Watching the Trailer Watchers
Have you seen the Instagram video posts of Daisy Ridley (Rey) and John Boyega (Finn), the young unknowns in lead roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as they react in real time to watching the October 19th trailer? Have you been watching other videos of people watching the Star Wars trailer or watching trailer commentary videos posted by random fans or organized collectives? A good number of people have been watching, and considering the wide circulation of the videos, it is probably significantly more than the current 32.9K and 25.6K views each official post has accumulated.
Check out Daisy Ridley via instagram:
"Staying in a little b'n'b with my friend... Set an alarm to watch the trailer... My friend filmed my reaction. Totally emotional seeing it for the first time and so so so incredibly awed to be part of this incredible legacy #starwars #theforceawakens "
click for Instagram here,
....and similarly, John Boyega (below)
After I saw these stars-in-the-making trailer reactions, I began clicking around other videos circulating in relation to the trailer. I became one of the 350K+ viewers of “Is Luke Skywalker a Hero or a Villain?’—a Screen Junkies “Movie Fights” segment on The Force Awakens trailer (October 19th). The fight gets particularly significant between 6:63-14:49.
In thinking of video content about Star Wars content, I realized that the popularity of these filmed reactions and post-reaction commentary was a “content about content” category I overlooked in my own work on similar Disney brandcasting. Before turning to an analysis of the “watching the trailer watchers” videos, I want to offer a basic theory about the interconnections among the circulation of and the speculation about trailer content.
Inciting the Trailer Speculators
On a formal level, these trailer reaction videos register the trailer editor’s strategy of using decontextualized reaction shots to encourage viewer speculation, a central pleasure of trailer watching. With the penetration of social networking and web engagement behaviors into every day life, Hollywood can bank on viewers’ affiliations with online communities to enable a broad circulation of content and commentary in anticipation of an upcoming film. Part of the attraction for audiences is connected to the basic pleasures of anticipation. As audiences look forward to an upcoming film, producers trust that they will push forward the trailers and other similar content, and in the process of circulating it, generate awareness and commentary on it. The social element of this audience behavior creates a linkage between anticipation (pleasurable suspense) and speculation (pleasurable conjecture).
To speculate is to anticipate possibilities. Trailer producers must anticipate possible audiences and the appeals that would generate pleasurable suspense. Trailers need to activate pleasurable conjecture, using storytelling and editing to prompt audiences to speculate on various possibilities. In what possible ways might the story unfold? What twists will it take? Does the basic conflict get resolved or is it left open to interpretation? Is the open-endedness only at the midpoint before the culmination in a happy ending? Does the story depend on a different kind of anticipatory pleasure involving speculation on how the story gets to a pleasurably predictable outcome? Trailer producers anticipate which audiences might be interested in which stories, and weigh the possible creative approaches to revealing some of the film’s hooks and holding back others. They consider possible appeals in relation to fictional world, stars, and characterizations.
The simultaneity of commentary on the trailer and on the Instgram posts by Boyega and Ridley suggests that certain cultural stories and characterizations continue to have resonance generation after a generation. Current speculation about the characters played by these newcomers have been shaped by expectations set up in the franchise’s first film. In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker’s radical break comes in the classic form of the inciting incident (the death of his only known family), pushing him out of his mundane life and onto the world stage. Trailer speculators do not know what the new characters’ inciting incidents are, but they expect they will come in the form of loss and displacement (with speculation focused on Rey’s sobbing, Finn’s exploding plane, his surveying glance across an endless desert, which is assumed to be the same one across which Rey treks, with her faithful BB-8 unit at her side).
Watch me watch Me
Let’s start with some speculation about why so many people accepted the invitation of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega to watch them watch themselves debuting in the new Star Wars trailer. Are we watching to speculate on how we would act in their positions? To discuss how we think someone should act, and to measure the actors’ responses against those values? To reaffirm our belief in the possibility of becoming an overnight sensation and household name? To experience that transition vicariously? To capture an anticipated memory: to see a before-they-were-stars video before the actors were stars? Whatever the motivations for clicking on the videos, the actors’ Instagram accounts accrued a good deal of positive response. Ridley seemed dazzled and gleeful, Boyega like a youth trying to react in a mature, measured way, until he could not contain his excitement. He flipped backwards off the couch, and bounced around the room. Most commentators seemed excited to see videos of actors they hoped were on the cusp of global stardom. Yet, one might also read the actors’ reactions as divided by gender constructions or perhaps seeming too much like star image construction. Whatever the reading, the commentary sections indicated that many of those viewing the videos took some pleasure in talking about the actors’ reactions.
My assessment of the significance of this talk about trailers and other people’s reactions to them aligns with Henry Jenkins’ claims about the particular role of gossip in the convergent media industries. In Convergence Culture (2004) Jenkins builds on Deborah Jones’ understanding of gossip as a way to talk about “common experiences, share expertise, and reinforce social norms.” He says that talk about media content is a way to build “common ground between participants.” It becomes a “way of talking about yourself through critiquing the actions and values of others.” The “talk” on message boards, blogs, and other new media spaces is a form of social interaction. It is always doubling as “talk about the self,” about social norms, and admired character types. The reactions to the reactions of the franchise’s potential breakout stars and the speculation about the characters they play speak to the continuing appeal of one familiar story: the radical break that transforms the struggling nobody into a major player, whether in Hollywood, in the Star Wars metaverse, or on in the web “content about content” space.
Let’s turn now to the reactions of the three “combatants” participating in the Star Wars: The Force Awakes “Movie Fight” video posted on the Screen Junkies site (posted above). This trio seemed to share Boyega’s desire to project a mature ability to assess the trailer objectively, but they could not always contain their exuberance about the possibilities of it all. In the specific details of their commentaries, they each revealed emotional investments in elements of the franchise and their memories of earlier films shaped their expectations for the new one. The movie fight video exemplifies some differences in audience investment in the “collective cultural memory” of the Star Wars metaverse. The term is from Susan Brockus who writes about memories coalescing around cultural objects, and makes a useful distinction between conveyed collective memory—shared across generations—and situated collective memory—shared within a single cohort.
Brockus would say that the three “Movie Fight” combatants share a collective cultural memory of Star Wars, but each one has more situated cultural memories, which are often generational as well as personal. The web segment brought together Dan Murrell, a 32-year old Screen Junkies producer, Scott Mantz and Grae Drake, whose comments suggest they are old enough to have seen some, if not all, the original Star Wars theatrical releases. Mantz is currently affiliated with U.S. television’s Access Hollywood series and Drake is the editor of Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator covering film, television, and other media content. They each judge this new trailer watching experience in the context of their expectations of the first trilogy, and the degrees of disappointment they felt in the prequels. We can see this generational frame replicated across trailer commentary, especially by those who watched the first three movies as they were theatrically released. Murrell shares in this wide-ranging disappointment with the prequels, but his hostility toward them reveals that he also feels shortchanged in a generational sense. The Star Wars of his youth was not the classic Star Wars, and he wants a do-over.
Generational Memory: “Getting back to the future”
While Murrell was most interested in the trailer’s elements as signs of hope for the future of the franchise, Mantz and Drake had more nostalgic readings. Drake proclaimed that the best moment in the trailer was “not what we saw, but what we heard.” Mantz “got the chills” when he heard the opening notes of the score, which triggered his pleasurable recollections of John Williams’ Han Solo and the Princess theme. This associative process elicited a high degree of anticipation for Mantz, who speculated that the new film could be the next Empire Strikes Back. Drake also experienced a pleasurable memory trigger through sound, tracing her feelings of pleasurable excitement to the sound cue that accompanies the LucasFilm logo. It evoked the original positive associations of Lucas with the wonders produced by Industrial Light and Magic for the initial films. The company pioneered the kind of practical special effects J. J. Abrams chose for the new film instead of the CGI. The director’s speculation is that this choice will help The Force Awakens recapture the magic of the original Star Wars metaverse. The LucasFilm logo and accompanying sound cue was also a memory trigger for Murrell, but it had negative generational associations. In the 32-year-old’s case, it was a recollection of his younger self’s profound disappointment in Lucas’ conceptualization and direction of the prequel trilogy. Murrell’s optimism about the new film stemmed from its direction by Abrams, whom he implied was a reliable brand shepherd able to weave together a new story with the classic Star Wars elements. The trailer evoked these hopes through its parallels of new scenes to remembered scenes, of new characters juxtaposed with older ones or the iconic objects standing in for them. With some nostalgia born of the fact that the first trilogy screened before his time, Murrell concluded that the trailer gave him hope that Star Wars would finally be “getting back to the future.”
Brockus would take these responses to “Watching the Trailer” as evidence that the film had become a cultural object that had taken root in collective memory and in more situational memories related to generational or personal experiences. Their original anticipation for the earlier movies and memories of watching and assessing them against expectations impacts their anticipation for the upcoming viewing experience. It seems that what we are watching when watching these trailer watchers is the attachment of meanings to the trailer beyond the meanings inherent in it, thereby giving it affective value. Through this kind of annotated circulation trailers and other content about content acquire more value. When links to this content appear broadly across social networking sites and utilities, on aggregator and commentary sites, the content becomes part of the new media economy leveraged by global media companies and brands.
I hope that I have offered several discursive frames through which to read watching trailer watchers. I may simply have offered a rather long-winded annotation of the annotated circulation of the new Star Wars trailer. So the cycle continues . . .
Brockus, Susan. “Where the Magic Lives: Disney’s Cultivation, Co-Creation, and Control of America’s Cultural Objects.” Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture 2.4 (2009): 191-211.
Gillan, Jennifer. Television Brandcasting: The Return of the Content-Promotion Hybrid. New York: Routledge, 2015.
Jenkins, Henry. Containment Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2004.