Inception and the canon of movie trailers

This has been a busy few weeks for keeping up with trailers. The San Diego Comic-Con started last Thursday, now one of the most significant promotional staging grounds of the year, and as usual the event delivered blockbuster trailers for fans of media franchises to pour over in exacting detail on YouTube. And, appropriately given the increased attention to trailers brought by the SDCC, Insider and Vice have also produced two fascinating videos underlining, to varying degrees, the creative process involved in the beguiling business of movie trailers (they gloss a bit more than necessary, but still present some interesting stuff):

But perhaps the most intriguing, and maybe also the silliest, development in trailer discourse belongs to The Ringer, which staged a multi-day, 32-trailer tournament to crown the best movie trailer since 1990. Frivolous, sure, and laboriously presented, but innocuous enough at first glance. I’ve certainly spent some of my spare time, regrettably, in the realms of arbitrary debate and tedious sports metaphor, so, for the most part, this is fine. I can’t even find fault, or more precisely, find much point in finding fault, with the selections or the seeding (again, this is all very silly). These picks are almost all well-known trailers, and I’m not really in the business of finding omissions or offering alternatives to what has been offered here.


As a scholar of promotional media, though, my business is in the analysis of the popular and professional discourses which surround them. Broadly, my goals are to question how promotion figures into the mediated lives of audiences, as well as the functioning of the media industries themselves. This latter goal is why my dissertation research focuses on the Clio Entertainment and Golden Trailer Awards, the award-granting institutions which to a large degree structure the value of media paratexts, like trailers, for those who work in the media industries. These professional awards, viewed and appreciated largely as annual, semi-private trade rituals, position the prestige of promotional media as a question of both artistic and financial merit: a “good” movie trailer, for instance, possess artistic quality of its own, but it must also represent a financially successful film; and in that sense a “good” movie trailer is considered both dependent and independent of its parent film (I explored this topic in a column for Flow earlier this year). By the often opaque criteria, at least when viewed from the outside, the “best” of promotional media is vaunted in one moment for merely supporting, and in the next for surpassing, what is being promoted. Movie trailers, just to stick with the most high-profile example, defy traditional methods of aesthetic judgment and don’t play nice with the Film Appreciation syllabus, and they have thus far left professionals, scholars, and audiences in general without a truly sufficient, and fungible, vocabulary for their evaluation and classification.

Of course, if this tension is evident within the ranks of professionals, who pit their own work against the work of their colleagues (with obviously high stakes), then the assessment of movie trailers is perhaps even more difficult for audiences and popular critics, like the writers at The Ringer, who seemingly both love and hate the form. The Ringer‘s Final Four of movie trailers is a populist, wandering endeavor which, more than anything else, reveals an inexact and multifarious set of audience expectations for, and uses of, modern promotional media. Far more interesting than the final result, the bracket is useful as an illustration of the problems which trailers and promotional media still present for media criticism and consumption.

Leave aside all the casual, unnecessary assumptions about how audiences have historically consumed trailers; there’s simply too much to unpack there for right now (incidentally, I raised an eyebrow when Chris Ryan asserted in the opening article that the trailers at the beginning of VHS tapes were “to be fast-forwarded past,” something which sounds, well, decidedly unfun). Leave aside the periodization of trailers into flimsy epochs, and the aesthetic sea changes somehow, miraculously associated with these turning points (the post-YouTube movie trailer, we discover, transitioned into a “high-performing emotion-elicitation program,” an assertion which is nearly as questionable as it is inane). The real misunderstanding concerns the questions of authorship, authority, and media hierarchy tossed about by this series. And, of course, I think this indicates a larger disconnect in how we understand and appreciate the so-called “best” movie trailers, and whatever amounts to a canon of this work.

The Ringer series overwhelmingly (with one exception) makes sense of movie trailers through auteurism, as if prominent directors just bequeathed marketing material as the detritus of their “artistic vision.” For instance, in trying to figure out “the best movie trailer before 1990,” Adam Nayman frequently refers to (entirely white, male) auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick in order to buoy up film trailers as serious works of art. Sean Fennessey’s piece on trailers and spoilers struggles mightily with the notion that a teaser, trailer, or other marketing text might not line up flush with the finished product shown in theaters. This is easily explained with a bit of consideration for the size and scale of the media industries. Just sticking with the case of the Man of Steel teasers and trailers discussed by Fennessey, these promotional materials were produced months, possibly a year in advance, possibly with many teams in competition with each other, pushing a final product which may have undergone extensive changes before it was released, just to name a few of the variables involved. And then there’s the rather plain fact that Zack Snyder didn’t cut any of the teasers or trailers, but Jenn Horvath and her team did.

This is understandable to a degree, as the director (or some other singular creative force) is often one of the easiest, most accessible methods for making sense of media. And virtually no trailer carries any publicly visible marks of the agency or individuals hired to produce them. Yet, in the case of promotional media, already submerged in the hierarchies of the media industries, it is misleading to assume the authority or influence of a director. This, I think, ultimately leads to the unnecessary elision of the complex, ambivalent relationships undergirding promotional media and its laborers. And while Matthew Kitchen’s follow-up piece from this week partially address these complexities, it’s sadly ill-equipped for exploring the process or the participants involved in the creation of trailers and promotional media.

While some prominent, name-brand directors certainly take a hand in the conceptualization, execution, or (even nominal) approval of trailers, this is clearly not an easy thing to substantiate, the lore being more useful in this case than whatever amounts to the truth; and in any case this approach, imported somewhat sloppily from a few Film Studies classes, reductively flattens hierarchies of media work in favor of inadvertently bolstering those already established in the public eye. While above-the-line creative workers, such as a director, may place themselves in a position of approval over marketing material, just as often (and probably more so) authorship is delegated, however temporarily, to the producers, editors, copywriters, and composers who put together the trailers and promotional material which first greets audiences (In A Companion to Media Authorship, Jonathan Gray usefully argues that authorship isn’t just a question of who, but when, and I think this certainly rings true for promotional media). Questions of media authorship, in popular criticism or scholarship, should not be limited to instances of above-the-line labor, which already possess the visible markers and privileged statuses of authorship, but must also include the moments in which below- or beside-the-line labor is afforded authorship as well; without this nuance, we may otherwise fail to truly recognize the dynamics of power and value which structure the work of the media industries.

(Incidentally, I say “beside-the-line” here because I think promotional media labor is often lost somewhere in the traditional above-/below-the-line distinction, in that it possesses some of the creative autonomy of the above, while remaining generally invisible to the public, “below” in many ways as subservient or secondary labor.)

Take the winning Inception trailer, for example. It’s tempting, surely, to read this trailer as just another (para-)text in the Christopher Nolan cult of personality. And while the trailer certainly plays a key role in the circulation of authorship discourses for Nolan, there’s much more going on below the surface. The overused BRAAAM motif in trailers, which, like the masculine IN A WORLD… voiceover, has become a punchline in almost every fan edit or pop press curiosity piece about the world of movie trailers, is itself the site of multiple authorship discourses, with multiple composers and sound designers laying claim to originating the technique. If this is indeed something which makes the Inception trailer worthy of entry into a loosely-defined, popular canon of movie trailers, it’s worthwhile to question how quickly we attach Nolan’s name and influence to it.

Obviously, putting together an informal canon of trailers (or films, or paintings, or posters, or fan fic), or indeed a formal one (as in the Clios and Golden Trailers), is a political process fraught with power, privilege, and authority, a process which may ultimately surface far more problems than possibilities. The Ringer‘s series of articles draws out a conceptual difficulty in evaluating the output of the promotional media industries: simply, that we still really don’t know all that much yet about how they work, who is involved, and the complex of aesthetic, cultural, and financial relationships which structure them. Efforts to generate a canon of movie trailers, whether professional, popular, or scholarly, ultimately reveal disconnect and cross-talk in what is expected, and indeed wanted, from promotional media.


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