Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Arts and the Market, Volume 5, Issue 2.
About the Guest Editors
Dr Daniel Hesford is a Writer and Researcher, focusing on theories of reception, promotion and paratextuality, and the artistic status of trailers in cinematic culture. He has contributed work to The Independent, N-Gamer and Frames Cinema Journal on the art and science of film and video-game trailers.
Dr Keith M. Johnston is a Reader in Film Television at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (McFarland & Co., 2009), and has published articles on film, television, online and radio trailers in Convergence, Media History and Music, Sound and the Moving Image. He has contributed to popular articles on trailers in Wired, The Atlantic and The Wrap, and is currently leading “Watching the Trailer”, a research project on trailer audiences.
Introduction – selling screens: the culture and design of titles, teasers and trailers
Trailers and title and credit sequences are, in different ways, parts of the connective tissue of the cinematic body […] [they] link the inside and outside of fictional texts, the acknowledgement of the real-world origin of a film with its story and storyworld […] they also connect the institutional and economic reality of a film to its story (Powrie and Heldt, 2014, p. 111).
The irritating distractions have morphed into the main attractions […] the unbilled extras are hogging the spotlight (Doherty, 2014).
The last decade has seen a significant growth of critical and practical interest in the study of the short-form promotional materials that surround films, television shows and other media: television title sequences, film teasers; television “idents” and “bumpers”; trailers for a variety of media formats from films and television programmes to filmed theatre performances and video games (Kernan, 2004; Johnston, 2009; Kerrigan, 2010; Gray, 2010; Grainge, 2011; Davison, 2013a, b; Hesford, 2013; Picarelli, 2013). This has been matched by an awareness within media and marketing industries that the traditional boundaries between “promotional materials” and “entertainment content” have become increasingly fluid: the 2009 interactive trailer for Avatar was designed as an audience experience as much as a traditional film trailer; a behind-the-scenes video for SPECTRE (the 24th James Bond film) released online in January 2015 teased locations, crew and split-second glimpses of finished footage; the title sequence for Game of Thrones (HBO 2011) has been recreated in LEGO, referenced on The Simpsons (Fox 1989) and become a source of fan-produced work shared online; while Marvel fans embraced the Twitter hashtag #AvengersAssemble to “unlock” the third Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) trailer. To dismiss any or all of these as “irritating distractions” ignores the sheer dynamism and ubiquity of these materials within arts marketing practices, reduces awareness of the potential for artistry and creativity within such short-form media, and arguably reinstates a low/high culture dichotomy against which the initial scholarly work had begun to make inroads.
Indeed, instead of “hogging” the spotlight, work on promotional material studies remains scarce. This issue is one of only three English language special journal issues devoted to the study of such materials, after Frames Cinema Journal Vol. 3, and Music, Sound and the Moving Image Vol. 8 No. 2. The main field-specific events include one conference (Titles, Teasers and Trailers, University of Edinburgh, April 2013), and a series of smaller symposia and events at the Universities of Warwick (2007), Nottingham (2013), and East Anglia (2013), and the fifth Media Mutations event (2013). Equally, articles, chapters and contributions are spread across multiple journals, websites and books in arts, humanities and social sciences. Dynamic and ubiquitous they may be, but these multiple aspects of screen life have yet to be fully accounted for within scholarship: they remain the “coming attraction”, not the main feature.
Like its companion collection in the Autumn 2014 issue of Music, Sound and the Moving Image the initial push for this special issue came out of the 2013 University of Edinburgh conference. As co-editors we opted to expand our focus to consider a wider range of promotional materials (notably ARGs and websites) that were not covered in the papers presented at that event. In part that decision was led by our desire for the issue to fully embrace its central title and concept: “selling screens” means more than simply selling the cinema or television screen, or indeed any example of “selling” that takes place on a film or television “screen”. The dominance of the internet in current arts and media marketing practices, and in scholarly research, means that “selling screens” needs to look to that plurality and consider a range of screens: the film screen, the television screen, the computer, smartphone and tablet screens. Whether the object of study is a trailer, an end title sequence, a motion poster, an ARG, a website or a teaser or a television ident, the internet remains both the main repository of these materials (for audiences and scholars) and, increasingly, the main site of the marketing activity (for industry).
The emphasis on “the screen” as a location for artistic experience can also lead to these phenomena being overlooked precisely because they occur around and in between screens, before, during and/or after the “feature” content that is presented. This has led to such promotional materials being popularly perceived as adjuncts to artistic work or as “something ephemeral, to be disposed of once the primary text becomes available” (Stevens, 2000). The ubiquity and availability of these materials can reinforce that perception and play into more negative associations around marketing: accusations of cynicism, manipulation and disposability creep into debates more often than those of creativity or artistry. Yet even as commercial rhetoric seems to overwhelm artistic aspiration, the culture of screen promotion is accompanied by a cognitive dissonance – since fans and critics alike engage widely in the viewing, discussion and proliferation of teasers, trailers and titles before during and after their exhibition. Furthermore, digital media software allows us to propagate, preserve and even alter trailers, adverts and posters in innovative and highly creative ways. This persistent and increasing trend of critical and creative attention paid to promotional materials contradicts their popular perception as disposable ephemera.
Academic work has created a similar dissonance around promotional forms, where crossing the threshold from promotional material to finished feature is to abandon paratext for text, transience for permanence, advert for art. The work of Gerard Génette has driven much of this approach: his writing defines the paratextual (book jackets, copyright details, promotional blurbs) as items which “belong” to, “surround” and “extend” a text in order to “present it” and “ensure its presence in the world” (Génette, 1997, p. 1). Spatial and temporal in nature, Génette saw the paratext as a “threshold” which governed a reader’s entry to or exit from a text (Génette, 1997, p. 2). Yet such an approach can become reductive when applied to promotional screen materials, framing such screen ephemera as incomplete units, misanthropic adjuncts which rely on antecedent texts for relevance. Specifically applied to this field by Lisa Kernan (although similar claims can be found in earlier work such as Haralovich and Klaprat, 1981/1982), the use of the paratext frames the experience of trailers as “window shopping” (Kernan, 2004, p. 6), portals to a textual – “something else”, rendering promotional content figuratively and substantially transparent, and resulting in promotional materials being studied and received as adjunct components of both culture and academia.
Challenging this existing paratextual framework is not an attempt to separate text from context (or purpose) but to insist that the trailer-film context should not dictate or reduce the range of responses available when considering one of these texts. A film trailer advertises a forthcoming film, but it is reductive to state that it can only be understood in that temporal or industrial sense: the trailer has an equally important relationship to the other trailers in the pre-film “trailer park” schedule; to the DVD special features menu where it has been archived; to the YouTube site where someone has uploaded it; to other trailers from the same studio or production company; to the trailer producer who created it; to the cinemas that exhibited it. If we pull back from the reductive notion of the trailer as a paratext or “irritating distraction” and consider all promotional materials as texts, it allows us to explore them as complete entities, with their own aesthetic traits and approaches, rather than a paratextual entryway.
Trailer studies, perhaps the most developed area in recent years, has seen a range of alternative approaches that challenge or develop the paratextual. The claim that “the paratext may in time become the text, as the audience members take their cues […] from the paratext’s images, signs, symbols and words, rather than from the film or program’s” (Gray, 2010, p. 46) is a rather grudging admission that trailers may themselves be texts; while trailers have been described as short films worthy of study in their own right, and as untapped sources of film history (Johnston, 2009); or as suggestive sources of Deleuzian analysis (Hesford, 2013). Of particular note for this special issue is Vinzenz Hediger’s claim that the trailer adopts “the tense of desire, the tense of imaginary anticipation and of anticipated memory”: bypassing the ephemerality of the paratext, Hediger reframes the trailer as “a remembrance of things to come […] the film one has not yet seen as one would remember it if one had already seen it” (Hediger, 2004, p. 156). The tense of desire outlines a context for the consumption, enjoyment and analysis of screen promotional materials as textual units in their own right. In the tense of desire, teasers, trailers and titles are not disposable and ancillary, but textual and essential. They are “multifaceted and layered representations of industrial and cultural information that flow and stretch beyond what the feature might offer” (Johnston, 2013).
The collection in this Special Issue reveals an on-going desire to explore the cultural value of promotion and marketing, contribute to our understanding of it in all its forms and continue the quest to legitimise promotional materials as an area of rich academic study and artistic merit. The promotional form offers vast possibilities for creative expression. The landscape of imaginary anticipation represents a playground for artists and viewers who – in their production and consumption of promotional materials – are able to explore textual concepts and their relationship to time and space. The universal catalogue of promotional forms includes many entries which defy conventional classification, including idents, interstitials, interactive and alternate-reality games, viral media, fan-produced content, theatre trailers, book trailers, press releases and websites. Modes of production and presentation also fall outside received convention: as Iain MacDonald and Barbara Brownie discuss in their articles here, the conception, development and distribution of a television ident is a substantially different process to that of a cinematic trailer – just as it is to that of a book trailer or ARG.
To meet and respond to that challenge will require methodological rigour, theoretical diversity and interdisciplinary breadth. As may be clear from the work cited through this introduction, and the Special Issue as a whole, some of that has already begun. Within these pages are combinations and explorations of media industry studies, textual analysis, ethnography, typography, audience and reception studies, transmedia studies, branding, fan studies, semiotics and discourse analysis. That scope is, in part, because of the range of materials that can be contained under the rubric of “promotional materials”: that breadth is one of the advantages of the field but those working in the field need to be cautious about how we define and explore its boundaries. As much separates the study of title sequences from the study of ARGs as binds them together. We would argue that such diversity, and a broader interest in the artistry and creativity of these short-form promotional materials, keeps the field in vital health, but we must remain alert to (and willing to challenge) the charge that such “cultural particulate” is not as worthy of study as the film, television programme, video game, book or equally dominant “text” (Doherty, 2014).
We designed this special issue to continue this debate, not attempt to answer it. If anything, the range of articles and promotional materials contained here is a necessary expansion that challenges what counts within this (still) emerging field. Yet before finishing, there is one concern that spans the whole of this special issue that has not been addressed, despite its pressing nature. Almost all work in this field relies heavily on archival sources to advance its case, challenge prevailing orthodoxies or deepen our knowledge of previous marketing practices (see, e.g. Johnston, 2009; Greene, 2013; Gillan, 2014). Yet the selection of what is considered worthy of archival preservation must become a more visible debate for such scholars:
[…] future historians of our era will have to spend a good bit of time seeking out, for example, copies of the most frequently seen films in our cinemas: the trailers and pre-feature advertisements. Ephemeral in nature, they fall outside the field’s current domain of interest and thus are not an archival priority, running the risk of being unavailable to future historians (Uricchio, 2014, p. 126).
Those of us who do research into promotional materials should see this as a call to arms to protect the materials we feel are important to study, to ensure that this is a field that does not become too narrow, or too focused only on one form of material. Who is archiving the ARGs or forums that Stephanie Janes discusses in her piece in this issue, or the websites and trailers that Jon Wroot considers? Television programmes may be archived, but what of the typographically diverse interstitials that surround them, and which fuel the work of Brownie and MacDonald here? Given the invisibility of those who produce promotional screen materials (outlined in Grainge and Johnson’s article), where is the archive of their work, their thoughts and creative practices? Ed Vollans, whose opening piece is a timely challenge for naming conventions in our field, has noted that several of the web pages he found for his study are already subject to link rot, preventing others from following in his path or assessing his data. This is not restricted to our authors: historical studies of website development might struggle to accurately cite the “original” version of that site (if indeed such a concept can be applied to a developing digital resource); poster scholars need to be alert to release dates, national contexts, production and distribution details (while also querying the range of those available online); while radio and television spots for films (often overlooked in trailer studies) have only a piecemeal presence in archives and online (Johnston, 2011, 2014).
Of course, as is clear from the Uricchio quotation, the archival presence (or absence) of promotional materials is, in large part, a re-acknowledgement and restatement of the ephemeral assumptions outlined above, assumptions that still permeate the industry, scholarship and the archive community. Yet we believe that the articles chosen for this special issue, and the growing interest found across the academy, demonstrate a need for more engagement, more analysis, more work that deepens and extends our understanding of promotional materials, to reclaim them from the tag of “ephemera” and reposition them as core resources within the related fields of film, television, media, cultural and advertising studies. That will entail moving beyond binary notions of advertising/art, or text/paratext, to an acceptance that such divisions and distinctions restrict rather than reveal. These articles add, complicate and deepen existing debates. They make the case for diverse methodological and interdisciplinary approaches. As such, we hope they serve to push the field in new and exciting directions.
Dr Daniel Hesford - Department of Film Studies, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK
Dr Keith M. Johnston - School of Art, Media and American Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK
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