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Coming Attractions

Coming Attractions
Reading American Movie Trailers

Starting from the premise that movie trailers can be considered a film genre, this pioneering book explores the genre’s conventions and offers a primer for reading the rhetoric of movie trailers.

Series: Texas Film and Media Studies

November 2004
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308 pages | 6 x 9 | 59 b&w illus. |

Movie trailers—those previews of coming attractions before the start of a feature film—are routinely praised and reviled by moviegoers and film critics alike: "They give away too much of the movie." "They're better than the films." "They only show the spectacular parts." "They lie." "They're the best part of going to the movies." But whether you love them or hate them, trailers always serve their purpose of offering free samples of a film to influence moviegoing decision-making. Indeed, with their inclusion on videotapes, DVDs, and on the Internet, trailers are more widely seen and influential now than at any time in their history.

Starting from the premise that movie trailers can be considered a film genre, this pioneering book explores the genre's conventions and offers a primer for reading the rhetoric of movie trailers. Lisa Kernan identifies three principal rhetorical strategies that structure trailers: appeals to audience interest in film genres, stories, and/or stars. She also analyzes the trailers for twenty-seven popular Hollywood films from the classical, transitional, and contemporary eras, exploring what the rhetorical appeals within these trailers reveal about Hollywood's changing conceptions of the moviegoing audience. Kernan argues that movie trailers constitute a long-standing hybrid of advertising and cinema and, as such, are precursors to today's heavily commercialized cultural forms in which art and marketing become increasingly indistinguishable.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Trailers: A Cinema of (Coming) Attractions
  • Chapter 2. Trailer Rhetoric
  • Chapter 3. The Classical Era: The "Mythic Universal American"
  • Chapter 4. The Transitional Era: Chasing the Elusive Audience
  • Chapter 5. The Contemporary Era: The Global Family Audience
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion. The Cinema Is Dead: Long Live the Cinema of (Coming) Attractions
  • Filmography of Trailers Viewed
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Lisa Kernan holds an appointment at UCLA as the library's film, television, theater, and photography subject specialist, and also serves as a lecturer in the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media.


[UTP note: Footnotes have been omitted from the below text but are present in the book.]

Trailers, or previews of coming attractions, are both praised and reviled by film scholars and regular moviegoers alike. "They give away too much of the movie." "They're better than the films." "They only show the spectacular parts." "All the best jokes are in the trailer." "They lie." "They're the best part of going to the movies." "They're too loud." At the same time, they are used by both groups precisely as they're meant to be used, as free samples to aid in moviegoing decision making. And in the contemporary market, trailers' reach is ever expanding, with their inclusion on videotapes, DVDs, and on the Internet, where they are an increasingly popular and influential marketing tool. Yet very little scholarly attention has been paid to the way trailers characterize films, and thus presume audience desire, in order to sell them.

While trailers are a form of advertising, they are also a unique form of narrative film exhibition, wherein promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not). Thus this book is not a study of film advertising as a whole, and will not treat television advertising for films, nor key art such as posters. I am defining a movie trailer as a brief film text that usually displays images from a specific feature film while asserting its excellence, and that is created for the purpose of projecting in theaters to promote a film's theatrical release. Trailers are film paratexts that are especially important to study in an era when promotion and visual narrative have become increasingly difficult to disentangle in all kinds of popular media, whether music television, children's cartoons, "infotainment," or films themselves. Indeed, as Jane Gaines noted as early as 1990, "Today, the analysis of culture as commodity may have lost its explanatory potency since we are left with so few examples of uncommodified relations." And more recently, scholars are finding that global capitalism's pervasive systems of cultural marketing necessitate a rethinking and re-visioning of the role of "screen studies" in contemporary media analysis. Neither advertising theory nor narrative film theories adequately address what consequences the current ubiquity of the promotional message might hold for contemporary definitions and understandings of moving-image narrative forms. The study of trailers, a long-standing popular form of promotional narrative (which both sells and tells a reconfigured version of a film narrative), may shed historical light on the emergence of this particular convergence of spectator and consumer address, and the project of this book is to further that investigation.

By offering audiences concise, direct-address cinematic texts that serve as both attractions and as a form of persuasion, trailers allow audiences to read the phenomenon of promotional narrative in a particularly dramatic way. Trailers are a cinema—of (coming) attractions. Analysis of trailers as a unique cinematic form can bring a greater critical awareness to audiences' readings not only of trailers themselves, but of the variety of marketing-laden texts comprising the contemporary visual culture industry as a whole. Trailers' unique status as cinematic promotions of narrative—and narrativizations of promotion—enables a treatment that transcends a mere marketing critique and has the potential to contribute to a social history of desire.

Generally present in popular film, the processes of filmic narration that ensure that audiences are caught up in identifying with fictional film worlds and suspending disbelief result in a familiar relationship (analyzed by countless film theorists) between audiences and the films unreeling before them. Shot-reverse-shot structures and other framing conventions ordinarily keep viewers from looking directly into the eyes of characters, and even voice-over narrations, while addressed to viewers, generally tell their part of the story without directly invoking the audience. Trailers, on the other hand, have often spoken to us directly, frequently telling us to SEE! COME! JOIN IN! THRILL TO! . . . , even at times using characters or actors shown looking directly into the camera and at the audience (although contemporary trailers usually display such injunctions more obliquely).

The actual identity of this "us" that trailers and other promotional discourses address—the historical, gendered, racially and class-specific spectator of American popular film—is now a prime object of film reception studies. Indeed, the recent and widespread "return to history" within the field of film studies addresses this historical spectator in two important ways. First, many ethnographic investigations of the consumption behavior of film spectators attempt to ground the field on a more material basis from which to make claims about the cultural contexts of film reception; and second, a number of archival investigations of the extratextual discourses (such as posters, pressbooks, reviews, exhibition documents and fan magazines) surrounding films themselves are being performed that shed new light on the industrial, institutional and cultural influences that shape both audiences' interpretations of films and the ideological underpinnings of Hollywood production practices. A study of trailers seems a logical fit that would continue both these approaches. But my interest in trailers and audiences lies more in the process by which audiences are implicitly defined by promotional discourses, as the studios attempt to know what "the audience" wants. Rather than exploring the actual spectator, I am interested in the hypothetical spectator that can be read within trailer texts themselves: an "audience study" through the looking glass of the Hollywood film industry.

My project of reading trailers to discern who the film industry thinks it is addressing within trailer texts is designed to invite a more critical approach to spectatorship itself—for the benefit not only of scholars but also of "rank and file" spectators. People watching films need not do in-depth primary research on film reception to get a handle on the ideological implications of the commodity relations of film spectatorship. Trailers provide unique and specific rhetorical structures that fold visual and auditory evidence of the film production industry's assessment of its actual audience (as well as its desires for a potential audience) into a one- to three-minute cinematic experience. Film studies has explored various models for considering those who watch films: among these, semiotic and psychoanalytic theories treat them as (ideal, implied, constructed or historical) spectators; in commodity theories they're considered consumers; in historical reception studies they tend to be called the audience. While my perspective draws on all three models and each of these words may be called into service depending on whether the aspect under consideration is semiotic, economic or historical, trailers are most interesting to me for the ways they can vividly illuminate (more than merely measure or document) how the motion picture audience was imagined by the film industry—a historical fact in its own right.

This approach comes from an urge to resist the current trend in film historiography to eschew textual analysis of films in favor of archival document research, to the degree that it sometimes seems film historians aren't writing about movies anymore. I suggest that the (understandable) reaction against the totalizing forms of textual analysis favored by earlier structuralist approaches has resulted in scholars occasionally "throwing the baby out with the bath water," as film studies valorizes certain styles of industrial and institutional historiography while at times minimizing the importance (indeed, inevitability) of grounding film history within a point of view about our actual historical object, the cinematic text. Regardless of its occasional lapses into historical relativism, the advances of poststructuralist theory still apply. "History" is not written by a unified, centered historical subject who stands apart from the object of study and can freely consider "facts" and documents as objective—to the contrary, history often "writes us." Analysis of film texts is as crucial to the historian as visits to the archive, although of course any analysis must be couched within as much acknowledgment as possible of his or her own subject position. This book represents an effort to posit nontotalizing, accessible, yet theoretically informed methods for analyzing film texts and paratexts as primary archival documents. As ecologists can analyze a tree to determine facts about its entire ecosystem, a rhetorical textual analysis of trailers can facilitate a cognitive mapping of where we stand in relation to the cultural and historical "ecosystem" of the commodity relations of Hollywood film.

My own subject position as a middle-class WASP second-generation film scholar coming of age in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century has obviously influenced my interest in trailers. During an informal seminar at UCLA in 1992, historian Hayden White encouraged film and television students to "privilege your neurosis to tell you what interests you," and expressed interest in theories "based on unease, on what embarrasses." Coming from my particular class and family background, it embarrassed me how easily I can be seduced by all kinds of promotional texts. While I have always imagined that I am not drawn to select brand-name products on the basis of advertising, trailers, as ads for watching, are the perfect seduction for me because movies are a "product" I "consume" extensively and (almost) without shame. Yet contradictorily, the impulse to resist the pull of images has been with me almost as long as their seductiveness, thanks to a film scholar mother who would "bare the device" of movie scenes that scared me as a child and who introduced me to the films and theories of Jean-Luc Godard as a teenager. At times my resulting tendency to survey and examine, more than participate in, film and media culture has also been a source of unease, given my (also class-based) desire not to set myself apart from or above "the masses." I have pursued this work on trailers partly as an attempt to model the kind of critical spectatorship I would like to be able to experience naturally: a reconciliation of critical distance and emotional engagement.

This positioning results in my research emerging from an inevitable point of view, or in Kenneth Burke's terminology, a "terministic screen." One reason I have been drawn to rhetoric as a methodology is precisely its acknowledgment of vantage point in the context of scholarly research. Indeed, David Blakesley's anthology of recent work on film and rhetoric takes Burke's concept as its title. And while "rhetoric's function as a filter or screen, enabling some things to pass through clearly, obscuring or repressing others" requires of rhetorical film scholars a vigilance to avoid allowing pet theories to determine, a priori, our analyses, we must acknowledge that "what theory 'produces' . . . is in part a consequence of its terministic screen," that is, the speaking position of the theorist.

I rely on classical rhetoric, the art of persuasion, to analyze trailers because they are quintessentially persuasive cinematic texts. While looking to rhetoric is a move that places my work strongly within a structuralist/semiotic tradition, my overall methodology and purpose is that of ideological critique within a social-historical framework. The recent re-visioning of the uses of rhetoric for film studies—and specifically for ideological critique—is surveyed in Blakesley's anthology, which attempts to "map the emergent field of rhetorical studies of film." By integrating a rhetorical method within a social history of trailers I participate in this re-visioning and thereby hope to demonstrate the ongoing use value of textual analysis for film historiographic investigation. Aristotelian rhetoric offers a method by which one can pinpoint textual evidence of trailer producers' assumptions about their audience(s). The enthymeme, Aristotle's word for those figures of speech wherein commonplaces shared by the listener are incorporated into a speaker's assertions, is key to locating this evidence. I identify enthymemes as components of trailers' promotion of three principal textual features of films: genres, stories and stars, in the process assessing some of the broader ideological implications of the industry's assumptions about its audiences' interest in these features.

Trailers, of course, are not the only film texts that demonstrate the extent to which spectatorship is institutionalized within cinema practice as a term of the text: this is a historical condition of Hollywood film. Theatrical trailer spectatorship is, however, a heightened spectatorial mode, an arena where spectators tend to evince greater awareness of themselves as a collectivity, even as they are subjected to a more pointed ideological thrust by trailers' specifically promotional forms of address than they may be in the general experience of film spectatorship. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the trailer segment of the theatrical exhibition experience that contradicts trailers' supposedly disciplinary or instructional function.

In quoting from the films they promote and giving spectators "free samples" of them, trailers can be seen to reframe their original fictional film narratives into a (window) shopper's world. Much recent film scholarship has called attention to the relationships between film spectatorship and shopping, and specifically to the "shop window" analogy. Trailer spectatorship increases the implied distance of the speculative consumer contemplation involved in cinematic window shopping; it also removes the commitment to enter the familiar contract of "suspension of disbelief" entailed in the process of watching a complete narrative film (we aren't "buying it"), doubly distancing spectators from either a lived-world agency or an imaginary one. At the same time, trailer spectatorship is one of the primary sites where audiences are pointedly "shopping" for films. Contemporary audiences sometimes express awareness of the greater distance entailed in the theatrical trailer viewing experience by manifesting interactivity among themselves—as when hisses, cheers and other editorial comments punctuate the exhibition of trailers or fill the silences between them.

The distance from the source text's narrative pull entailed in trailers' quoting from the films they promote thus enables a greater closeness to other spectators as consumers and critics. Susan Stewart's phenomenological study of narratives of exaggeration and nostalgia comments on the transformative aspect of quotation:

In quotation we find the context of production transformed and the utterance detached from the authority of that context. . . . As Bateson has explained in his studies of the message "This is play," the play message signifies a transformation of interpretive procedures, a transformation partaken of by members of the situation and which they understand as a device for entering into an abstract and metaphorical play world.

One sometimes experiences such "an abstract and metaphorical play world" in the movie theater when trailers are screened, and editorial comments exchanged among strangers during the trailers are perhaps less likely to be "shushed" than talking that occurs during the film itself, at least in the contemporary era (and I have found no evidence indicating this was any different earlier). The recent popularity of repertory trailer compilation screenings as nostalgic, camp, and/or ironic spectatorial experiences underscores the appeal of the sort of detachment Stewart characterizes. Whether "bought" or not, the transformed narrative coherence of this quotational "world" inhabited by spectators of trailers constitutes the diegesis of the promotional film text.

In this aspect, trailers resemble a prenarrative system of filmmaking that evokes Tom Gunning's influential work on early cinema. Gunning uses Eisenstein's notion of a "montage of attractions" to characterize pre-1906 cinema as "a cinema of attractions," which he describes as "less . . . a way of telling stories than . . . a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating because of their illusory power . . . and exoticism; . . . a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator." In trailers, images are selected and combined in ways that privilege attracting the spectator's attention over sustaining narrative coherence. Yet trailers also maintain a relationship to the narrative they promote, and in this relationship between promotional images of attraction and coherent cinematic narrative lie the unique characteristics that constitute the rhetoric of trailers.

To be precise, trailers are film paratexts. As Gérard Genette has characterized them, paratexts are those textual elements that emerge from and impart significance to a (literary) text but aren't considered integral to the text itself, such as all prefatory material, dust jacket blurbs, advertisements and reviews. Specifically, trailers can be seen as instances of a film's "public epitext." Because of their heavily quotational aspect and the way they rhetorically reconfigure scenes from the film, endowing them with persuasive content, I would suggest moreover that these texts simultaneously exist at a para and a meta remove from their source texts. To analyze metacommunication is to "look for the abstract structural frameworks and systemic processes, the codes and constraints, which allow only certain messages to be transmitted in the system." Thus an analysis of trailers' promotional rhetoric speaks to the ideological and cultural conditions of, or constraints within, Hollywood cinematic narrative itself in specific historical moments.

As both narrative and promotional texts, trailers themselves can be seen as a hybrid genre within the canon of Hollywood film. They offer film viewers an italicized, alluringly reconfigured narrative space of ellipsis and enigma, where features such as characters' gestures and gazes, spatial relations, character and camera movement, dialogue, narration, music, and evocations of film's narrative structure have particular signifying characteristics, as will be explored in these pages. Considering trailers as a genre of film practice—and this book as a genre study—helps us look at these particularities as partaking of more than merely a type of advertising: to see trailers as cinematic textual practices among others. This in turn reminds us that the intersection of selling and telling in these little pieces of film varies perhaps only in a matter of degree from that of Hollywood films themselves. It also reminds us to consider trailers' place in the cultural imaginary of Hollywood film reception: that is, as more than a mere reflection of their industrial role as a marketing practice constituting one facet of a promotional campaign. Trailers are at once ads and more than ads. People who are incensed to see product advertising on the big screen (a phenomenon that is on the increase) rush to be in their seats in time for the trailers. During the course of my research I have repeatedly heard "I love trailers" in reaction to my topic, and invariably, what's meant is not just "I love being shown ads for new movies so I can decide which ones to go to," but rather an appreciation of the unique visual and narrative/promotional qualities of these short film texts.

Like many film scholars, I often find viewing films a divided experience. As mentioned, I can feel the detachment of retaining an awareness of the artifice of filmmaking while simultaneously losing myself in the seductive qualities of projected celluloid, "going along with" the mechanisms of spectator-construction that I know are operating in most narrative feature films. The two modes of viewing are inscribed in each other in that any attempt to describe the one relies on a knowledge of the other, yet their coexistence in my experience of movie spectatorship seems irreconcilable, impossible.

Trailer spectatorship heightens the presence of this doubleness. The contradictoriness of trailers is perhaps their salient feature, and for me at once their greatest source of pleasure and the point where they most incisively display Hollywood's view of its audience(s). In fact, trailers operate as a unique sort of cinematic gyroscope in which a host of contradictions are briefly (for one to three minutes) sustained in balance—not the least of which is the quality of nostalgia for a film we haven't even seen yet. Because they are anticipatory texts, they need no resolution. For all the weightiness of their narratorial pronouncements and the booming sound effects of their cataclysmic imagery, they are breathless, liminal and ephemeral. They are fun because they play (or trail . . .) at the edges of narrative cinematic sense. Like the brief moment in which the cloaked Klingon "bird of prey" warships in Star Trek must become visible (and thus vulnerable) in order to have enough power to discharge their weapons, trailers are where Hollywood displays its contradictions right at the point where its promotional message is most direct. Describing the play of rhetorical features in this zone of contradiction and potential dialectic within and among trailer texts comes as close as anything to satisfying my desire to understand some of the contradictions of my own relationship to spectatorship.

Generic Features of Trailers

As suggested earlier, there are common features among trailers from all eras as well as historical transformations within the genre. Most trailers have in common a few generic features: some sort of introductory or concluding address to the audience about the film either through titles or narration, selected scenes from the film, montages of quick-cut action scenes, and identifications of significant cast members or characters. The genre of trailers also has much in common with other kinds of advertising. Audiences for advertisements are constantly re-creating meanings as they read or watch them. They mediate between particular ads and "referent systems"—or the body of social knowledge on which advertisers and audiences alike draw and rely—and in this process audiences co-constitute the meanings of ads.

Yet film as a product differs from most other advertised goods in that the referent systems that trailers use and audiences transform in the process of constructing meaning are more than a body of social knowledge. They are that, plus a body of specific cinematic conventions, a body of expectations about what films can offer narratively, and a set of desires. These desires are not to consume an object, but to engage in an experience, in a process of meaning-production through narrative film, a "free sample" of which the trailer constructs. If a trailer can "piggyback" the captive and willing movie audience's desire to see a given film (the one they've come to presently see) onto, first, a desire to see another film (the one being promoted), and next, to other desires the audience is believed to hold, the audience is more likely "sold" on the promoted film. This principle is the basis of the film industry's exploitation practices as a whole, which owe as much to the historical precedent of P. T. Barnum as to other advertising. Through trailers, the use value of narrative (enjoying a film) is subsumed to its exchange value (wanting to see another film) by a process of transforming the codes of narrative fiction into the codes of promotional rhetoric. In this process, new narrative (or more precisely, narrative/promotional) codes or rhetorical devices are produced.

Trailers construct a narrative time-space that differs from (and creates desire for) the fictive world of the film itself. The fast pace of most trailers accentuates the film's surface of cinematic spectacle, displaying the film's shiniest wares, or most attractive images, positioning it as a commodity for sale. Narrative, however, does not disappear in this process. Trailers are themselves little stories constructed within the anticipatory dimension of capitalist realism in which carefully selected individual cinematic images, dynamically combined in highly teleological editing structures, shine with a surface gloss of exaggerated spectacularity.

In particular, as I will explore, trailers commonly utilize codes of voice-over narration, sound and sound overlapping, music, graphics, and most importantly, editing, or montage. A system of discontinuous continuity editing—which I call discontinuity editing—operates through alternation, combination and abbreviation of scenes to construct a new, trailer logic, differing from (yet, obviously, related to) the narrative logic of the film. One shot in a two-minute trailer is called upon to stand in for a number of narrative elements, such as character subjectivity and relations, plot development and suspense. Of course, this can be true of film in general, but since in trailers each of these abbreviated stand-in images is part of an ad for an as-yet-unseen film, they become charged with excess signification. Faces, for example, bear tremendous weight as carriers of various emotional signifieds and enigmas. The Bazinian emphasis on the capacity of human facial physiognomy to reveal interior life is endowed with a promotional kick: in trailers the intensity of facial expressions acts as a window not onto the world or the interior spiritual state of a human being, but onto a sort of imagined narrative plenitude of whatever film is being promoted. Images of faces also draw upon a large cultural lexicon of photographic portraiture, endowing shots such as one of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X staring at the camera from behind prison bars with extra emotional punch (in trailers, photographic cliché can work to advantage).

Similarly, gestures and movements create impressions of narrative thrust, whether compatible or not with their actual narrative function in the film. Indeed, the "Kuleshov effect" gets fresh validation in the occasional repositionings of the meanings of shots from a film to better fit a trailer's narrative trajectory. Thus, a shot of Meg Ryan falling on her bed in the trailer for You've Got Mail (1998), which in the film is a gesture of sadness and frustration after the character is stood up by her cyberdate, appears in the trailer to be a swoon, thus better contributing to the film's overall generic positioning as a romantic comedy. Moreover, a trailer can imply plot developments that are false (such as Kurt Russell apparently dying in the trailer for Unlawful Entry, 1992); can contain conversations that never happen (juxtaposing two lines of dialogue unconnected in the film so that the second appears to reply to the first); or provide false narration (in which spoken lines of dialogue are abstracted from the drama and inserted as trailer voice-overs). Additionally, shots are sometimes included in trailers that do not appear in the finished file (such as a "silly walk" Jack Nicholson does in the trailer for As Good As It Gets, 1997). Trailers get away with numerous falsifications in the interests of promotion, just as other ads do, but because these advertisements are for a product that is a longer form of the same type of cinematic text, a trailer's truth claims "claim" different kinds of "truth" about the films they promote than other ads do, thus potentially creating a range of responses in audiences that may vary from their responses to ordinary advertising rhetoric.

In these "montages of (coming) attractions," spectacular features such as explosions and car crashes are often emphasized, with a frequent result that trailers are the loudest part of moviegoing. Trailers' less cataclysmic imagery, such as the requisite star identifications and expository dialogue, are thus dynamically punctuated with an excess of affective cues that assure audiences of action films, for example, that there will indeed be action. Shots of nature and other scene-setting devices are endowed with a graphic and textural "feel" that emphasizes the travelogue aspect of locations, and the experience of seeing the full film is often equated with travel by voice-over narrators or titles enjoining spectators to "come" or "voyage to . . ." An intriguing contemporary variation on this invitation is an evocation of the film's time and/or space as different from "ours" by narrations that begin "In a time when . . ." or "In a world where . . ." Christian Metz's "Grande Syntagmatique," an early exploration of rhetoric as an analytic tool for identifying significant units of film, offers a singularly apt term for these types of texturizing sequences of generalizing scenes so common to trailers: the "bracket syntagma," a nonchronological set of scenes that serve as successive examples.

Indeed, many codes of shot combination in trailers can be seen as variations on Metz's categories of the bracket and parallel syntagmas. Metz's parallel syntagmas, which are alternating series of shots without any spatial or temporal relation to each other, are often called into play in trailers, wherein elaborate systems of counterpoint are constructed between two or more different scenes, sometimes attenuating dialogue scenes by insertion of parallel shots of some kind; or presenting a variety of scenes crosscut with a recurrent graphic element such as a title (for example, the big "X" in the Malcolm X trailer). This very common convention of trailer crosscutting is known in industry parlance as a "grid."

Wipes, seen primarily in trailers of the classical and transitional eras, can serve different purposes, but their overall effect is to endow the trailer with a graphic surface that prohibits our ordinary cinematic relation to the screen (the suspension of disbelief required of narrative film spectatorship). Like graphic elements in magazine ads, they also keep us more aware of the promotional message than of the photographic image per se. Contemporary trailers often utilize sound effects and title graphics for the same purpose (while they too use wipes, if less frequently). Regardless of which type of (historically specific) transitional device is used, the montage structure of trailers is key to their production of meaning, and transitions other than straightforward cuts are generally utilized to participate in a trailer's "hype," calling attention to the advertising function of these short film texts. In the process, they also can function to promote genre (such as heart-shaped wipes in the classical era or the slamming sound effects which cue action-adventure in the contemporary era) and story features (such as a mirror-cracking wipe in the Casablanca trailer).

The narrational component of trailers is also key to their production of meaning. Early trailers of course relied on intertitles, but beginning in the 1930s titles would work in conjunction with voice-over narration. Both modes were sustained throughout trailers' history, although contemporary titles are more sparse and schematized. Many trailers have experimented with minimal narration, but the persistence of the (nearly always male) narratorial voice is overall a striking feature of trailers, again functioning to maintain viewers' awareness of the promotional message.

Trailers offer figurations of felicitous spaces so as to make audiences wish to be there or, conversely, horrific or suspenseful spaces to create audience desire to experience the "safe" fear and terror of the movies. The restriction of trailers to a few minutes of carefully selected and edited shots and scenes endows what we do see, from faces to car crashes, with a kind of pregnancy or underdeterminacy that allows audiences to create an imaginary (as-yet-unseen) film out of these fragments—we desire not the real film but the film we want to see. This filling-in of trailer enigmas with an idealized film thus heightens trailers' promotional value, as well as the visibility of the production industry's assumptions about what its hypothetical audience desires.

In addition to being a genre of sorts of their own, trailers (along with other promotional discourses) have been instrumental in the formation or legitimation of Hollywood genres, steering our interests in a given film into established or emerging generic categorizations and heightening our interest in the genre as a whole, facilitating the film's positioning as a commodity. Trailer producers' rhetorical appeal to spectators' familiarity (or desire for familiarity) with a genre or genres is one of several primary rhetorical tropes that inform trailers. In their efforts to persuade viewers to see a film, trailers may also appeal to spectators' desire for story, emphasizing a film's plot and characters, or to the spectators' attraction to well-known stars (or alternatively, directors or authors as stars). Often, the rhetoric of trailers combines all three appeals—genre, story, and stars—each of which has its own conventions. (These three are not the only types of appeal, but are trailers' primary rhetorical appeals, as will be explained. Other, extratextual appeals are occasionally invoked as well: notably reviews, awards, and box-office figures.)

The rhetorical appeals in turn rely on certain affective expectations, or qualities of experience that the viewer brings to the trailer. These affective expectations are what reception theorist Wolfgang Iser calls textual "gaps," or what Judith Williamson calls the "transformational spaces" the text leaves open for spectators' expected emotional, physical, aesthetic or other responses. In effect, as trailer producers have variously described, the industry assumes these gaps will be filled in by the spectator in habitual ways. For example, within any one of the above three primary categories of appeal, a trailer's rhetoric might privilege a film's heartwarming qualities, its verisimilitude, or heightened spectacle. However, the realization (or not) of affective cues dwells in the experience of the spectator, not within the rhetorical tropes of the trailer itself. This distinction is important to clarify in ensuring that this analysis is indeed a textual analysis, treating the trailer's visible textual features (appeals to interest in genres, stories and stars) in order to discern underlying assumptions that can be read therein, rather than generalizing from the analyst's subjective responses to a trailer's affective cues. This summary of the way rhetoric is being brought to bear on my analysis of trailers will be detailed in the following chapter, wherein I characterize and describe the operations of the three primary types of rhetorical appeals under discussion—the rhetorics of genre, story and stardom.

Demographics has an impact on trailer rhetoric, as quantified by market research and/or as imagined by trailer makers. Different markets are made visible in trailers by textual evidence of "targeting," or appeals to specific genders, age groups, or other categories of subjectivity within trailers' overall mission to expand the audience. Comparisons of a film's theatrical trailer with other facets of its promotional campaign, such as pressbooks, print advertising, or TV spots, affirm the trailer's role as a sort of coalition of the campaign's various demographic strategies. The semiotic density of trailers allows for many buttons to be pushed at once, making the trailer operate as a nucleus, or "navel," of the promotional campaign. Television ads are an important subject in their own right, as are presskits, posters, key art, and in the classical era, exhibitor ballyhoo. But while I do refer to other elements of a film's promotional campaign, this study of the implied audiences rhetorically inscribed within Hollywood promotional texts limits itself to the original theatrical trailer.

As the nuclei of the promotional effort, trailers resemble a larger cinematic unit—not only the film they promote, but the entire film bill of which they are a part (here I am thinking specifically of the classical-era film bill). The first-run theater film bill in the classical Hollywood era was an ideological smorgasbord that offered to the public commodified views of all things visible, as Eric Smoodin has pointed out. Smoodin argues that the film bill's visual cornucopia of different modes, genres, lengths and styles of film within the theatrical exhibition space (which, although unavailable for his study, prominently featured previews of coming attractions) also contributed to social control by communicating acceptable cultural norms and marking out a zone where sights and sounds were assembled for the purpose of commodification. The variety and diversity of the bill came to signify the peaceful coexistence of potentially conflicting ideas or values, and became "part of the mythology of pluralism." Trailers themselves contribute to such a mythology, I would suggest, by their concatenation of promises to fulfill the diverse narrative and generic desires of a variety of demographic groups. "Something for everyone," as will be seen, is a primary ideological underpinning of much trailer rhetoric, begging the questions this book asks: who are they calling "everyone" (and how do they know what we all want)? Throughout their history, trailers have contributed to the naturalization of a variety of social desires that will supposedly be fulfilled by going to the movies. "All the emotions of a lifetime!" proclaims the trailer for Disney's Pollyanna (1960)—"For years to come, you'll remember. You'll remember this girl and this motion picture."

Trailers' unique temporal status as, paradoxically, nostalgic structures of feeling for a film we haven't seen yet cues us to their status as fundamentally contradictory texts. Their rhetorical appeals reify not only (fictionalized) past experience but also the future—the anticipated experience of future moviegoing, and even future memories of past moviegoing. Examples of this are rife throughout the trailer corpus. Yet if all trailers did was reify cinematic experience, I suggest that they would not hold such powerful appeal. Many kinds of feelings are in play as we watch them. At their most provocative, they can also evoke what Ernst Bloch, in his Frankfurt school-era Marxist study of daydreams and utopian hope, attempted to formulate as a historical consciousness of a collectively hoped-for future, an "anticipatory consciousness," as we invest them with our fondest hopes for a movie to come—and at times, for a world to come. Again contradictorily, the mythological aspect of trailers is thickened by the unique capacity of their montage structures to evoke real hopes.

While today's feature film exhibition experience no longer contains the range of types of film texts that it did in the classical era, today's trailer "supertext"—that is, the total "set" of trailers preceding a given film—offers its own metasignifying properties, often indicating to audiences the assumptions studios and/or exhibitors have made about the demographics to which the particular film will appeal. These "supertexts" are of particular critical interest when the film that follows the set of trailers in question is one that studios assume is of interest to a certain race, gender or age group. Research into which trailers accompany "chick flicks" or "black-themed" films, for example, might reveal studio assumptions about demographics in ways that the individual trailers alone cannot.

Of course, trailers don't necessarily "work" in the ways they are intended to. In the contemporary market, we can all cite anecdotal examples of the antipromotional capacities of trailers. The most common remark I tend to hear is that today's trailers give too much away—"if you see the trailer you don't need to see the film." (Since I began my research, this has been the most frequent response to my subject.) Thus, although this is not an audience study per se, it is important to acknowledge that trailers can be received in oppositional ways by audiences, yet as will be seen, viewing trailers oppositionally is not necessarily incompatible with trailers' promotional effect "working" on audiences.



“The book raises important questions about what trailers can tell us about ourselves as filmgoers and what clues they can provide to fill gaps in film history. With the release of this book, archivists, scholars, and audiences may never again view trailers in quite the same way.”
The Moving Image


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