Trailers Are….. Insights from scholars of (rather than makers of) trailers


Trailer maker and film marketing pioneer Andy Kuehn told me repeatedly that the movie industry operated on the guild system: start at the bottom; work your way up; learn by apprenticeship; pay your dues; serve your time; rely on those you know and who you’ve worked with before. Suspect outsiders, interlopers, consultants, experts and academics!

If I’d had any sense, I would have applied for a job as a runner or assistant in a trailer house, after getting my Ph.D. in English Literature, rather than just hanging out my shingle and demanding work. But 15 years later, I still persist in believing the point I argued in my dissertation: outsiders, marginal types, and the excluded usually have a better view of the mainstream and the center, precisely because of their distance from it. If they can straddle both perspectives, so much the better. (This is, of course, a pitch for the value of my own unique position as both a working professional in the industry and a scholar-researcher of their subject.)

In today’s post I want to quote a few of the film scholars whose writing on A/V marketing I find informative, insightful and persuasive. I should also note that their scholarly work is informed by exhaustive research within the industry and extensive interviews with those who make trailers, as well as by a love for the subject and a passion for writing and teaching about it.


In her seminal, well-reviewed 2006 book, COMING ATTRACTIONS (U. of Texas Press), UCLA Librarian and Professor Lisa Kernan defines and categorizes trailers this way:

Trailers are….”a brief film text that usually displays images from a specific feature film while asserting its excellence, and that is created for the purpose of projecting in theaters to promote a film’s theatrical release. Trailers are a Film paratext—an element that emerges from and imparts significance to a film, but isn’t integral to the film itself. They are part of the film’s public epitext. They are the ‘Film we want to see.'”

By paratext, she means surrounding or collateral materials, much like a book jacket with author photo and bio or back cover with review blurbs or praise for other works, functions in publishing. Titles, forwards are paratexts. By epitext, she means announcements from “outside” the text itself. A review, for example, or an advertisement.

Kernan’s claim that the trailer is the “film we want to see,” may have been inspired by the pronouncement of French auteur/filmmaker, Jean Luc Godard, as repeated by my eminent friend, Prof. Vinzenz Hediger in the interview he gave to my documentary on movie trailers: “I’d like to quote Jean Luc Goddard who said, quite simply, Trailers are the perfect film…Trailers are promises given that are never broken.”(Vinzenz was recently appointed Professor of Film, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main–for those Theory Heads out there, this is the home of the “Frankfurt School” were Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, et al. taught, thought and wrote.)

Hediger paraphrases this notion of the unbroken promise as a guarantee that trailers are the one film that will never let you down. That’s because you, the audience, do the imaginative work, projecting your desire into all the gaps in story telling and characterization and spectacle and genre that a trailer necessarily exposes. Enabled by its own limitations and elliptical construction, the trailer invites us to believe that the coming film will satisfy all our desires, delivering the plenitude of which it can only herald, preview and glimpse.

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 Trailers Are….. Insights from scholars of (rather than makers of) trailers

  1. I wish Hediger had published more in English. I know that his book on this topic will be out soon though and am looking forward to it.

    If you’re interested in the literature on trailers, Jonathan Gray has also published at least one essay “Television Pre-views and the Meaning of Hype” and a book, Show Sold Separately, that deals also with trailers.

    And then there’s Keith Johnston, author of Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology.

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