THE ARTIST TRAILER: Contemporary Marketing for the Silent Era

Having enjoyed The Artist, whose ingenious reclamation of silent film for 21st century audiences was so nuanced and joyful, I wondered whether its trailer attempted anything as ambitious with 1920’s film marketing. Alas, it didn’t. No great surprise, here, since while film art is expected and encouraged to take creative chances, the commercial imperatives and economic constraints of film marketing make it a much more conservative enterprise. Trailer conventions, though evolving, are designed to ensure that audiences understand and assimilate the information that marketers want them to receive. While homage to familiar formulae may be tolerated, experimentation (whether too far forward or too far back) risks alienating an audience.

The Artist trailer, while silent, is very much a contemporary a/v marketing piece. It delivers copious amounts of story information visually, while distilling the plot into a memorably simple and clear stanza of graphic copy: An Encounter/ The Fall/ The Fame/ The Artist.

Unlike its feature, the trailer hasn’t the time to present story through a slow accretion of detail. Instead, with jazz-age music cues and shot-a-second (and sometimes faster) quick cutting, it delivers a surfeit of visual pleasures and plot points with a light-hearted attitude, promising a happy ending despite the intervening and contrasting melodrama.

But then, trailers of the 20’s, during what film scholars call the “classic” era, consistently and determinedly divorced narrative content from promotional rhetoric. That is, the story was considered too valuable to give away. It was that which one went to the movies to discover. 1920’s trailers marketed the stars, the “event” quality of the release, the spectacle to be anticipated and the relevant genre, all couched in the grandiloquent verbiage of the circus ringmaster and the vaudeville impresario.

In The Artist (2011), by contrast, story information is explicitly and generously delivered through copy and excerpted scenes. Indeed, we are shown the happy ending, in which George Valentine’s plummet into obscurity is end-stopped by Peppy Miller’s strong arms and redemptive love. Facial gestures (all the more critical in the absence of words) convey emotional content, a means of representation that may constitute the one persistent and indispensable technique linking trailers then and trailers today!

Beyond story, genre and spectacle –Hollywood magic onscreen and back-stage drama offscreen—the trailer shows us recognizable American character actors—Penolope Ann Miller, John Goodman and James Cromwell—interspersed with the appealing, albeit Foreign (French!) stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo who aren’t credited, and the director, Michel Hazanavicius, who is.

Whereas a major release of the 20’s with unknown “stars,” would have been well nigh inconceivable, the trailer for this 2011 release not only doesn’t introduce them by name, it offers only visual identification of its strong, but hardly “show opening” cast of supporting actors. The Weinstein Brothers and the Cannes Palm D’Or for Best Actor are the only recognizable marks of provenance and promises of quality, since American audiences can hardly be expected to recognize the Director’s name.

With respect to music, regrettably the gorgeous soundtrack by Ludovic Bource is replaced by well known melodies from the era, as well as a lugubrious cue for George’s fall from stardom that’s frankly contemporary. But, given the black and white and silent “otherness” of this feature, the trailermakers can be forgiven for choosing more familiar, nostalgia-laden and “legible” music.

The marketing team appreciates that appetite for yet another “Star is Born” remake remains strong. And while The Artist is more than that, its inexpressible difference and artistry is not the sort of thing that a trailermaking artist is ideally situated to capture. This trailer recognizes its challenges and responds intelligently and effectively. Whereas the film is taking the risks; the marketing has bought the insurance.

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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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