GTA 16 – Watching the Trailer with an Audience of Trailermakers
We had the pleasure of attending the 16th Annual Golden Trailer Awards Show in Los Angeles at the Saban Theater, a week ago. It’s our 3rd time at the event and we have show founder Evelyn Brady-Watters, to thank for including us in the distribution of tickets.
For years, the Clio Key Art Awards (in partnership with The Hollywood Reporter -- the Oscars of Trailers, celebrating their 44th year in October) had it all to themselves, before Ms. Brady-Watters and sister, Monica, decided the trailer business deserved --and would support-- another celebration of its creative products and personnel. We’re glad they did. GTA is a perennially entertaining event with ample networking, and gladhanding opportunities.
While taped and excerpted to YouTube, the event is pitched to its industry audience and it has a decidedly clubby atmosphere. Typically hosted with sass and snark by a famous face, this year TJ Miller, star of Silicon Valley and the voice of several animated blockbusters (Tuffnut from How to Train Your Dragon, among them), did the honors. Amidst the well-deserved self-congratulation and obligatory shout outs to Studio Clients who “make it all possible,” a steady stream of ribald, self-conscious, self-deprecating remarks expressed the stress, the stakes, the silliness and the delight mixed with disbelief common to those whose privilege it is to market the world’s favorite entertainment.
Given our interest in understanding the audience experience of trailers, trailers produced by GTA honorees on behalf of features, documentaries, video games and tv programs, there was an surreal quality to watching this audience respond to trailers they had made to communicate with audiences they had imagined responding in anticipated and appropriate ways. Although they were not the target audience, they couldn’t help being seduced by their own work, by their own appeals, by the onslaught of image, sound, word and graphic design, so skillfully combined to overwhelm the critical faculties and engage with emotion, sense and the unconscious and autonomous faculties of the body.
We're here to report that the men and women of the industry don’t just appreciate their craftsmanship and function dispassionately; they respond in anticipated and appropriate ways as well, consuming their products willingly, succumbing to their appeals and experiencing their aural, haptic and visual effects. And it wasn’t just the consequence of an open and well staffed bar. While critical judgment was the order of the night---and critical judgment was rendered (by a panel composed of filmmaking professionals from just outside the immediate industry)—this audience appeared more inclined to root and cheer than analyze or criticize. We can hardly blame them. Trailers do that to anyone, no matter how involved you are in their manufacture or study.
Another uncanny, mirror-stage moment (among several) was watching the GTA Event Trailer, a compilation of excerpts of trailers in competition used to advertise the live show about to commence. Not surprisingly, the GTA produces a series of short previews of the categories and contenders for the event which it screens on lobby monitors during the reception and elsewhere. In such trailers of trailers, the editing (or cutting, as they say) is intense. There is no classic narrative here, nor that compressed, metonymic mode of storytelling found in trailers, obliging viewers to associate and leap at plot points, albeit with a helping hand from music, dialogue and copy. And yet, in context, such a compilation is perfectly intelligible due to the comparison and contrast--a fundamental form of argumentation-- that structures such a "clip show" of trailers. Presumably, the Judges had access to full trailers when making their decisions.
Now, while we invite you read about the winning trailers, posters, video-game trailers, tv spots and other kinds or film-promotional efforts awarded Golden Trailer Trophies (76 categories in all, each statuette featuring a gold-plated 1950’s house trailer atop a pedestal) we devote our remaining remarks to the awards that seems most iconic, revelatory and germane to our interest in audiences, their perception of trailers and the film industry’s perception of them: The Golden Fleece Award & The Trashiest Trailer Award.
Despite it’s mythological reference, The Golden Fleece Award has nothing to do with sheepskin but everything to do with deception, the fleecing of hard earned entertainment dollars from unwitting filmgoers. This award, one of 18 presented live at the event--a very diplomatic description appears on the FAQ page-- honors the trailer maker that most artfully and effectively dresses the turkey, burnishes the bomb or gilds the turd, as industry players phrase it. In other words, The Golden Fleece rewards an excellent trailer for a "not so great film." Quick visits to Rotten Tomatos and Box Office Mojo confirm that the four films –The Boy Next Door, The Giver, Lost River & The Pyramid—were critical misses, although The Boy Next Door & The Giver secured 50M and 45M respectively in gross receipts, whereas Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, has made only 45K in the month since its release. Sadly, at least for its producer and distributor, The Pyramid has recouped a modest 2.7M, which only goes to show that even the most skillful trailer cannot perform miracles. And yet, to watch each of these trailers is to see turd-gilding at a high level of artistry.
[nb: I do not think the CLIO/Key Art Awards offers a prize for this category of achievement, so I congratulate GTA for its candor about a central dynamic – an open secret, no less-- of the industry it promotes and celebrates. ]
Of course, members of the trailer industry appreciate that their mission is not only to represent the feature but to represent it in the most appealing light. Often, these objectives can be pursued simultaneously. Occasionally, however, they conflict, and as with so many other institutions subject to dual mandates, money tends to predominate. The commercial imperative to open a film, even when its excellence is dubious, takes priority. This tension and this reality explain why audiences approach trailers with a healthy amount of skepticism. They have been persuaded too many times before to see films that are not (enough or at all) like the film that the trailer presented OR, that are like the film the trailer presents, but also not excellent, or indeed, any good at all.
We, all of us, trailer makers included, have been fooled before, though not every time, just as occasionally, we’re astonished to find that a trailer under-sells the qualities of its feature. The gamble of buying a movie ticket, with its potential for delight or dismay, is perhaps an under-appreciated component of trailer watching. The game they propose, and the emotional payoff they provide when we guess or judge appropriately, is a seductive, possibly an addictive one.
Now, the Trashiest Trailer Award, given to "the trailer that uses an overt amount of gore or sex to sell a film, often becoming 'campy'" in the process, is yet another press, audience and critical favorite of the show. This year's winner, the trailer for What We Do in the Shadows, (grossing 6.1 M at the Box Office worldwide while earning stratospheric Rotten Tomatoes scores), used quirky content and formulaic excess to transcend the limitations of both. Here was another moment in the show when industry assumptions about audience taste and desire came squarely (or circularly) into focus. Frankly, we're not entirely sure why this trailer earned the “trashiest” title, since by our lights, it smartly followed the promotional playbook rather than going "over the top" with materials that were already campy. Nonetheless, we applaud the GTA for acknowledging trailer trash or better yet, trashy trailers, and appreciating how they elicit a visceral, unconscious and typically positive reaction from audiences steeped from childhood in trailer conventions and familiar with their tropes and tricks.
In the long, halting campaign by scholars and historians to turn critical and cultural attention to film paratexts (aka Trailers), the creative marketing professionals who make them and the audiences who consume them with such relish, GTA 16 was a recognition of ground both gained and held. On this stage, on these screens, films weren’t the stars—it was trailers for whom the red carpet was laid, trailers that were praised at the podium and trailers on the monitors and in the mouths of attendees, presenters and hosts. Congratulations, indeed!