- “Yes” response #367 to Survey Question 12
“I don't pay much attention to trailers. If I want to see a film, my choice is based on a much wider set of considerations.”
- “No” response #34 to Survey Question 12
“I don't trust trailers enough to let one set my expectations.”
- “No” response #91 to Survey Question 12
In an influential 1989 article on the semiotic and economic work of movie trailers, Barbara Klinger critiques the commonplace notion of errant spectators and incompetent viewers. Arguing that while classic Hollywood films (“texts” is the term she favors) can be said to construct their ideal audience (summoning, training and shifting its gaze “appropriately”), trailers are unable to achieve a similar channeling of the desire, expectation and spectation of their viewers. Chiefly, this is a function of trailers “poly-semanticity,” their plurality of messages and meanings, and their susceptibility to multiple decodings because of narrative, causal and editorial discontinuities constituent of the form.
Rather, when trailer audiences respond in ways that appear inappropriate, idiosyncratic, transgressive or inattentive according to this problematic standard of spectation, they may actually be fully, meaningfully and appropriately engaged with the marketing of the feature that inspires the viewing.
What Umberto Eco describes as a digressing viewer of film and the Frankfurt School identifies as a distracted one, Klinger considers to be paradigmatic not pariah viewers To see them as errant or incompetent audience members is to ignore their engagement –however peculiar-- with the feature “product” and their implication in the multi-media juggernaut of movie marketing. Their –as well as our-- consumption of film and film epiphenomenon (trailers, posters, journalism, etc.) involves exposure to multiple, intersecting and interacting stories, messages, images and appeals. What the film industry calls a marketing, publicity and promotion campaign is the event that socially oriented film scholars examine under the name of reception studies.
Moreover, a likely audience member always already navigates a web of film promotional discourses with which she is fluent. Every word, image, star or spectacle is hyperlinked to other representations; every shot, story and sequence is interrupted by references to other tellings in other media. As Klinger puts it, the typical “spectator is momentarily diverted from the linear flow of elements” into other stories, other emphases and other meanings. Indeed, an effective trailer can rightly be said to depend on just this dispersion of its saleable and attractive elements and qualities into other registers and referential systems than that of film art, especially discourses such as celebrity, history, literature, popular culture and news.
Indeed, film advertising and marketing depend on this extension of a film’s “best bits” (what are perceived to be its attractive and appealing qualities) into alternate, intersecting and oppositional media, social forms and interpersonal experiences. The fragmentation rather than the assemblage of a film narrative (or construction of an authorized and accepted interpretation) is the result. This is not an accident, but an imperative of the need to expose an audience to the various qualities that are deemed valuable and saleable in the feature that is thereby represented partially, impressionistically and even inaccurately. As a audio-visual synechdoche, trailers represents a collection of parts standing in for the whole.
Another way to approach this prominent insight in our data is to notice that a trailer tells another story than the film does. While the images, conflicts and moods that a trailer foregrounds and deploys may not be coherent or entirely assimilable to the feature that inspired them, they may nonetheless effectively participate in a “network of cultural signification” that appeals to audiences and promotes the consumption of the film. As Eco puts it, marketing distorts and advertising disseminates content into units of meaning that are incommensurate with the “unadulterable specificity” of the feature. In this blog, we come to celebrate and examine that alterity, not condemn it.
Indeed, this is not a problem with marketing, but its very dynamic. Consequently, competent audiences and inerrant ones (who can’t be wrong by virtue of being present to watch a trailer and make a purchase decision thereupon), are far from the idealized, attentive and film-literate viewers conceived by or (de)constructed within classic reception theory. The spectator who talks back to the trailer or who understands stars, events and spectacles in relation to other trailers & films, who interprets the content through a skein of celebrity gossip, journalistic publicity and pop culture reference, who actively dislikes trailers and presumes to see through them is an audience member who competently performs the intertextual and meta-textual work that a trailer elicits, elaborates and exploits in pursuit of engagement, investment and involvement. Even an audience member who hates trailers and is frustrated by their deception, their spoilings and their calculated emphases is (however negatively) engaged and invested, informed and edified, solicited and sold by the trailer. The trailer absorbs audience animus toward the film’s marketing, leaving the feature unsullied. And for those who aren’t among the target audience pool, the deplorable and despised trailer completes its vital mission of diverting a potential ticket buyer from an entertainment he or she may not be able to appreciate.
When survey respondents complain that a trailer raises expectations that the feature doesn’t fulfill; that it tells a different story with a different mood than that of the film it advertises; that it presents all the “best bits” thereby rendering the feature superfluous; or that scenes in the trailer were not found in the film-- they may be evincing naïve and untutored understandings of movie marketing and trailer formulae, but they are plainly demonstrating their qualification to number among the viewing public to whom the trailer is served and from whose curious and suspicious gaze the trailer screens its feature.