paramount marketers and Mr. Cohen are delighted with the results, given that this bald, bold publicity stunt was instantly and universally repurposed as “entertainment” news, its promotional message preserved, more or less intact, or in fact, enhanced. Mr. Cohen did not appear as Borat, nor mention that film on the Red Carpet, and yet in order to contextualize this event, TNC and other outlets reminded audiences of that earlier box-office and critical success.

Beyond establishing the film’s provenance as part of its “news” privilege, TNC was able to exploit the Academy Awards’ name, icon and good will (which are jealously protected), as well as the image of Angelina Jolie, one of the most recognizable women in the world and a well-regarded actress who has nothing to do with the film being promoted. Add to that Mr. Ryan’s visibility and discomfiture, and the crowning halo of “journalism” for what is essentially a PR production, and you see that this little video accomplished a promotional and marketing coup worthy of, well, a Dictator.

And yes, Virginia, this is yet another example of transmedia!

*Amateurs is here used in the sense of “not professional trailer makers,” and I mean no disrespect to the talented editors and journalists at TNC.

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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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