TRAILER TECHNOLOGY: From Sound to Portability, There's a Message in the Medium

(I’m indebted to Dr. Keith Johnston, of the University of East Anglia, for these many insights. His book, “Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology,” published in 2009 is still the defining study of the subject.)

Technology is a central–if all too often overlooked– determinant of trailers, in terms of their history, structure and content. Like the films they advertise, trailers are the products of technological innovation and have been throughout their history, enabled by technological development and showcases of innovation.
With advances in sound, optical printing, deep focus cinematography, color processing (Technicolor), projection/exhibition (Cinemascope, Cinerama, 3-D, Imax, etc.) and editing (style and technology), Trailers have trumpeted the changes and exploited them to sell tickets.

Then, when VHS, the Internet, and mobile media transformed our consumption of trailers, their aesthetic, narrative style and structure changed accordingly. Repeat viewing and fan obsession encouraged trailermakers to pack trailers with more content, using ever quicker editing to delight, tease and satisfy increasingly interactive and engaged viewers.

Or, consider the temporal aspect of trailers over the past 30+ years. We used to see a trailer at the theater prior to the release of the film. Perhaps we saw it more than once, but that was probably the exception. Today, “coming attractions” are just as likely to be seen during the film’s release, or well after. We might consume the trailer dozens of times, for its own cinematic charms, with no intention of seeing the feature it heralds.

Trailer’s availability on thousands of websites, as well as on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and mobile devices, has made them objects of repeat consumption, fascination and cultural significance. (Indeed, the course I teach, this blog I write, and the scholarship I mention wouldn’t exist without this technological support.) The orientation of our reception used to be the future. Today, it’s the present. We’ve moved from “coming soon,” to “now available.”

In the 21st century, we entered the era of the mobile trailer, with smaller screens and portable devices affecting yet again the experience of audio-visual movie marketing. In a subtle nod to Marshall McCluhan‘s dictium that the Medium is the Message, Johnston offers the following thesis about what’s entailed: shrinking screens and viewer controlled trailers on portable devices will change the nature of the trailer aesthetic and message. Trailer formulas and marketing approaches will follow suit.


As Johnston points out: smaller screens affect trailer presentation. Slower & closer trumps establishing shots and frenetic action sequences, since quick-cutting and epic scenes don’t “read” easily on portable device. Close-ups, dialogue, music and soundscaping will become even more salient, since such content is assimilable on 3×5 or 6×9 inch screens. And although, we still appear to be awaiting trailers explicitly and appropriately edited for smart phones and pads (THE FIGHT CLUB online spots, notwithstanding), I should emphasize that certain fundamentals of trailer making still apply: the appeal to story, character, genre and spectacle; representative or iconic shots/images from the film advertised; montage sequences to advance and condense story; dialogue, voice over and narration to engage viewers.

In closing, I wanted to detail what I think are Johnston’s most compelling claims about trailers in the 21st century:

Mobility and interactivity – the audience is no longer hundreds in the theatre, but “one,” you, the individual, watching trailers when and where you want.

Niche marketing is here: editing software, speed and marketing research means that it is possible, practical and critical to shape messages for all potential demographic/psychographic profiles.

Trailer editing speed–from quick cuts to montage–is intentionally fast and the images presented intentionally exceed assimilation on the first viewing. Trailers now require and benefit from repeat viewing.

You, the audience, are no longer passive, but interactive. Viewing when you choose, as often and as slowly as you choose. Create your own fan-motivated content and/or mash-ups. Post them online. An engaged fan is the best kind!

Your ability to consume trailers “on the run,” may be limited by software applications and hardware. (Quicktime? Realplayer? iPhone, Droid, Google Phone?)

Small screen size inhibits certain kinds of visual presentation. Instead, close ups, music and soundscape cues, avoidance of establishing shots & overly frenetic action and an emphasis on direct address to the viewer are characteristic.

Small screen emphasizes the need to see it theatrically. (Finally, a break for exhibitors!)

As screen size got smaller, mobility got greater

As the audience got smaller, interactivity got greater.

A temporally limited product is now a temporally unlimited one.

Trailers, once advertising paratexts (like book jackets, reviewer blurbs, or author bios) have now become products to be consumed in their own right.

Finally, although studios/producers/distributors still want interactivity to be top-down, the new media/technological landscape may frustrate that model.

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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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