In early June 2012, the above trailer was posted, claiming to be the official teaser for the sequel to J.J. Abrams critical and commercial Star Trek movie (2009). The editors as Film School Rejects and Ain’t It Cool News, among others, accepted its bonafides and shared it with fans as what it purported to be, only to admit they’d been “taken in,” by a skillful misrepresentation.
This trailer is by a fan, and although it features actual, as-yet unreleased footage from the film (the shot of Benedict Cumberbatch in the honeycomb chrysalis/pod is authentic and a legitimate “get” from the production), it was not a product of Paramount or Bad Robot‘s marketing effort. I say “was,” because the fan-made teaser came to my attention in an advertisement by Paramount for the upcoming film, an ad that highlighted the virtuoso deception. In other words, the “fan teaser that fooled the internet” is now a marketing meme for Paramount, as inevitably it will be for another much-anticipated release.
Studio marketing departments are understood to feel ambivalence about fan trailers, especially those that masquerade as “official” or “authentic” productions. Ten years ago, an online trailer for Attack of the Clones (2002) created a sensation before it was revealed to be fan-produced. On the one hand, the studio loves the buzz, the engagement, the careful study of the trailer and the added publicity from its discovery as “unofficial.” On the other hand, the positioning of a major studio release is a decision about which the marketing department feels justifiably proprietary. A rogue “fan-trailer” could compromise carefully laid (and very expensive) strategic and promotional plans. Fans and their enthusiasm are invaluable adjuncts until they go “off the reservation” and resist, reject or re-direct the narrative that the studio/production company has chosen for its project.
What’s remarkable in the case of the Untitled Star Trek sequel is that the fan trailer and its successful deception are embraced, appropriated and integrated into the studio’s marketing plan. It’s enough to make one suspicious about just how “unauthorized” and “fan-produced” this trailer actually was?
But I come to celebrate this complicated, unmanageable phenomenon, not to exercise my paranoia about the totalizing aspect of Hollywoood Marketing campaigns. This is an impressive performance by an “amateur,” but one who has clearly internalized the formula and mastered the various skills required to conceive and produce a blockbuster teaser.
The 1:10 teaser starts with the MPAA green screen, followed by Paramount and Bad Robot logos, which imply “authorized” and “official.” The iconic first note of the iconic, harmonic progression known as the Star Trek theme is struck and repeated, over a deep, ominous synthesized note.
Scratchy footage (apparently from the science films about reproduction and nuclear fusion you might have watched in high-school) appear over a slightly distorted and not entirely continuous recording of the prophetic words of President Eisenhower’s valedictory speech (1961), popularly known as the “industrial-complex” warning: “America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate..scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research..As we peer into society’s future, we must avoid the impulse to live only for today..there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.”
As Ike intones the last lines above, a close shot reveals a human form (Mr. Cumberbatch) inside a honey-comb pod, as the music modulates into a minor key and swells to the final reveal of the Star Fleet Symbol, followed by the credit block.
The imagery depicts human reproduction (fertilization, the developing fetus, the “pod-person”) and atomic investigation (the secrets of the atom; the release of its energy). Yet, the imagery, like the soundscape, is distorted, hazy, smoke-occluded, with signal interference (analog problems!) and hyper-closeup photography resulting in abstraction and near indistinguishability. At times, shots of characters from the film are superimposed over other images (graphics and the beating heart of a fetus). What it all means, is a challenge to the viewer, an invitation to repeat, slow-motion viewing, research and comparison with others viewers.
This is an impressionistic and highly suggestive teaser, a mystery rather than a revelation, raising more questions than it answers, in the best teaser tradition. There is no copy, although the Eisenhower speech about the perils of scientific advance unrestrained by realism and responsibility, points to a conflict the film may explore. It’s beautifully conceived, edited, soundscaped and produced, indicative of professional skill in the fan who created it.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether this teaser is truly a “deception,” or the simulation of deception in pursuance of the Studio’s marketing campaign. The audience has been engaged, first in reacting to the “putative release;” second, in discovering the deception; third in celebrating its skill; and fourth, in buzzing about the film with the breathless enthusiasm of the hard-core fan base. The casual viewer is implicated in the hype as well as in the revelation and policing of deception. The scandal becomes yet another story about the production, one that enjoys the added value of being spontaneous, organic and “real,” rather than a manufactured, planted and dutifully reported feature from the unit publicist or a high-profile interview with cast or production team.
The viewers role is interactive, rather than passive and spectatorial. His or her “work” as a fan now extends to discovering the fake or fraudulent; viewers are now required to watch trailers forensically with an eye to establishing authenticity. It’s hard to imagine a more engaged kind of viewing practice or one that is more likely to result in the fan/viewer/likely audience member buying a ticket when the film itself is released.
I call this active watching “meta scrutiny.” Not only do I want to know about the film to be release–and trailers are notoriously parsimonious in revealing detail since much of the fun is the “tease,” the arousal of curiosity without its concurrent satisfaction–, I want to know if the trailer itself is official, authentic, authorized. As a “reader,” of this text, I have to be familiar not only with the formula of teasers to assess its “quality” in that register, I’m now obliged to know something about the production of the film it teases, in order to ascertain the truth of its self-presentation.
In this case, Paramount and Bad Robot have aligned themselves with the positioning of the film proposed by the fan, and it’s this embrace, appropriation and acceptance that I think most remarkable. First of all, what might “fan positioning” mean, as a category of marketing? In this case, a person or team, with no financial investment or creative and production responsibility in the film (but probably a significant emotional investment) has presumed to position the film in the mind of the likely audience member, and succeeded wildly.
The untitled sequel is presented as if its chief concerns are the relationship between past and future, science and ethical responsibility, reproduction and duplication. These are rather heady concerns for a trailer campaign to foreground, although Star Trek is admittedly a special case. Ontological questions have always been a staple of its fictional world. Certainly, it’s not difficult to think that the studio marketing department might have preferred a less “abstract” and cerebral sell, perhaps one involving action, rivalry, spectacle and heroism. And perhaps they did, only to find their campaign commandeered by an online phenomenon. In that case, perhaps re-aligning their positioning became the more sensible strategy.
Paramount has the next play, the release of the actual official teaser, and after that the official trailer(s). But henceforward, I and other trailer afficionados will be asking not only “what world is this,” about a new release, but what evidence authorizes us to accept the claim that this is indeed the “official” and actual world of the film (at least as established by the distributor’s marketing department) and not the private, personal perspective of a talented, motivated fan?
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.