Introduction: Still Coming Soon? Studying Promotional Materials

By Keith M. Johnston


This special issue of Frames on ‘Promotional Materials’ engages with an often overlooked, but increasingly potent, field within media studies, as part of the journal’s ongoing commitment to examine ‘relatively underexplored and emergent topics’ in the academy. 1 While the study of promotional materials such as trailers, teasers, posters, press kits, DVDs, title sequences, and websites has increased over the last decade, this is a field that remains in its infancy, and I would like to thank Frames for inviting me to guest edit this issue and promote some of the exciting work currently expanding that field.

Of course, that description of ‘infancy’ does not mean a complete absence of scholarly interest in the range of marketing/promotional materials that have accompanied film, television and related media over the last century. There is a rich history for those who wish to find it: Stephen Heath’s discussion of ‘epiphenomena’ in the 1970s 2; Mary Beth Haralovich’s work on trailers, gendered poster advertising and industrial advertising codes in the 1980s 3; Janet Staiger’s overview of methods when approaching the study of film advertising 4; and Barbara Klinger’s assessment of the ‘consumable identity’ that surrounds any film release. 5 The latter piece identified ‘exhibition material such as posters, ads, and trailers, as well as an extensive array of intermedia coverage which features pieces on stars, directors and the making of films… [and] the marketing of products such as toys and tee shirts’ as the starting point for such work, and in the decades since, scholars such as Vinzenz Hediger, Lisa Kernan, Jonathan Gray, Ernest Mathijs, Mark Millar and myself have begun to open up some of those specific materials. (see the Selected Bibliography below for specific works by these scholars)

A key focus of this later work has been the relationship between the promotional material and the film or television programme being promoted. Heath established this focus in 1976 with the claim that a film ‘must exist… [even] before we enter the cinema’, a suggestion that such epiphenomena would affect the viewer before the film unspooled (the presence of an audience would suggest these materials had at least some impact). 6 Lisa Kernan and Jonathan Gray have followed in his footsteps, with Gray arguing that the paratexts (his favoured term for epiphenomena, borrowed from Genette) on the ‘outskirts’ of a television show ‘had fashioned a text’ before audiences viewed it. 7

Terms such as paratext have found favour in studies of promotional material in the last few years (as the pieces by Leon Gurevitch and Colleen Wilson in this collection demonstrate), with Gray seeing trailers, posters, websites et al. as useful precursors (and guides) to the larger narrative frameworks and universes of the central text. While this range of materials offer different routes in to such narratives, this does lead Gray to read promotional works as useful only if they adequately encapsulate the film they are for, if they offer an authentic representation of the narrative world of the feature. Klinger, in contrast, would argue that such materials are not ‘primarily interested with producing coherent interpretations of a film’ but (across the range of promotional work) ‘produce multiple avenues of access to the text… in order to maximise its audience.’ 8

The issue of whether a trailer or teaser (or, arguably, any promotional material) should offer an authentic version of the forthcoming film extends beyond academia: in October 2011, Michigan viewer Sarah Deming filed a lawsuit against distributors Film District claiming that the trailer for Drive (Refn 2011) was misleading 9; more recently, Paramount Pictures refunded the ticket price of a ‘disgruntled’ New Zealand viewer when he complained to that country’s Advertising Standards Authority that the television trailer for Jack Reacher (McQuarrie 2012) included a shot of a cliff explosion that did not make the final cut of the film. 10 There may be fertile ground here for future work that combines legal and humanities-based approaches to promotional materials (it is noticeable, for example, that the Jack Reacher example refers to a television commercial; the film trailer would be exempt from such criticism because it comes under the industrial self-regulatory framework provided by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) or the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and is not therefore legally classified as an advert) but that should not blind us to academic approaches that consider promotional materials in their own right, rather than explicitly judged as accurate or inaccurate representations of a longer, ‘finished’ project (and thus reasserting the position of the feature as the central text, around which these materials simply orbit). Promotional materials may give us (limited) access to ‘how producers or distributors would prefer us to interpret a text, [and] which audience demographics they feel they are addressing’ but that should not restrict us to seeing them as exemplars of divination, when the texts themselves are multifaceted and layered representations of industrial and cultural information that flow and stretch beyond what the 120-minute feature might offer. 11

The articles contained in this special issue of Frames were commissioned precisely because of the variety of approaches and perspectives they takes on the broad definition of ‘promotional materials.’ Within these electronic pages there are discussions of posters, press books, trailers, title sequences, DVDs, advertisements, and ‘stage greetings’; those materials are used in relation to genre, stardom, propaganda, performance, history, advertising and cultural theories; and all reveal the scope inherent in treating these epiphenomena as more than just an adjunct, a satellite or a paratext of the film or television programme they are promoting. The articles also cover a wide swath of history and topics, suggesting again the scope that the field can cover: from early silent trailers (Fred L. Greene) and the star persona of Lucille Ball (Ellen Wright) to the aggregator role of DVD (Jonathan Wroot), the modern television title sequence (Enrica Picarelli), the auteur-driven adverts of Ridley Scott and Baz Luhrman (Leon Gurevitch), the rise in internet ‘spoof’ trailers (Daniel Hesford) and auteur-led promotional materials in Japan (Colleen Wilson). Each writer offers their own perspective on what the study of promotional materials can offer to scholars; taken together, I think they present a potent case for the future of the field. My thanks to all of the contributors for producing such strong work, and putting up with my occasional editorial dictates.

In addition, this special issue also contains some bonus material from an ongoing project of my own: a series of interviews with trailer writers and producers exploring the history and current working practices of the trailer industry in Britain and the United States. I would contend that some of the most fascinating work on promotional materials over the last century has come from industry and trade press commentators: offering critical opinion, assessment and historical evidence that current scholars would be wise to revisit and peruse (some key examples are listed in the bibliography). The interviews I have conducted, which are presented here in edited form, provide a historical overview of trailer production from the 1920s to 2012, across Britain and America. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Tony Sloman, Shaun Farrington and Fred L. Greene for taking the time to talk with me, and offer posthumous thanks to Esther Harris, Paul N. Lazarus and Bill Seymour. I hope their words, and the window they offer into the changing world of trailer production, will help inspire future scholars to pursue the industrial side of promotional material studies further.

One final reflection before you explore the articles: ‘promotional material studies’ is only marginally better than Gray’s description of ‘off screen studies’ – particularly given that, due to technology providing ‘new forums for advertising, substantially advancing the social range of promotion’ 12, many of these promotional materials are only ever viewed on a screen, whether that is a computer, smart phone, television, or cinema. Those of us working in this field might use different approaches, different terms and different methodologies, but given that the study of promotional materials is becoming increasingly central to a range of media scholars, what we really need is a decent name!

Coming soon?


Keith M. Johnston is Senior Lecturer in Film & Television Studies at the University of East Anglia. His work on different aspects of film promotion includes Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (McFarland 2009), selected chapters of Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg 2011), and in the journals Film History, the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, the Journal of British Cinema and Television, Media History, and the Journal of Popular Film and Television.

Selected Bibliography

‘Behind the Scenes with a Trailer Producer.’ The Cinema 70, 5643 (5 May 1948): 30.

Blair, Iain. ‘Film Trailers: Attracting Audiences With Style.’ On Location (January 1983): 40-49.

Cohen, Jeffrey. ‘Trailer Trash: Numbing Attractions: The Trouble With Trailers.’ E Online (14 June 2000):

Corliss, Richard. ‘Coming Attractions.’ Film Comment 33, 3 (May-June 1997): 14-23.

Crafton, Donald. ‘Enticing the Audience: Warner Bros. and Vitaphone.’ In History of the American Cinema: 4: The Talkies – American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 – 1931, edited by Tino Balio: 120 – 126. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons Macmillan Library Reference USA, Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1987.

Cricks, R. Howard, ‘Behind the scenes in trailer making’ Kinematograph Weekly, 423 (2345) (5 June 1952): 21.

Goodwin, Michael. ‘The Lost Films of Alfred Hitchcock.’ New West (April 1981): 84-7, 142.

Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. London: New York University Press, 2010.

Haralovich, Mary Beth. ‘Advertising Heterosexuality.’ Screen 23, 2 (1982): 50-60.

Haralovich, Mary Beth & Cathy Root Klaprat. ‘Marked Woman and Jezebel: The Spectator-In-The-Trailer.’ Enclitic, (Fall 1981/Spring 1982): 66-74.

Haralovich, Mary Beth, ‘Mandates of Good Taste: The Self-Regulation of Film Advertising in the Thirties’ Wide Angle 6, 2 (1983): 50-57.

Harris, Esther. ‘The Production of Trailers.’ British Kinematography 23, 4 (October 1953): 98-103.

Heath, Stephen, ‘Screen Images, Film Memory,’ Edinburgh Magazine, no. 1 (1976): 33-42

Hediger, Vinzenz. ‘A Cinema of Memory in the Future Tense. Godard, Trailers and Godard Trailers’, in Forever Godard, eds. James Williams, Michael Temple, Michael Witt: 141-59. London: Black Dog Publishing 2004.

Hedling, E. ‘Framing Tolkein Trailers, High Concept, and the Ring’ in The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context, ed. Ernest Mathijs: 225-37. London: Wallflower, 2006.

Huntley, John. ‘”U” and cry – The Story of Denham’s Trailer Department.’ Film Industry 2, 12 (June 1947): 8, 9 & 13.

Johnson, Patricia Lee. ‘Esther Harris: Doyenne of the trailer makers.’ CinemaTV Today 10015 (20 January 1973): 7.

Johnston, Keith M. Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009

Johnston, Keith M. ‘“The coolest way to watch movie trailers in the world” Trailers in the Digital Age.’ Convergence 14, 2 (May 2008): 145-160.

Johnston, Keith M. ‘“Three Times As Thrilling!” The Lost History of 3-D Trailer Production, 1953-54’, Journal of Popular Film and Television 36:4 (Fall 2008): 150-60.

Johnston, Keith M. ‘An intelligent and effective use of the rival screen’: Re-discovering early British television trailers,’ Media History 17, 4 (2011): 377-88.

Jones, Sinead, ‘Trailer Trial.’ Film Directions 6, 23 (Summer 1984): 46.

Kernan, Lisa, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Kerzoncuf, Alain and Nándor Bokor. ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Trailers.’ Senses of Cinema 35 (April – June 2005),

Klinger, Barbara. ‘Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture.’ Cinema Journal 28, 4 (Summer 1989): 3-19.

________. ‘Film history terminable and interminable: recovering the past in reception studies.’ Screen 38, 2 (Summer 1997): 107-28.

Lazarus, Paul N. ‘National Screen Service Corporation.’ In The Movie Business: American Film Industry Practice, edited by William A. Bluem & Jason E. Squire: 234–6. New York: Hastings House, 1972.

________. ‘The wet finger method for evaluating film success.’ The Journal of the Producers Guild of America (September 1969): 31–33.

Lughi, Paolo. ‘When Saying is Getting Somebody to Do Something: Manipulations and Speech Acts in Verbal Language of the Trailer.’ Semiotic Enquiry / Recherches Semiotiques 4, 3-4: 356 – 371.

Maier CD, ‘Visual evaluation in film trailers’ Visual Communication. 8.2 (2009): 159-80.

Mathijs, Ernest, ‘Bad reputations: the reception of “trash” cinema,’ Screen v. 46 n. 4 (Spring 2005): 451-72.

Matthews, Virginia. ‘Mini epics of the big screen.’ The Guardian (27 Oct 1986): 11.

McElwee, James P. ‘The Trailer.’ Films in Review 39, 10 (October 1988): 472-79.

Medhurst, Andy. ‘The Big Tease.’ Sight & Sound 8, 7 (July 1998): 24-6.

Millar, Mark S. ‘Helping Exhibitors: PressBooks at Warner Bros. in the late 1930s’ Film History 6, 2 (Summer 1984): 188-96.

Oliver, Mary Beth & Sriram Kalyanaraman. ‘Appropriate for All Viewing Audiences? An Examination of Violent and Sexual Portrayals in Movie Previews Featured on Video Rentals.’ Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46, 2 (2002): 283-99.

Oxenhorn, P. ‘Trailers are compact, complex and costly.’ Making Films in New York, 8, 36 (7 October 1974)

Parsons, P. A. ‘A History Of Motion Picture Advertising.’ Moving Picture World 85, 4 (4 March 1927): 301-11.

Preece, S. B. ‘Coming soon to a live theater near you : performing arts trailers as paratexts’. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 35 (June 2010): 23-35.

Quigley, Martin Jr. ‘The NSS Story of Service.’ Motion Picture Herald (14 March 1959): 18-21.

________. ‘NSS: The Prize Baby Remembers.’ Motion Picture Herald (7 November 1959): 16-17.

‘Specialized Techniques in Trailer Production.’ The Cinema 51, 4034 (5 October 1938): 11.

Staiger, Janet. ‘Announcing Wares, Winning Patrons, Voicing Ideals: Thinking about the History and Theory of Film Advertising.’ Cinema Journal 29, 3 (Spring 1990): 3-31.

Stapleton, C.B and Hughes, C.E. “Mixed Reality and Experiential Movie Trailers: Combining Emotions and Immersion to Innovate Entertainment Marketing,” Proc. 2005 Int’l Conf. Human–Computer Interface Advances in Modeling and Simulation, Soc. for Modeling and Simulation Int’l, 2005, 40-48.

Street, Sarah. ‘“Another Medium Entirely”: Esther Harris, National Screen Service and Film Trailers in Britain, 1940-1960.’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 29, 4 (December 2009): 433-48.

Turan, Kenneth. ‘The Lure of Trailers.’ American Film 8, 1 (October 1982): 50-55.

Zanger, Anat. ‘Next on your screen: The double identity of the trailer.’ Semiotica 120, 1/2 (1998): 207-230.



Coming Attractions: The History of the Movie Trailer (Kaleidoscope Creative Group, 2005).



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  2. Stephen Heath, ‘Screen Images, Film Memory,’ Edinburgh Magazine, no. 1 (1976), pp. 33-42.
  3. Mary Beth Haralovich and Cathy Root Klaprat, ‘Marked Woman and Jezebel: The Spectator-In-The-Trailer’ Enclitic (Fall 1981/Spring 1982): 66-74; Mary Beth Haralovich, ‘Advertising Heterosexuality.’ Screen 23, 2 (1982): 50 – 60; Mary Beth Haralovich, ‘Mandates of Good Taste: The Self-Regulation of Film Advertising in the Thirties’ Wide Angle 6, 2 (1983): 50-57.
  4. Janet Staiger, ‘Announcing Wares, Winning Patrons, Voicing Ideals: Thinking about the History and Theory of Film Advertising,’ Cinema Journal vol. 29, no. 3 (Spring 1990), p. 22.
  5. Barbara Klinger, ‘Digressions at the Cinema,’ Cinema Journal, vol. 28, no. 4 (Summer 1989), p.5
  6. Stephen Heath, ‘Screen Images, Film Memory,’ Edinburgh Magazine, no. 1 (1976), pp. 33-42.
  7. Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Spoilers, Promos and Other Media Paratexts, p. 62
  8. Barbara Klinger, ‘Digressions at the Cinema,’ p. 9-10
  9. Sophie Schillaci, ‘FilmDistrict Sued Over “Misleading” “Drive” trailer,’ Hollywood reporter (8 October 2011) (accessed 10th October 2011)
  10. Kieran Campbell, ‘Big bang deleted, so it’s a refund’ The New Zealand Herald (2 April 2013) (accessed 2nd April 2013)
  11. Gray, Show Sold Separately p. 72
  12. Klinger, ‘Digressions at the Cinema,’ p. 9.