‘Action… Suspense… Emotion!’: The Trailer as Cinematic Performance

By Daniel Hesford


Falling under the broad aegis of advertisement, film trailers are traditionally understood to be announcements of coming attractions, advance previews or acts of speculative “window shopping” (Lisa Kernan, 2004, 6). Like any advertisement, the trailer’s effectiveness may be retrospectively gauged by business generated for an antecedent film text. Indeed, the effort devoted, by film studios, to the marketing of their feature films is considerable, and has been increasing since the release of Jaws (1975) which followed a “saturation” advertising strategy (King, 2002, 55). Saturation advertising represents a multi-format, heterogeneous promotional presence – including posters, television spots, novel tie-ins, toys and other gimmicks – alongside conventional production of theatrical trailers.

In the age of saturation marketing, the proliferation of promotional forms means film trailers are ubiquitous – and their relationship to commerce and profit a component part of their public identity. Their visibility as promotional samples of “product” is evocative, leading to reactions like: “the trailer looked better than the film”, “it gave the best bits away”, or even that it “lied”. The negativity is a consequence of the trailer’s acute commercial character, in which tens of millions of dollars are spent on promotion 1 – and saturation marketing acts to “squeeze the maximum profit from a film” before poor critical response has time to inflict any damage (King, 2002, 55). Despite the cynicism behind (and directed towards) trailers and other promotional texts, a cognitive dissonance surrounds their reception. Perhaps a side-effect of their considerable commercial value, and aided and abetted by the internet’s ability to reach millions of casual spectators, film fans and critics engage prolifically in the viewing, storage, discussion and exhibition of promotional texts – in particular trailers. These archival efforts reveal a potential for diverse receptive experience, and point to a cultural resonance which digresses from the disposable, commercial qualities of conventional adverts.

In this paper I will examine how a culture of digressive reading positions the film trailer as a new form of cinematic expression – one which subverts and exploits negative associations of commercialism as part of a performative effect and which carries implications for the wider theoretical discussion of cinema. Barbara Klinger explores notions of “digressive” reception in her essay, Digressions at the Cinema, pointing out how  “social and intertextual agencies within mass culture… structure reception beyond textual boundaries” (1989, 5). Klinger describes a spectrum of paratextual and epitextual phenomena (like verbal discussion, or anecdotes about production) surrounding cinematic exhibition – and focuses specifically on “promotional forms” which “exemplify a relation between intertextuality and aesthetic commodification”:

A film’s commercial status is, after all, more than a matter of money or profit. Films circulate as products, not in a semantic vacuum, but in a mass cultural environment teeming with related commercial significations. Epiphenomena constitute this adjacent territory, creating not only a commercial life-support system for a film, but also a socially meaningful network of relations around it (1989, 5).

Representing the active participation of spectators, this “life-support” system illustrates ways in which the cinematic experience extends beyond the point of conventional disposal: the normative process in which adverts make way for products, and products fulfil their intended purposes. In this system, trailers function as much more than sales tools, serving as loci for considerable contemplation and thought or, as Jonathan Gray describes them, metatextual “frames and filters”, which tell us not “what to think, but what to think about and how to think about it” (2010, 3).

Like other trailer critics, including Kernan, Gray grounds his analysis of the trailer in Gérard Genette’s exploration of peripheral textual adornments – referred to as “paratexts” – including titles, author names, prefaces and illustrations which, while ambiguously connected to the “text”, function to “surround it and extend it” (Genette, 1997, 1). Kernan calls trailers “film paratexts” (2004, 7) and positioning them as such is advantageous to a complete understanding of their potential for cinematic expression. Genette’s definition rests on a spatial and temporal role, in which the paratext acts to “make present” an antecedent text in every sense of the word, including ensuring its “presence in the world” (1997, 1). The paratext functions, according to Genette, as a “threshold” of meaning, where a spectator may examine a sort of intertextual border crossing – what he calls an “undefined zone between the inside and the outside” (1997, 2) pointing both “towards the text” and “towards the world’s discourse about the text (ibid.).

Genette’s paratextual characteristics are reflected in current trailer discourse, in which the dichotomy of art and commercialism is referenced frequently. Kernan frames the trailer as “a unique form of film exhibition”, in which “promotional discourse and narrative pleasure are conjoined (whether happily or not)” (2004, 1), while Keith Johnston discusses the format’s role in “cross media film marketing” (Johnston, 2009, 21) as part of “a crucial textual bridge between film studio and audience” (ibid, 154). Following Klinger’s notions of digressive receptive potential, my discussion will take up Genette’s ideas and discuss how the film trailer acts as a performative outlet for new types of cinematic expression, while posing new questions for existing theoretical discussion. The idea of cinematic performance, in my discussion, is used in correlation with the term’s theatrical association – suggesting a degree of consideration, interpretation, staging and exhibition of some originating textual material. I will demonstrate that, in addition to various generic and thematic tropes specific to an antecedent film, the very act of “experiencing cinema” is coded into a trailer’s performance – taking place in the “undefined” paratextual space between text and reader, product and consumer.

Richard Jenkins explores performative expressions of the relationship between audiences and texts, through a variety of epiphenomenal behaviours he characterizes as “textual poaching” (Jenkins, 1992, 23). Jenkins describes various practices, including “slash fiction” 2 in which fans of popular film or television series take characters and place them within written epitextual scenarios – and “filk music” 3, involving the composition and performance of songs set in or involving characters from those films or series. While the results vary wildly in quality and content, both practices reveal a drive, on the part of readers, towards textual subjects, in which characters, themes, narratives and visual formats are reinterpreted,  re-staged and re-performed to generate meaning and expression beyond canonical or “authorized” origins. Examples of participatory subculture are varied – and enhanced by the internet, which allows for their widespread and instantaneous composition, distribution and exhibition. The increasing capability of home editing software is expanding the scope and sophistication of these participatory subcultures – Gray examines corollaries of textual poaching, including “vids” (2010, 154) or “mash-ups”, in which textual material is cannibalized from film texts, re-cut, arranged to music, and re-presented on YouTube and other websites. Vidding allows viewers to “find their own routes through” (ibid, 153) a text, participating in the meaning creation process by performing a personal interpretation of it.

Gray points out that while vids “appear somewhat trailerish” (ibid, 154), they are crucially designed to comment personally on their target text rather than “sell it per se” (ibid). As Gray argues, the digressive assumption of paratextual form and function goes beyond negative legal-associations of “poaching”, and that performative practices, like slash, filk and vidding, defy “crude ideas of passive, mindless audiences” (ibid, 145) engaged in commercial processes of consumption and disposal. Indeed, vids remove an important temporal aspect of that process, in which the source text is no-longer a future event to be “sold”. While promotional characteristics endure in the paratextual form, their function carries significant expressive potential – diminishing, manipulating and even subverting commercial artefacts for performative effect. The trailer offers a versatile and popular medium for this kind of digressive paratextual practice – formally an advert but functionally a space in which a filmmaker or editor (professional or amateur) may create a cinematic performance.

Klinger’s ideas for receptive digression of the cinematic extend to trailers, which, at both an amateur and professional level, are created as homages, spoofs or pastiches, free from any original commercial purpose. The spoof-trailer (as I refer to it here) differs from the vid as an attempt, first and foremost, to present a recreation of the promotional text, (a promotional “performance”) and to exploit recognition of that format for rhetorical or artistic effect. The absence of conventional commercial purpose creates a specific sort of receptive context, in which performative qualities are emphasised. Kathleen Williams discusses the tendency of spoofs to “play” with the trailer format while “stripping it of its commercial function (Williams, 2009, par.11). In these instances, various commercial conventions are “subverted while also being directly engaged with and utilisied” (ibid, par.9) – for example, the inclusion of MPAA classification certificates denoting age-suitability and content (Fig. 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1


More than just an act of simulation, the use of cinematic commercial themes and conventions constitutes a performative gesture. Williams discusses the popular trend of taking specific elements (intertitles and a sombre, acoustic guitar theme) from the trailer for Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) and cutting them into shots from other films to create a “new” trailer. The trend inserts homosexual subtexts into those texts by performing them with Brokeback Mountain’s paratextual identity. 4 An understanding of promotional form and convention is crucial here: specific commercial characteristics facilitate the parody effect. Similar efforts include the famous spoof trailer, Shining 5: a paratextual re-interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), “performed” as a light family comedy about a father attempting to reconnect with his son. Kubrick’s dark and sinister source text is re-cut and accompanied by a jokey voice-over and a musical track by Peter Gabriel 6, tricking us into a new interpretation. These trailer-texts only scratch the surface of a body of online work but each, to a varying extent, engages the viewer in what may be described as cinematic performance – that is, an attempt to convince or persuade via a re-interpretation and specific staging of textual material.

The use of Kubrick and Lee’s work in these examples raises interesting questions on the performance of authorship, as well as the presence of the auteur in a paratextual context. Many commercial trailers, as Marshall Sella notes in a piece for The New York Times, are cut by professional marketing companies – who assume both the role of artist and salesman in their attempt to “distil a feature film into a demographically targeted, two-and-a-half-minute montage” (Sella, 2002, 1). Sella describes the professional development of a trailer as a way of developing a “cinematic language” (ibid.) between directors and audience – yet the role of the trailer editor, to put “butts on seats”, fosters “misconception” (ibid. 8). The spoof trailer codes this uncertainty into its performative appeal – in which the artistry of authorial intent and the machinations of commercialism are woven together. It is the skilled use of source material which becomes important – over and above the content of the material itself. James Boyle explores a similar point in his examination of historical attitudes towards authorship, pointing out a Medieval tendency to “put the work of the scribe and the copyist above that of the authors” (Boyle, 1996, 53). 7 While the dynamic is not entirely similar, it points to an appreciation of the skills of comprehension and interpretation which commercialism may dilute.

Vincenz Hediger extends the notion of performative interpretation, characterizing trailers’ use of source texts as a process of quotation – since they are “made up of almost nothing but quotes” from the films to which they “belong” (Hediger, 2004, 149). In this sense, all trailers may be considered performative in their aim to create and convince potential customers via an interpretation of antecedent textual material – but the fan-made or spoof trailer is often born out of and, indeed, relies on, the actual absence of commercial purpose or, in some cases, even an antecedent film text. Spoof trailers, which lack a commercially-promotable antecedent text, present a problem for paratextual convention: to what extent can they be said to be promotional texts? If they are adverts, what are they advertising? If they are previews, what are they pre-viewing?

These questions have consequences not only for the status of the paratext – but also for cinematic renderings of space and time. Read as previews or adverts for upcoming films, trailers occupy the paratextual threshold. They look forward to a future cinematic moment, but employ footage depicting events in the past – that have “already happened” – and in this sense simultaneously look backwards. In the case of the spoof, that future moment (“coming soon”) is intended, and understood to be, illusory – the trailer is the moment – and temporal references to an antecedent text (in the past or “coming soon”) are rendered entirely virtual. By setting up this chronological lens, the trailer creates a performance of time. It evokes Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the “crystal image” (Deleuze, 1989, 69) which reflects the facets of time: the actual and the virtual. Hediger interprets the temporal aspect of the trailer’s performance as a psychological “technique of memory”, appealing to the Lacanian notion of futurum exactum:

the futurum exactum is the tense of desire, the tense of imaginary anticipation and of anticipated memory… one could argue that trailers create a desire to see the film by showing the film as one remembers it, or rather by showing the film one has not yet seen as one would remember it if one had already seen it, i.e. as a collection of excerpts of visually and emotionally strong moments. (Hediger, 2004, 156)

Hediger paraphrases the futurum exactum as a “remembrance of things to come” (ibid.) and the spoof trailer offers a chance to experience that concept in its purest sense – as part of a performed virtual timeline. The content of the spoof trailer’s performance (of time, genre, narrative, spectacle) – may be geared towards a variety of effects (humour, parody, affect) but it is its format, as a subverted, digressive incarnation of the paratext, which facilitates its unique receptive quality. One of the most well-known examples of the spoof sub-genre is the trailer for Machete, part of the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-feature, Grindhouse (2007). 8 The film is a tribute to the 70s-era subculture of B-movie, double-feature exploitation cinema of low-rent auditoriums in New York city 9 intended for “thrill-seeking” audiences with a “growing tolerance for sex and violence” (Waddell, 2009, 35). In Grindhouse, the double-feature gimmick extends to an in-film interval, between Rodriguez’s feature Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Deathproof. The interval comes complete with adverts for “local” restaurants and other establishments – and, notably, trailers for “coming attractions” (Fig. 2):

Figure 2

Figure 2


The trailers are made by filmmakers specially-invited to contribute to the performance. They include paratexts for Edgar Wright’s Hammer Film homage, Don’t and Eli Roth’s slasher-horror, Thanksgiving. The films exhibit many of the thematic elements of the grindhouse subgenre: extreme violence, misogyny and a variety of explicit scenes. None were linked to an exterior commercial entity upon the release of Grindhouse yet their presence performatively deepens the cinematic experience as fake promotional, commercial ancillaries. These contributions reference and reflect the same participatory urge as the wealth of amateur fan-made content found on the internet, exploring the spectrum of influences and attitudes to this cinematic canon through eye-catching paratextual performances of genre, narrative and form.

TAP Figure 3

Figure 3


Rodriguez’ Machete spoof trailer (Fig. 3) is particularly noteworthy since its success and effectiveness actually led to its development as a feature film, independent of the Grindhouse label. Although lacking an antecedent commercial product, the original Machete trailer is indistinguishable from similar promotional texts. Its presence as part of Grindhouse performs a cinematic sub-genre: its themes, historical legacy and affective power. Machete achieves this, primarily, through formal characteristics: the spoof interval-segment opens with a lurid, deliberately archaic title animation (Fig. 3), itself bookended with other paratextual paraphernalia, like adverts for nearby restaurants. The grindhouse performance deepens: this is not a chance to browse a historical document, the trailer aims to situate an audience, not just in some sort of crystalline promotional time-warp, but also a geographic fantasy-space. Formal elements continue the performative rhetoric: the trailer’s film-stock is deliberately aged, and dotted with conspicuous scratches, blurs and missing shots. The film lacks the crisp, high-definition quality of modern exhibition, instead offering the low-resolution, grainy texture of micro-budget exploitation productions. The hyperreality of the Grindhouse experience is obvious and, for Rodriguez, crucial, as he points out in an interview with Wired’s Robert La Franco:

We want the movie to look like it’s been out on the circuit for a couple of years, all scratched and deteriorated, lots of wear and tear… We were able to do all of that digitally, It’s almost a step backward, because we’re using technology to emulate an old camera system. It’s kind of like the early days of CDs, when everyone thought the   sound was too clean – companies would add the effect of the record scratching to ease  people in (La Franco, 2007, par.5).

The trailer continues to distinguish itself from mere historical recreation – and in a manner which goes beyond visible, formal characteristics. Machete is not a period piece or a window through time, nor is it merely a clever joke. In addition to its humorous excesses and satiric overtures, Machete is built around the psychological contract of the futurum exactum – and exploits the “tense of desire” skilfully. Viewers are asked not to evaluate the trailer as disposable advertisement for product, but to explore it in the futurum exactum as living text – reading it as a manifestation of genre, narrative, spectacle, space and time: a cinematic performance.

Perpetuating this notion that Machete is not just historical curio is its content, which transplants grindhouse characteristics – sexual and gender themes, violence, misogyny – and performs them in contemporary contexts. The narrative, such as it is, involves an illegal Mexican immigrant to the US, known as “Machete” (Danny Trejo), who becomes involved in an assassination plot, before being double-crossed by his employers – a shady cabal of American politicians led by a scheming senator. Notions of revenge and exploitation are articulated immediately and used to serve the metatextual aims of the trailer and the contemporary resonance of the narrative. Shots function in the tense of desire as convincing simulacra of genuine promotional quotations. The story of Trejo’s Machete is mimetic: he articulates the exploitation dynamic which audiences are, ironically, paying to experience. Threadbare, scarred, conventionally unattractive and uncharismatic, Machete is sidelined and presented in the mis-en-scène in a manner befitting the seedy grindhouse oeuvre (Fig. 4), but atypical of conventional action filmmaking in which, as Yvonne Tasker points out, the “body of the star as hero” is coded as an impressive, awe-inspiring “spectacle” (Tasker, 1993, 76):

Figure 4

Figure 4

Machete‘s narrative performance extends to ethnicity and politics: Machete lines up with other illegal migrants on a work line, a corrupted but recognizable version of the American Dream. These humble beginnings deliver unexpected opportunity: a job which will reward his particular skills in a highly proportionate way (a briefcase full of money). Like his fellow illegal immigrants, Machete is exploited, in this case very literally, by the United States government. Placing money at the centre of the trailer’s political discourse is another performative gesture, exposing the text’s exploitative drive on a number of levels. Mexican workers are a commodity and Machete himself is a literal tool (or weapon), overlooked and dismissed until he becomes dangerous – when the senator double-crosses him (exploiting him too egregiously). As a powerful, active presence in the diegesis, Machete’s body is a focus point for the trailer, performing a dynamic observed by Tasker in action cinema, in which power and weakness are crucial to readings of masculinity:

The proliferation of images of the built male body represents for critics like Barbara Creed the kind of deconstructive performativity associated with postmodernism, whilst for others they articulate, in their ‘promotion of power and the fear of weakness’, traditional images are also ‘deeply reactionary’ (ibid, 74).

Machete’s exploitative performance take place across a range of thematic discourses, offering commentary on violence, taboo and sexuality within promotional contexts. Machete is brutally wounded – and brutally wounds others – against a backdrop of bloodshed, nudity and strong language. An explicit encounter with naked women in a swimming pool exposes the prudishness of contemporary advertising conventions by transparently evoking the voyeuristic appeal of film. A priest vengefully executes a defenceless man in a corruption of the confessional relationship. These moments of outrage, titillation, shock and erotica reveal a text designed for reception in the tense of desire, in which stylised, episodic moments may occur without context or narrative connection.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Machete’s performative appeal goes as far as to include a male voice-over narration, delivering short bursts of descriptive information in a clipped, staccato tone:

VOICE OVER: Setup… double-crossed… and left for dead!

  He knows the score… he gets the women… and he kills the bad guys!

                              Action… Suspense… Emotion!

The voice-over adds little descriptive relevance to the imagery but serves to nakedly pander to an imagined audience and deepen the performative effect of promotional context. The voice-over’s tone is interesting: terse, almost confrontational, it is in one sense a literal performance, but is also a manifestation of genre: performing both the gender discourse and thematic violence associated with action cinema and packaging it for that perceived audience. The trailer’s narrator extends the identity of the Grindhouse performance from a purely visual effect. The narrator’s aggressive, hectoring tone lends complexion to Machete’s performance, creating an audio aspect, in which the audience is addressed directly – and further assumes the commercial role of “exploited” grindhouse crowd (“action… suspense… emotion!”). Once again, Machete’s lack of a feature antecedent is crucial to its performative effect, offering the spectator distance to read the text free from a conventional, pejorative commercial yoke.

The success of the original Machete prompted the development of a 2010 feature film of the same name, directed by Rodriguez and starring Trejo. The commercially-released film, carrying the spirit of the original’s exploitative performance, received its own trailer and offers an interesting opportunity to compare the two releases. 10

Figure 6

Figure 6

The register of the commercial trailer is similar to the spoof – retaining versions of the narrative and style but losing certain performative characteristics. A real need to sell tickets means formal commercial components – such as lists of stars (including Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba) – find their way in (Fig. 6), while commercial turn-offs are dropped: gone are the film-stock scratches and deliberately poor audio/visual quality. Most fascinating is the absence of depictions of violence prominent in the original – now absorbed into an increased presence of female characters and an associated sexual aesthetic:

Figure 7

Figure 7


The conflation of violence into the commercial trailer’s erotic aesthetic is itself a gesture towards the sexual politics and gender discourse of its antecedent feature film. It evokes a post-modern self-referentiality characterized by Marc O’Day as a “a series of gender transactions and… gender thefts” in which “qualities of masculinity and femininity, activity and passivity, are traded over the bodies of action heroes and heroines” (O’Day, 2004, 203). The commercial Machete trailer performs its action-genre identity boldly, collapsing notions of sexuality and physicality by offering “a contradictory set of images of female desirability” (Tasker, 1993, 14). The trend is embodied in the 2010 trailer’s female characters, who take on those absent violent overtures (Fig. 7). Jessica Alba’s character leads a band of riotous migrant workers (“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!”), Michelle Rodriguez’s character suffers an eye-injury, forcing her to wear a patch and Lindsay Lohan’s character dresses as a nun while provocatively licking the barrel of a pistol.

The performative complexion of each Machete trailer is different: the 2010 trailer serves as a postmodern reinterpretation of genuine commercial purpose, while the spoof includes that same commercial purpose as an integral part of its textual effect. The re-positioning of the commercial as part of a textual register evokes Kernan’s “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 (2004, 6).

The original Machete codes “distance” into its register – so far as to ask the viewer not to look through the “shop window” but to look at the product and the window at the same time, in a performance of the commercial dynamic. Trappings of the paratextual are involved in readings of Machete to the extent that a component part of the experience involves “being-sold-to”. Machete’s receptive process, including Kernan’s distance-effect, references the aesthetic of novelty and spectacular artifice which Tom Gunning attributes to early cinema. Early cinema’s performative periphery is well-known: Gunning references “showmen exhibitors” (Gunning, 1990, 58) re-editing their films and supplying “off-screen supplements, such as sound effects and spoken commentary” (ibid.). In these formative contexts, Gunning argues, audiences went “to see machines demonstrated” (ibid.) and this same revelatory dynamic characterizes the trailer – as audiences apply an extra level of textual scrutiny to the text-as-product. While Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” (ibid, 59) is characterized by “the recurring look at the camera” (ibid.), that feature is translated, in the promotional text, to moments of novel spectacle (special effects, genre, star performances) along with transparent commercial adornments, like actor names and release date information. The lack of conventional commercial purpose in the original Machete focuses its performative power: a translation and exaggeration of those same efforts to “rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator” (ibid).

This prominent appeal to the spectator-as-customer brings the spoof trailer’s register back to its curious treatment of time, in which the intuitively-paradoxical “remembrance of things to come” (a never-to-be-released film) is a crucial part of the performative effect. Imagery in the trailer, presented in often-bewildering streams of disparate narrative moments constitutes what Hediger calls “virtual memory” (Hediger, 2004, 156), evoking Deleuze’s crystal-image and the idea of Genette’s paratextual “threshold” – in this case, positioned between the temporal concepts of the actual and virtual. According to Deleuze, the crystal-image reveals “deeper and deeper layers of reality and higher and higher levels of memory or thought” (1989, 69) by collapsing “perception and recollection, the real and the imaginary, the physical and the mental, or rather their images … around a point of indiscernability” (ibid.).

The trailer, in its performance of the anticipated, virtual future, enacts David Rodowick’s description of the crystal image, by flaying the “chronological continuum […] shaving past, present and future into distinct series, discontinuous and incommensurable” (Rodowick, 1997, 3). As performance, the trailer offers a new approach to Deleuze’s vision for cinema: a representation of time freed from the perceptive constraints of movement – and rendered as a process of “transformation or becoming” (Ishii-González, 2004, 130) – from past, present and future. The spoof trailer exists entirely in the crystalline: exhibiting images from the past, during a performance in the present, towards a virtual future moment that will never come. It aestheticizes the virtual by promoting contemplation of the creation and future experience of a non-existent feature film.

Read as performance, the trailer extends discussion of Klinger’s theories of digressive reading, Kernan’s construction of audiences and, most significantly, Deleuze’s representations of time. It problematises current definitions of the paratext, and makes available new contexts of cinematic reception. While performative elements are strikingly present in the commercial trailer, the spoof trailer, lacking that same purpose, is a space dedicated to paratextual expression and experience. Machete’s performance – of an exploitative cinematic experience – demonstrates the extent to which the trailer has become a powerful and expressive tool, but its effectiveness is not restricted to feature film promotion. Indeed, the possibility of creating “cinematic performance”, by assuming the form of the trailer, is an opportunity for other texts to benefit from its affective potency and communicate with readers in the tense of desire. Many media types now clothe themselves in trailer form to create cinematic performances. In 2010, George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel A Dance With Dragons received a “trailer” 11, complete with animated intertitles and bold, orchestral score (Fig. 8), articulating the book’s cinematic character:

Figure 8

Figure 8


Video-games, with their implicit valuing of audio/visual technology, frequently deliver cinematic performance in promotional contexts – such as the trailer for 2011’s Modern Warfare 3 (Fig. 9). 12 Given the expressive freedom of their simulated worlds, the cinematic performance of a modern video-game becomes hyperreal, involving Baudrillardian simulation of “the cinematographic effects actual cameras are used to achieve, such as panning, close ups, craning and dollying” (Tavinor, 2009, 112). The effect goes as far as to performatively include cinematic idiosyncrasies, such as “depth of focus variations or lens glare” (ibid.).

Figure 9

Figure 9


Using trailers to create a cinematic performance has become high value cultural currency – so much so that 2012 Republican Party nominee, Rick Perry, released a campaign advert which was, for all intents and purposes a film trailer. The “polit-trailer”, Proven Leadership (Fig. 10) features a bombastic orchestral score, slickly-animated intertitles and a synthesized narrative of hardship, redemption and triumph. 13 The polit-trailer is a clear indication of communicative ambition and an attempt to perform the political process in the style of a feel-good Hollywood blockbuster, with a familiar, affective narrative. Whatever the viewer’s political predilection, it is hard not to respond to Proven Leadership by reading the text as promotion for an upcoming film.

Figure 10

Figure 10


The performative power of the spoof trailer demonstrates the need for a re-interpretation of theories of reception and definitions of the paratext. Traditionally, the trailer is thought of as advertisement, but the spoof recalibrates that purpose – targeted not at customers, but at audiences – not as a paratext, but as a text. The trailer’s popular presence in television and in cinema is well-established, but recent trends increasingly prompt re-evaluations of their value and potential. 14 Whether the performance is a joke, an homage or an integral part of a larger artistic entity, the trailer carves out cultural space for itself – exposing and shifting perceptions of promotional texts and generating new spaces for cinematic expression. The trailer taps into our desire to explore and savour the tense of desire – aestheticizing anticipation by exporting the cinematic beyond the theatre, into a multitude of exterior mediums and cultural spheres. Affective, spectacular, humorous and enjoyable – trailers no longer sell films – they sell themselves.


Daniel Hesford is a writer and PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of Dr. Kriss Ravetto.  His research focuses on theories of reception, promotion and paratextuality and the artistic status of the film trailer in a wider cinematic culture. He has taught seminars on European and World Cinema and has contributed to articles in The Independent and N-Gamer on the science of film and video-game trailers. In 2013, he organized a conference on film trailers: Titles, Teasers and Trailers at the University of Edinburgh.



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O’Day, Marc. “Beauty In Motion: Gender, spectacle and action babe cinema” in Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker. New York: Routledge, 2004. 201-218.

Rodowick, David. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. London: Duke University Press, 1997.

Sella, Marshal. “The 150-Second Sell, Take 34”. The New York Times, July 28, 2002. Accessed March 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/28/magazine/the-150-second-sell-take-34.html?pagewanted=8&src=pm

Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.

Tavinor, Grant. The Art of Videogames. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Tryon, Chuck. Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the age of media convergence. London: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Waddell, Callum. Jack Hill: The Exploitation and Blaxploitation Master, Film by Film. London: MacFarland & Company, 2009.

Williams, Kathleen. “Never Coming to a Theatre Near You: Recut Film Trailers”. M/C Journal 12: 2 (2009) Accessed January 22, 2013, http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/139.



Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005).

Grindhouse (Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, 2007).

Machete (Robert Rodriguez, 2010).

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980).

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008).


Frames # 3 Promotional Materials 05-07-2013. This article © Daniel Hesford. This article has been blind peer-reviewed.


  1. According to Paul Grainge, “marketing budgets continued to soar in the nineties, rising from $10 million in 1990 to $31 million in 1999” (Grainge, 2008, 134).
  2. Henry Jenkins describes “slash” fiction as “the convention of employing a stroke or ‘slash’ to signify a same-sex relationship between two characters” (Jenkins, 1992, 186).
  3. “filking” is “another point of entry into the cultural logic of fandom… Just as a fan writer may develop a story around the character… a filker may develop a song”. (ibid, 252).
  4. The varied results include Brokeback to the Future, lampooning Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi adventure Back To The Future (1985),  and The Brokeback Redemption, involving Frank Darabont’s prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
  5. Shining“, accessed January 22, 2013.
  6. Peter Gabriel’s Solisbury Hill has become notorious as “a song movie previews often include to market films with a romantic or emotional subtext” (Tryon, 2009, 161).
  7. [Medieval writers] valued extant old books more highly than any recent elucubrations and they put the work of the scribe and the copyist above that of the authors. The real task of the scholar was not the vain excogitation of novelties but a discovery of great old books, their multiplication and the placing of copies where they would be accessible to future generations of readers (Boyle, 1996, 53).
  8. The Machete trailer is now a textual part of the DVD version of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – but was exhibited theatrically as part of the Grindhouse double-feature. “Machete Trailer (Grindhouse Version)“, accessed January 22, 2013.
  9. Bruce G. Hallenbeck describes writer-director Frank Henenlotter as being weaned on the “sleazy” exploitation films of “New York City’s grindhouses” (Hallenbeck, 2009, 168).
  10. Several versions of the 2010 Machete trailer exist. For this essay, I use the version most similar to the 2008 spoof. The “Cinco De Mayo Trailer” includes a direct-to-camera address by Danny Trejo who describes the preview as “a special message… to Arizona!” – referencing the state’s hard-line stance on Mexican immigration. Accessed January 22, 2013.
  11. George R R Martin – A Dance With Dragons Trailer“, accessed January 22, 2013.
  12. Official Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 Launch Trailer“, accessed January 22, 2013.
  13. Rick Perry – Proven Leadership“, accessed January 22, 2013.
  14. Grindhouse’s spoof collection was followed by a segment in Ben Stiller’s big-budget war-comedy, Tropic Thunder (2008), in which the movie-star main characters were narratively introduced to audiences via spoof trailers for their diegetic, fictional filmographies.