The Advertising Director as Coming Attraction: Television Advertising as Hollywood Business Card in the Age of Digital Distribution

By Leon Gurevitch

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In his book The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich notes that one of the key tasks for the present generation of new media archeologists is the preservation of early computer culture. Noting that a great deal of early computer software has not survived to the present day Manovich states, with what reads like regret, that there was not a greater understanding, at the beginning of digital media cultures emergence, of its potential value to future generations. 1 Interestingly, in a remarkably similar note in his book D. W Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, Tom Gunning notes that much of early cinematic culture did not survive to the present day for much the same reason. 2 As both scholars point out, it is often the nature of new forms of popular culture that their significance at the time are not recognized and are treated as disposable. As with film and early computer culture: so with many forms of advertising. Combining the fact that advertising has often been disposable with the fact that early film culture itself was seldom regarded as precious material, it is perhaps fortunate that any filmed advertisements survived from the early days of cinema itself. Their survival points to another history of the relationship between advertising and film. In many cases, as Lisa Gitelman explains in her account of the emergence of ‘new’ media Always Already New, the nature of new media forms are seldom mapped out in advance of their emergence and often take long and unexpected routes on their way to establishing industrial, cultural and textual boundaries. 3 This is certainly true of the relationship between early screen spectacle and the commercial interests that funded it, or featured within it, were seldom separate and distinct.

In recent years, emergent channels of digital distribution have in many instances replicated a similar (though by no means identical) landscape of undefined boundaries that characterised early cinema, often transforming access to, and the culture of, audiovisual advertising forms. 4 In particular, a new generation of directors are now encountering what might have seemed unimaginable only a decade or two ago: a production and distribution landscape in which audiovisual material that they produce in the run up to a Hollywood career is now freely and easily available for public consumption. While directors entering Hollywood through advertising have been a feature of the industry for many years, in the last decade a generation of directors have experienced something different from their predecessors. In many cases, advertisements are capable of being consumed, enjoyed and shared in a way that previous generations of audiovisual enthusiasts could not. Consequently the nature of these advertisements as cultural texts are changing, not only in being treated as examples of a screen professional’s oeuvre, but also in functioning as entertaining and conveniently sized examples of their authorial work. Considering online fan responses to such material is only half the story however. Indeed, I will argue here that to suggest Hollywood directors-to-be may not direct their advertisements for audiences in the manner commonly envisaged in the filmmaking process. Rather, it seems more likely, given the way advertising industries function according to “currencies of commercial exchange” 5 less concerned with end viewers than with the promotional power relations between creative producers and clients, 6 that directors envisage early career advertisements as self-promotional statements aimed at others in the industry: both clients and potential Hollywood suitors. In this sense advertisements may function on the internet as entertaining texts indicative to fans of an emerging directors style, but that may just as easily be the result of authorial attempt to assert command over spectacle for viewers at the other end of the industry. My interest, then is not only with the way in which contemporary advertisements can be consumed online by fans in a way that they previously could not, but also with the negotiation that takes place between directors as advertisers and directors as potential brands with a future in Hollywood. To put it another way, is the contemporary net-based television advertisement broadening its scope to also function as a directorial calling card?

To understand this development however, it is important not to fall into the common trap of overstressing the impact of “new media” in the emergence of advertisements as textual signifiers of a director’s work. Rather, I will argue that new media (and specifically net based distribution platforms) accentuate a trend that was already present across film and advertising industries before the internet. With this in mind I will, in this article, consider a range of spot advertisements made both before and after the rise of internet based distribution channels by Hollywood directors. Those made pre-internet point us toward the recognition of an accelerating trend in which advertisements increasingly function as culturally interrelated corollaries of films in their directors back-catalogues. We can break these spot advertisements into a number of categories.

The first are early television adverts made sometimes many decades before our transition to digital production and distribution technologies but which have now resurfaced on websites that track Hollywood director’s pre-cinematic careers making (amongst other things) television commercials. In many cases, directors made these adverts before their position in Hollywood was consolidated. Many of these texts would likely not have seen the light of day, and certainly would not have been easily accessible to film and television enthusiasts had it not been for the arrival of the internet and its unique manner of digitally distributing audiovisual content broadly and easily.

The second body of televisual spot advertisements are both commercials for specific goods and services that also relate directly to specific films. These are generally (though not always) directed by the filmmakers who made the films that they are referencing and are often marked by attention grabbing budgets and production values usually more suited to Hollywood movies in their own right. This body of advertisements did exist before the transition to contemporary digital production and distribution (as Ridley Scot’s million dollar 1984 advert for Apple Computers – titled 1984 – demonstrates) but seem in recent years to have become a growing genre, fuelled perhaps, by their potentially extended shelf life on the internet.

The third body of advertisements do not directly reference movies in their own right but instead, function in retrospect, as platforms where distinctive stylistics or arresting special effects are deployed that are latter found in Hollywood. Examples of this type are numerous and, because they frequently pre-date the special effects that are then recognised as Hollywood staples, they cannot be understood as directly relational, extra-textual promotional material. Nevertheless, such adverts are becoming increasingly important not only in trailing new digital attractions for potential audiences but by also functioning in a feedback loop where digital attractions are consumed as promotional and audiovisually reflective of each other (regardless of chronological emergence). Consequently, attempting to track linear relationships between these two large, amorphous and generally multipolar, industrial textual forms is a difficult, if not impossible task to effect.

Not only are the multidirectional relationships between Hollywood films and television advertisements difficult to adequately track in such a manner as could provide a scholar with a cause and effect thesis, the broad categories that I have described above are precisely that: broad. A brief consideration of any number of past or contemporary television adverts quickly demonstrates that if there is one rule for the categorisation of advertising it is that there are no rules. As many advertising theorists have pointed out, 7 one of the key features of advertising is its constant, even relentless quest to transgress textual boundaries. One could even describe this as a modus operandi. So for instance, no sooner do we distinguish between advertisements that showcase Hollywood style digital attractions and those that directly reference already existing films, than we come across a host that mix these two features together.

Turning to the first body of advertisements, in 1974 Ridley Scott directed an advertisement for Hovis. Featuring a bread delivery boy on a bicycle and the accompaniment of Dvorak’s New World Symphony as the soundtrack, the advert was interesting less for its sentimental nostalgia than for the fact that it pursued a specific narrative strategy. More accurately, this advertisement functioned successfully because it drew on iconographic imagery that could act as shorthand for a more complex set of narrative meanings despite the limited 28 second duration of the advert. Indeed, though most of his audience will not have known it at the time Scott’s Hovis advert was a 30 second distillation of his first, BFI funded, movie Boy and a Bicycle (1965) (Figure 1). Tellingly, Scott has himself referred to his approach to advertising as follows:

I didn’t come from advertising. I came from the BBC. So I’ve always come into commercial advertising and looked at each commercial as a film…as a little filmlet, always have done and I always will do. 8

Scott’s statement here asserts that advertising is not a marginal commercial text and he is not unique in seeing advertising as more than a peripheral cultural form. In his work on advertising as capitalist realism Michael Schudson has argued that advertising is “part of the establishment and a reflection of common symbolic culture.” 9 Equally Colin Campbell has argued in his work on The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism that what he calls the “imaginative enjoyment of products and services” is as important as the experience of consuming them in their own right. Consequently, he argues, “the line between representations [of products and services] in the interests of a particular manufacturer and distributor (i.e. advertising), and images produced primarily for entertainment is barely distinguishable”. 10 With this in mind, my interest with Scott’s approach to making advertisements as “little filmlet[s]” here lies in the way in which it tells us something about the negotiated relationship between Hollywood production and advertising. Or more precisely what we as scholars can take from an understanding of the changing role of advertising in a filmmaker’s career.

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Figure 1

As I have mentioned above, in 1984 Scott went on to direct an advert for Apple. In contrast to the Hovis advert (which was directed when Scott was still relatively unknown), the circumstances of this subsequent Apple adverts production were very different. Notably, this advertisement functioned in the mass of news media attention devoted to it, not to undermine Scott’s status as an A-list Hollywood director, but to complement it. In doing so, Scott joined a range of filmmakers who, over the years, have engaged in very large budget, high production value advertising projects in such a way as to enhance their public profile and cultural capital within the star system. In light of both his early advertising and his subsequent forays back into it was an A-list Hollywood director we see that advertising was not just a gateway into a career in film and television, it was also a means of consolidating a commercial status once a career in Hollywood had already been achieved. Unacknowledged by much scholarship that has often had a tendency to treat advertising and promotional activity as a necessary evil that filmmakers engage in, the example of Scott demonstrates a number of things: firstly that his work in advertising can be used to understand something more about his filmmaking approach. Secondly, that despite relative scarcity in screen scholarship with advertising as an example of creative output, it has certainly functioned as more than a means of bringing home the bread. Indeed, in an era of high concept filmmaking we can see advertising, oddly, as a calling card to executives within Hollywood, not simply because the advertising industry might be a place where a director could “cut their teeth” but because their adverts might literally operate as a shorthand means of demonstrating their aesthetic, stylistic and even editorial vision for larger projects (of which I will consider some examples shortly). In this sense Scott’s assertion that he saw advertisements as miniature films may have run contrary to scholarship that often ignored advertising as a quintessential example of the culture industries commercial logic, but it also asserted a position that valued commercial directing as worthy of valorisation. For financial executives keen on high-concept directors, Scott’s position would sure have emphasized his commercial reliability as a director who understood the complexities of a career that spanned audiovisual industries. Scott was not alone in taking this position and indeed we see a very similar position on the part of David Fincher, whose career, like Scott’s, spanned both Hollywood and the advertising industry. As Fincher has stated:

When I started making television commercials in the mid-1980’s I was certainly privy to a lot of lifestyle packaging. But I gave the audience far more credit than most people do. There’s this assumption that commercials are just close-ups of celebrities holding products up to their faces. But some of them are great art. 11

Like Scott’s statement, as interesting as Fincher’s assertion is here in its assertion of the value of advertising as art, it is equally interesting in the wider context of “authorship” as a contested, negotiated, promotional set of positions. That is to say that while Fincher may take the position that advertising is art, theories of authorship 12 necessarily problematize the idea that we can simply take such directorial statements at face-value. Regardless of whether we can accurately judge the veracity of Fincher and Scott’s assertions however, what is more interesting is the way they position their brand of “authorship” around the notion of an engagement with advertising at all. In other words, regardless of whether we believe their claims or not, it is telling that both Scott and Fincher make a point of associating their position as directors around public for advertising as a medium that deserves to be taken seriously.

Interestingly, Fincher’s distinction between adverts as simply product showcases and advertisements as “great art” seems to have been here that the latter category involved self-reflexivity. Indeed, one of the central advertising campaigns for his film Fight Club when it was released in 1999 featured a faux advertising campaign of Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden holding up a block of pink soap to his face with the slogan “use soap”. While the self-reflexive irony was designed to appeal to a savvy, anti-advertising youth market at the time, what is more telling is the fact that Fincher developed this anti-advertising grammar during his days as an advertiser. To start with Fincher’s most notable advertisement however, in 1990 he made a television spot for the American Cancer Society (Figure 2). Featuring a close up of a baby smoking a cigarette in a womb the advert is both quite shocking for an advert of the time at the same time as it is remarkably telling to view in retrospect. Surprisingly punk in its abjection, 13 the advertisement reflects a motif in retrospect of unusual spatial representation that can be seen to return throughout his subsequent movies (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac). There is a self-reflexivity about the insertion of a “camera” into the strange fascinating and distractingly macabre spatial location of the inside of the human body that Fincher replicated in the opening sequence of Fight Club. What we see in Fincher’s directorial style then, is both a visual playfulness with new spatial possibilities facilitated by emergent computer graphics, but which he was experimenting with through early 1980s advertising.

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Figure 2

Indeed, an appreciation of this advert and other of Fincher’s advertisements reveals something of the way in which his experience in the industry fed into his approach to being a filmmaker. On an aesthetic level it is interesting to compare Fincher’s own stated support for the medium with Fight Club’s superficial criticism of advertising. It turns out Fight Club’s directorial tone came from the most unexpected of places. In the early 1980s Levi’s produced an ad campaign in which an acknowledgement of the advertising process and a simultaneous critique of it formed the centerpiece of their strategy. Robert Goldman has detailed the way in which Levi’s targeted a wary and increasingly consumer literate youth culture by producing what he calls “not-ad ads”. These knowing advertisements were, he argues, “constructed as a reflection on popularized critiques of consumer conformism. The stress on the self-reflective glance was joined to self-referential jokes about pseudo-individuality.” 14 Levi’s found it necessary to recognise their audience and to credit them with a greater degree of semiotic sophistication than had previously been accepted. Levi’s did not just recognise youth resistance to target marketing, they explicitly used this recognition as part of their marketing strategy. Though they did encourage their youthful viewers to consume their products, they did so by formal strategies that acknowledged and even deconstructed their own process of advertising. Their strategies involved more complex modes of address than traditional forms of advertising, expecting a level of knowledge, engagement and active participation on the part of their viewers to deliberately and self-reflexively exploit the logic of anti-consumerism.

To return to the question of such advertisements themselves however, where Scott and Fincher experimented with techniques and motifs that they could latter return to in Hollywood filmmaking, more recent generations of filmmakers have emerged with advertising experience that has included digital effects production before they move onto careers in Hollywood. Particularly noticeable, for instance, has been Neil Blomkamp’s path through the film industry, marked by a rapid rise in part because he used an intimate knowledge of CG effects production in advertisements as a calling card. In this sense, the advertisements Blomkamp made can be regarded not simply as intriguing audiovisual objects made to advertise consumer products or services for client companies, they also functioned indirectly as advertisements for Blomkamp himself.

Starting his career producing 3D photorealistic renderings of cars and airplanes for popular science magazines before moving onto Embassy Visual Effect and Rainmaker Digital Effects, Blomkamp moved rapidly into directing adverts and short films that lead onto the three Halo shorts he produced to promote Microsoft’s Halo 3 game. As a result of this Blomkamp was slated to direct a feature film adaptation of the Halo game itself but when this collapsed Blomkamp was offered the opportunity to adapt a short faux documentary film trailer (Alive in Joberg) into a full length feature. In effect, and in an interesting reversal of the usual production process, Blomkamp’s faux trailer acted as an advertisement for a film that had not yet been made, effectively operating to generate interest for the project in the Hollywood. With his direction of District 9 (2009) Blomkamp could be said to have embodied the spirit of the changed contemporary culture of audiovisual production, distribution and consumption. His earliest adverts and short films not only operated as YouTube attractions, but were consumed and discussed by online fans as legitimate examples of his oeuvre. A quick consideration of his short “films” and adverts on YouTube reveal not only that they register hits in the hundreds of thousands but also that his fans frequently referred to him in his early years primarily as the person who directed the “Citroën transformer ad” (Figure 3).

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Figure 3

Blomkamp also directed adverts for Nike and Gatorade but in an interesting twist of fate it seems to have been his Citroën advertisement that garnered the most attention. In this case his advert may have garnered interest and helped kick-start the Transformers project in Hollywood, but equally, it is just as likely that the prominence of the Transformers franchise helped a savvy young advertising director to attract attention to his capacity to envision popular digital attractions ahead of time.

We could ask at this point what difference there is between Blomkamp’s career and any number of previous generations of directors 15 who made their way into Hollywood through the advertising industry? The answer however, is not simply a case of pointing out singular differences between professional landscapes of past and present filmmakers, but rather of identifying a multifaceted range of developments in production, distribution and consumption that, added together, make for a different promotional environment. With this in mind, the direction of influence between digital attractions in contemporary film and advertising is less important than the fact that their shared aesthetics often symptomatise a tendency toward the industrial interrelation of both textual forms.

To return to Blomkamp’s work, not only are the digital attractions deployed in his adverts the product of extensive experience in CG imaging, they can be seen retrospectively as components of an audition process for the Hollywood film making apparatus. In this sense, his advertisements served as more than a means of making a living, or advertising specific goods and services, but also as calling cards and skills demonstrations. A television advertisement that becomes a hit on YouTube serves as much to promote its director as it does the product within its textual boundaries. Concrete evidence that contemporary adverts are functioning in this manner can be found in the form of Joseph Kosinski’s recent career.

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Figure 4

In the case of Kosinski, (whose first feature film was Tron Legacy) his rise to a career in Hollywood was equally as intimately connected to his work as an advertiser. Indeed Kosinski’s work as an advertising director was what brought him to the attention of Disney producer, Sean Bailey. 16 Unsurprisingly, the aesthetics of Kosinski’s advertisements were strikingly reminiscent of the feature film he was subsequently direct. In both Saab and Nike advertisements he directed, the play of light, architecture, highly stylized deployment of actors, the settings they were placed within and therefore perhaps most importantly a polished, minimalist, highly fabricated surfaces featured heavily. In short, Kosinski’s advertisements were perfectly positioned promotional calling cards for Disney executives in search of a new director of high concept movies that, as Justin Wyatt asserts,  “tend toward sleek, modern environments mirroring the post-industrial age through austere and reflective surfaces”. 17 But these were not the only advertisements that Kosinski made. From adverts for the Gears of War game franchise, in which he demonstrated his audiovisual versatility with the capacity to direct Machinima, to a telling “iSpec” advert for an imagined pair of Apple made glasses, 18 Kosinski’s pre-cinematic career has all the appearance of a determined and strategically planed call to Hollywood. Indeed, Kosinski’s debut was a success because of his consummate direction of spectacle rather than any capacity to work with narrative (which critics universally rejected). 19 Disney’s decision to hire Kosinski took the form of a protracted audiovisual try-out of his skills in the promotional arena. Tellingly, Bailey did not give Kosinski a few short films or even an assistant director role but instead provided him the budget to produce test footage that would act as a “a three-minute ride into the world of ‘Tron’ as Mr. Kosinski saw it.” 20 Still more symptomatic of the post-high concept era Disney, reportedly “impressed at the outcome but still hesitant to pull the trigger” waited until the footage was screened to ecstatic reaction at Comic-Con International. The response led Disney to give Kosinski the green light. In many ways this is consistent with what Wyatt has argued to central to the high concept Hollywood production. Not simply slick, advertising aesthetics but also a promotional strategy that relies on striking images more commonly found in television advertising:

Generally, the development of this marketing and distribution strategy characterises the high concept film: the strong images and the pre-sold elements within both the film and the marketing campaigns are able to translate to the medium of television, thereby creating viewer awareness and interest. 21 (Emphasis added)

In this sense Kosinski’s try out for Tron was telling in the way that it did not test his capacity to wield a narrative. Rather, it double tested his capacity to convincingly create a high concept look that he had already developed in his work as a television advertiser. Ironically, then, Disney was less concerned about Kosinski’s capacity to direct a feature length narrative than his capacity to produce convincing, interest generating material that would play well in the necessary advertisements, trailers and publicity material. In fact, an analysis of Kosinski’s previous advertisements reveals an almost uncanny level of replication of the characters, sets, subject matter, camera direction and lighting of his earlier advertisements in the Tron movie (Figure 4).

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Figure 5

While directors such as Blomkamp and Kosinski demonstrate a capacity to produce sticking imagery and CG effects as a calling card that demonstrates their directorial dexterity, in other cases advertisements have also acted as a calling card at an institutional level. For instance, while directors like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor were both hired into Pixar as animators required to help the company cope with a growing workload of advertising contracts in the early 1990s, the commercial results came to be seen as material belonging to, and having issued from, Pixar itself. In this case then an interesting slippage takes place between the traditional, star-centred authorial attribution favoured by the new generation of net-based transmedia textualists, and the position of Pixar as an authorial force within that system of categorisation. At its peak in the early 1990s, Pixar produced 15 adverts in a year and generated around 2 million dollars annually from this work. 22 In total Pixar is credited as having produced 79 commercials with 26 directors. Its revenue and output figures, however, are less interesting than the fact that many of these adverts clearly functioned as an opportunity for directors and animators to develop production and pipeline experience that would later be useful in the creation of their first feature Toy Story (a movie that not coincidentally resembled a 90 minute toy commercial). Indeed Flip Phillips (a commercials director in Pixar during the 1990s) has stated that these commercials helped Pixar prepare for the eventual production of its first feature film arguing that, “we could learn basically what kind of production infrastructure we needed to make a big movie.” 23

Pixar’s movies marked the initiation of a fundamentally changed relationship between the function of television advertisements, products placed on screen and cinematically exhibited films. For when the objects on screen have been literally product designed with software also utilized in design engineering (and notably Pixar was nearly bought by a number of product design based industries in the late 1980s) the relationship between traditional notions of product placement and film making changes. 24 With this in mind, any one of the many advertisements that Pixar produced could be used to illustrate the way in which its directors developed an aesthetic still prevalent in its features today.

Finally the last examples I wish to turn to in this article differ from the previous examples in one specific sense: where as all examples above can be regarded as advertisements made by directors or companies before they came to function in the wider context of Hollywood, there are many examples of directors and the advertisements they produce, leveraging the cultural capital that they have attained in Hollywood. Interestingly, in this list are many names we have already discussed for the obvious reason that directors who entered Hollywood through the advertising industry are perhaps more likely to welcome such work later on. For not only do they have a familiarity with the industry, its practices and its personnel, they also have a demonstrated ability to work across both textual mediums. In other words, in an odd twist of fate, advertising executives commissioning such directors will already be reassured that they can deliver the goods. At the same time, Hollywood directors who do assume a role on an advertising project bring with them a star persona that inevitably translates into free publicity and news media interest of the kind that an agency cannot usually hope to secure. Unsurprisingly given its need to associate itself with celebrity, Chanel in particular has been careful to pursue such a strategy for decades. From the use of French actress Catherine Deneuve in the 1970s to Ridley Scott’s direction of No. 5 advertisements Share the Fantasy (1979), Share the Fantasy 2 (1984) and La Star (1990) Chanel set a precedent of hiring Hollywood directors and providing budgets reflective of the film industries inflated costs. In recent years the continuation of this strategy was marked in 2004 with carefully orchestrated press reports that Chanel were to hire Baz Lurhmann to make a $20 million 3 minute ad titled No. 5 The Film (2006). The interesting twist on this production however was not simply that the advert would capitalize on Lurhmann and Kidman’s star personas and the link that they had through the 2001 film Moulin Rouge (2001). Rather, this advert explicitly and directly referenced Luhrmann’s film in a series of images that functioned as a distillation of key moments taken from throughout the features x hour length. Indeed, as Lurhmann is reputed to have pitched it at the time “What I can make you is a 2 minute trailer… for a film that has never actually been made, not about No 5 but No 5 is the touchstone” 25 The majority of the advert’s dramatic action takes place on top of the New York equivalent of a Parisian artist’s rooftop studio. The protagonists dance and fall in love in a manner reminiscent of Moulin Rouge in fast-forward. Even Nichole Kidman’s position in the lead role maintains the continuity with the previous feature film. Unsurprisingly, close analysis of the two texts reveals a symbiosis of visual form (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Figure 6

Here then the scenes and the motifs in the Chanel advertisement can be seen as a form of algebra that draws its variables from Moulin Rouge. Like Scott, Lurhmann is explicit about the relationship between his filmmaking and his finished advert, stating that, “this idea of the rooftop garret is part of the red curtain cinema and what it refers to is a kind of perfect abode where the Parisian bohemian artists, writers and poets used to live in the nineteenth century.” 26 Here Lurhmann explicitly constructs his advert as a part of his “red curtain cinema”: a term he uses to describe the defining characteristics of his films (the breaking of cinematic rules, heightened fantasy, utilization of audience participation). Here, then, we see another blurring, but this time the flow of influence travels in the opposite direction: the television advert is reconceived as the movie trailer. However, the Chanel advert may have been variously characterized as “film” 27 or “movie trailer” but in reality it was an advertisement performing a role characteristic of the form since the inception of audiovisual advertising in the late 1890s; a collapse of the boundary between commercial message and audiovisual entertainment. Notably, this was not the last time Lurhmann was to pursue this strategy making a similarly distilled version of his film Australia (2008) for the Australian tourist board in 2008. Equally, it was not the last time Chanel was to pursue the strategy either, which has become a staple of their advertising strategy in the years since with filmmaker Joe Wright’s Chanel Coco Mademoiselle The Movie (2007), Chanel Coco Mademoiselle The Movie 2 (2011) and Jean Pierre Jennet’s Chanel No.5 (2009) which referenced the visual motifs he developed around Audrey Tautou in Amélie (2001) and A Very Long Engagement (2004) (Figure 7). Notably, in all of these examples, the shift to Chanel has not been accompanied by a shift in emphasis solely to star power of the actress involved. Rather, the news media attention that these adverts have received has been conspicuous for the way in which the star actresses share the limelight with the director as branded Hollywood star.

Figure 7

Figure 7

The fact that these advertisements have functioned in recent years as multiply promotional vehicles for their directors, the films they are associated with, the actors and the goods and services is only half the story however. What many of these advertisements also demonstrate is a wider tendency of both Hollywood, television and advertising industries to blur the boundaries between other, previously textually contained, promotional forms. For with these advertisements the notion of the trailer has expanded and has come to encompass more subtle and broad ranging promotional strategies. In accordance with Andrew Wernick’s articulation of a “promotional culture” that functions as a vast communicative industrial meta-structure in which products and texts refer endlessly back to each other, we might begin to see such advertising, not simply as a promotional directorial calling card but also a textual form that fits into a much broader context encompassing both Hollywood and advertising industries. For Wernick each “promotional message refers us to a commodity which is itself the site of another promotion.” This, he argues results in “in an endless dance [of industrial products and signifiers] whose only point is to circulate the culmination of something else.” 28 In recent years this has certainly produced a body of audiovisual material in which it is difficult to identify where the entertaining spectacular attraction ends and the promotional text begins. In many ways Justin Wyatt mapped out the beginning of this process and its specific manifestation in Hollywood. 29 In the current context, in which the notion of the trailer has shifted over the years (now existing on a spectrum that includes real films, fan-desired films, “fake” films, spoofs and advertisements) the notion of the “advertisement” itself as a textual form has evolved as television content has proliferated across a wider network of distribution channels. There is also, however, a case to be made that the cinematic image and the promotional text as spectacular attraction have had an intimate interrelationship from the inception of moving pictures in the late 1890s. 30 In this light the focus moves from a claim that contemporary audiovisual texts are undergoing a shift in their relationship to the promotional realm and onto a question of scholarship and its appraisal of the rich history of cinema and promotion.

To return to the advertisements that have been the focus of this article however, what then are we to make of these rather broad ranging but compellingly interrelated examples of a crossover between Hollywood and the advertising industry? Without appearing facetious, the first and most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that there is a great deal more scholarship to be conducted in this area. Whatever the relationship between televisual spot advertising and Hollywood filmmaking of the past, the present context is marked by a changed production and distribution landscape in which, as JT Caldwell has pointed out, the production values and stylistic driving forces previously the preserve of the film industry are increasingly available and utilized by televisual advertising. Similarly, across new media businesses like gaming, advertising and special effects movies, a generation of digitally literate professionals specializing in computer graphics and coding increasingly cross the lines between one industry and another. It may be that we can begin to see increasing migration of skilled workers across industries, rather than what was previously an aspiration to move up to the film industry that is driving the growth of the advert as calling card. To be confident of this, however, we require more research on the migration patterns of industry professionals. 31 Alternatively, it may be that we could see these texts as the curious counter effect of what Matt Stahl has described as an increasingly corporately controlled (and therefore contested and un-malleable) notion of authorship. 32 In this context we may want to ask whether advertisements publicly attributed to directors who subsequently become Hollywood brands are the product of a democratized digital distribution landscape or are instead the result of a savvy film industry publicity machine that has always valued a rags to riches narrative for its rising stars. It seems likely, then, that the future of both production and consumption will be marked by further cross-pollination of advertising and filmmaking. Screen studies will have its work cut out for it tracing out such relationships and their implications.

Funding Acknowledgement: This research was facilitated as the result of a Marsden research grant for the project “The Digital Workshops of the World” from the Royal Society of New Zealand.

 

Leon Gurevitch is the Director of the Culture and Context Programme, Royal Society Research Scholar and Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design. Leon has published his work in Animation Journal, The Journal of Television and New Media, Senses of Cinema, The New Zealand Journal of Media Studies and The Journal of Popular Narrative Media. His current research on Weta Digital is a major three year project, funded by the New Zealand Royal Society to study digital image industry work cultures. Leon currently lectures graduate and postgraduate courses in photography, visual culture and computer generated imaging.

 


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Snickars, Pelle and Patrick Vonderau (eds), The Youtube Reader, Stockholm: The National Library of Sweden, 2009.

Stahl, Matt, “Privilege and Distinction in Production Worlds: Copyright, Collective Bargaining, and Working Conditions in Media Making” in Production Studies, ed Vicki Mayer et al. London: Routledge, 2009: 54-68.

Wernick, Andrew, Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, London: Sage, 1991.

Williamson, Judith, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, London: Marion Boyars, 2000.

Wyatt, Justin, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Austin: Texas University Press.

 

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

 

Notes:

  1. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001).
  2. Tom Gunning, D. W Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 1-3.
  3. Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture, (Cambridge: The Mit Press, 2006).
  4. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (eds), The Youtube Reader, (Stockholm: The National Library of Sweden, 2009).
  5. Anne Cronin, “Currencies of Commercial Exchange: Advertising agencies and the Promotional Imperative”, Journal of Consumer Culture, 4 (2004): 339.
  6. Celia Lury and Alan Warde, “Investments in the Imaginary Consumer: Conjectures Regarding Power, Knowledge and Advertising”, in Buy This Book: Studies in Advertising and Consumption, ed Mica Nava et al, (London: Routledge, 1997) 87–102.
  7. See Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, (London: Marion Boyars, 2000), 167; Anne Cronin Advertising Myths: The Strange Half-Lives of Images and Commodities (London: Routledge, 2004); Robert Goldman, Reading Ads Socially, (London: Routledge, 1992).
  8. Making Apple 1984 Macintosh Commercial” accessed April 18, 2013.
  9. Michael Schudson, Advertising the Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, (London: Basic Books, 1984), 210.
  10. Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, (London: Blackwell, 1987), 92.
  11. Xan Brooks,Directing is Masochism”, in The Guardian, April 24, 2002.
  12. John Caugie, Theories of Authorship: A Reader, (London: Routledge, 1981).
  13. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: Essay on Abjection, (New York: Colombia University Press, 1982).
  14. Robert Goldman, Reading Ads Socially, (London: Routledge, 1992), 174 – 181.
  15. Not just Scott and Fincher, but also, for instance, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne.
  16. Brookes Barnes, “Cyberspace Gamble”, in The New York Times, December 3, 2010.
  17. Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, (Austin: Texas University Press) 30.
  18. Intriguingly the “promotional” video shows glasses that allow a user to enter a virtualised set of any film they desire (in this case the Shining) suggesting a desire and willingness to engage with Hollywood as an industry early on.
  19. See for example any number of reviews of the film that make this point (all accessed April 18, 2013): http://www.totalfilm.com/reviews/cinema/tron-legacy, http://screenrant.com/tron-legacy-reviews-vic-92655/, http://movies.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/movies/17tron.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/16/entertainment/la-et-tron-20101216.
  20. Barnes, “Cyberspace Gamble”.
  21. Wyatt, High Concept, 112
  22. David Price, The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 111.
  23. Price, The Pixar Touch, 111.
  24. Leon Gurevitch, “Computer Generated Animation as Product Design Engineered Culture or Buzz Lightyear to the Sales Floor: To the Checkout and Beyond!”, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Sage, 7 (2012) 131.
  25. Analyzing Advertising: No 5, The Film” accessed April 18, 2013.
  26. Baz Luhrmann interview in “Chanel ‘Making of’ Film #4” accessed April 18, 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyPYfhW-wPY&feature=related
  27. At the press launch of the advert, Chanel’s in house marketing team requested it be referred to as a ‘mini movie’ going as far as adding closing credits to underscore the point that referred to itself as “No. 5 The Film”
  28. Andrew Wernick, Promotional Culture: Advertising, Ideology and Symbolic Expression, (London: Sage, 1991) 121.
  29. Wyatt, High Concept.
  30. Leon Gurevitch, “The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangable Currency of the Digital Attraction”, Journal of Television and New Media, 11 (2010) 367.
  31. For an example of work already underway on this subject see www.digitalworkshopsoftheworld.com.
  32. Matt Stahl, “Privilege and Distinction in Production Worlds: Copyright, Collective Bargaining, and Working Conditions in Media Making” in Production Studies, ed Vicki Mayer et al. (London: Routledge, 2009) 54-68.