THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Featurette: A Long Trailer and A Short Documentary

Back in the 70’s, featurettes were commonplace marketing adjuncts for important or significant feature films. They were shown on TV (where else, in those benighted days before the intertubes), helping to flesh out the broadcast minutes that a movie-of-the-week might leave unfilled.

And then, they went away during the ’80’s My friend, the veteran trailer maker and former studio executive Mike Shapiro, tells me that he “witnessed not an obsolesence but a transition to shorter behind the scenes films that were included in the newly emerging publicity package called electronic press kits (EPK’s), in the early 80’s.” He continues: “TV broadcast programmers got better at filling every second of each time slot and longer form stand-alone featurettes became too expensive but…. a form of featurettes still is and will remain a marketing tool especially for bigger budget releases.”

Since the arrival of laser-discs and DVD in late 80’s and 90’s, featurettes, now categorized as “bonus material,” made a comeback. Now, I’d venture to say, they are more popular and commonplace than ever before, given the proliferation of venues for their exhibition. Broadcast and cable TV may not screen them as they once did, but they are ubiquitous on DVD’s and video sharing websites, and a staple of the marketing materials routinely generated for a feature film campaign.

In fact, shows like Access Hollywood and their ilk, rely on the footage and access that will otherwise go into making a featurette or EPK. The relatively low cost of videography and the surplus of hungry and talented young filmmakers makes it all the more easy and cost-efficient to document the making of a film, any film. Their length, detail and behind the scenes insights makes them a desirable ancillary for producers and distributors competing for ever more knowledgeable and interested audiences. For their part, media journalists repurpose the footage and the comments/quotes of stars, filmmakers and production staff that they provide and appreciate the “back-stage” gossip that they retail or make “visible.”

Ok, so that said, let me remind the reader that a featurette, as its name suggests, is a “diminutive” feature, a smaller, more adorable version of the feature, that typically documents its making for the purposes of highlighting its saleable qualities. Featurettes are not made as critical exposes, but rather as part of the variety of materials used to herald, promote, tease, inform and advertise a film. If a trailer is a sample of the film (and those regular readers will recognize how poor and inexact a definition that is!), then a featurette is a document of and about the feature as a film.

Let’s take a look at the recently released featurette for the Dark Knight Rises, which at 13:28, is a not inconsiderable piece of moviemaking and marketing. Given the length and complexity of the featurette, this is not the place for a shot by shot or scene by scene analysis (I can hear your sighs of relief through the intertubes), but I would like to describe its structure, its emphasis on story and argument, and its function as a piece of movie marketing. Right. Let’s begin.

Given its function as the concluding film in a series of three, The Dark Knight Rises has to accomplish a few different objectives. Whether it does, remains to be seen, but the marketing has the privilege of asserting it, regardless. First, it must establish continuity with its predecessors, and in production design, actors, directors, soundscape (MTV just posted a track by track analysis.) and sensibility. Judging by the featurette and the trailer, it clearly does.

Second, this is movie making on the grandest scale and the featurette demonstrates this film’s membership in that rarified league. But, unlike other Summer blockbusters that are all spectacle and inane story, or visual thrill without emotional gravity, the Nolan Batman films have delivered character study and emotional impact alongside visual delight. According to the featurette, audiences can expect that same combination of surface and substance, a point made repeatedly in consistent language from various commentators: “it’s big, but emotional and intimate.”

This film is obliged, as well, to provide closure, completion, and resolution to the various open ended plot and characterological vectors of the previous films. We don’t exactly get to see how, but completion/closural achievement is asserted, and I think it’s believable.

Lastly, this film has to raise the stakes: in terms of scale, emotional power, character development/completion and visual spectacle. We can judge from the trailer and the featurette that at least some of those expectations will be met, especially those of scale and spectacle. But, given the quality of the cast, direction and production, I think it’s safe to assume that the effort is made successfully.

The featurette has, by my count five sections, including an introduction, a conclusion, and segments on cast and characters, spectacle and scale, and production personnel responsible for the visual achievement. There is overlap among each section, since the stars, producers and director Nolan throughout do talking head duty. Similarly certain thematic concerns and marketing appeals are made regularly and insistently: remember, although this film purports to be about the making of the film and its role as the third of a blockbuster series of cinematic realizations of a cultural significant myth (i.e. Batman), this is ultimately a trailer, serving movie marketing imperatives. A featurette needs to stay “on message,” and this one does.

The trailer starts with scenes from the film. Bruce Wayne/Batman, played by Christian Bale dances with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), aka Catwoman. We see Bane (Tom Hardy), the arch-villain, escape in-transit from an airplane and organize the assault on Gotham, from which Batman has been absent for the past 8 years. We learn that the film, in Director Christopher Nolan’s words, is the construction of an “elemental conflict between good and evil,” in which the stakes, the scale and the spectacle have been pushed to a whole new level. In other words, this is a bigger, more serious Batman. Producers Charles Roven and Emma Thomas add their two cents worth, hitting similar notes in agreement with Nolan.

ACT II: The Cast/The Characters
In this section we see and hear from Batman, Bane, Selina Kyle, police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Wayne Enterprises Board member and friend of Bruce, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), Alfred the butler, the emotional center of the film (the inimitable Michael Caine), Lucius the scientist/inventor/CEO of Wayne Enterprises (Morgan Freeman) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). All explain their roles, character traits and objectives, which conduce to the larger argument of the featurette: to wit, this is big, serious, culturally resonant filmmaking and the fitting conclusion to a box office powerhouse and critically esteemed series of films, all by Nolan.

These two sections are integrated, so perhaps it’s cheating to distinguish them. That said, in this, the longest section of the featurette, we learn about the visual magic of this film by meeting and learning from the various distinguished creatives responsible. Production Designer Nathan Crowley; FX Supervisor Chris Corbould, Director of Photography, Wally Pfister; Paul Franklin, Visual Effects Supervisor, play show and tell with the look, the gadgets, the stunts and the extra-intensive crowd scenes. Models, diagrams, prototypes, etc., are featured to deliver “behind the scenes” insights and information. (Note: This section sold me on the movie, whose trailer I found ideologically problematic, when I discussed it back in the Fall.)

In the fifth section of the featurette, the various strands of the argument are brought together: Characters, spectacle and production talent fuse into a climax that begins with valedictory remarks from our talking heads before heading into a quick-cut, exhilarating back end that uses the cinematographic power and appeal of scenes and dialogue to link the claims of the featurette with the marketing appeal of the film. We hear that The Dark Knight Rises is big, but emotionally intimate and affecting, and that the saga has come full circle. We are told to anticipate closure and advised that a “great story deserves a great ending,” a tautology that’s meant to characterize this release.

But the final words of the trailer belong to the characters, Batwoman and Batman. She: “You’ve given these people everything,” she says, bitterly, urging him, presumably, to save himself. “Not Everything….Not Yet,” he grimly predicts. It’s a line that applies both to the diegetic world of the film and to the context within which The Dark Knight Rises is being released. Neither Bane, nor audiences, have seen what Batman and director Nolan, can do, which is a very compelling argument for why we have to see the movie.

Of all of the comic book movies, I like Batman (both the 80/90’s iteration and Nolan’s) the best. And this short film is a beautifully done featurette: it’s tight, coherent, compelling and visually stunning. It makes a strong case for the quality of the film being advertised.

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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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One Response to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES Featurette: A Long Trailer and A Short Documentary

  1. Pingback: BLOOPERS & OUTTAKES: Trailers By Another Name and From Another Angle | REVIEWS OF PREVIEWS

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