Thursday, 20 May 2010

Afterthought: trailers and transmedia

A couple of days after I published my last blog post on The Wombles (and its potential as an early example of British transmedia storytelling), one of my students asked me about the narrative content of recent franchise teaser trailers (specifically Star Trek (2009) and Transformers (2007), arguing that they should be seen as transmedia storytelling extensions. The trailers, for those who haven't seen them, feature the construction of the Starship Enterprise, and the destruction of the 2003 Beagle probe to Mars by a Transformer. The argument here would be that these 'prologue' teasers extend the film narrative by introducing essential story elements ahead of the main feature.

I mention this here, partly because it might expand the discussion of transmedia storytelling, but also because in my recent book (Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology) I, quite deliberately, stopped short of claiming any transmedia element for trailer narratives. The reasons for that were mainly: 1. This would have taken place in my chapter on the Internet and I remain unconvinced that transmedia is a purely computer-based innovation; and 2. I think there is an issue around the 'trans' element of transmedia in such cases.

So, given its been two years since I completed the book, have I changed my mind on the nature of trailers and transmedia?

My earlier concern around transmedia as something unique to (or created by) a computer-based system remains strong. My first reaction to my student was whether there was anything 'new' about using trailers as story extensions: Hitchcock's Rope (1948) trailer features a scene that takes place before the murder (that motivates the rest of the film); another Hitchcock trailer The Trouble With Harry (1955) offers a mock-travelogue of the New England setting for the film; a more recent example might be The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005) trailer, which featured the Guide (voiced by Stephen Fry) explaining what a movie trailer was, but also operating as a gateway into the humour of Douglas Adams' 'universe.' While the examples of Star Trek and Transformers fit within this tradition, are they doing anything different from 50/60 years ago? Are they anything other than prologues to an existing narrative rather than an extension of that narrative across different media?

And this links to my second concern, which relates to Henry Jenkins' note that 'each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story' and that the serial nature of transmedia narratives involves dispersing story information across 'multiple media systems' (

These prologues do seem to fit within that definition. But it raises the larger question of whether a trailer is a medium in its own right.

Because if we regard the trailer in the same light as the film it is advertising, then surely they belong in the same medium? My work on the trailer considered film, television, video, and Internet trailers (i.e. trailers that were produced for one specific medium) and, despite some medium-specific aesthetic and structural differences, they were all recognisably 'trailers.' Given the film trailer created that template, would we want to claim that film and Internet trailers belong to different media - when, in fact, the main media difference might simply be one of dissemination method?

Personally, I love trailers, think they are endlessly fascinating texts to watch and study, and am happy to claim that the trailer is a unique audio-visual format - there was nothing like it in existence before the 1910s, and despite links to elements of poster and fan magazines, its style and structure (its poetics, if you like) are distinct and unique.

But do I think the trailer is a new and unique medium? No, which means I remain unconvinced that they operate within the transmedia storytelling tradition identified by Jenkins. If the film trailer and the feature film (whether seen in a cinema, on DVD or via a computer) belong to the same medium, then can they be regarded as transmedia?

However, as my student has gone away, intent on proving their case, we will no doubt return to the debate over the next few months...


  1. What counts as narrative content? Does seeing the army of terminators being built in the trailer for T2 ( fit in?

    Personally, I think that advertising (wherever it is displayed) and the main feature count as separate media. Whether it's a TV spot or a Happy Meal box, it's still advertising.

    Mind you, then you start to get into issues of canon. I'm sure that the information displayed on a burger carton is not intended to be considered part of the narrative, at least by the writer and director. So where do you draw the line? How do you know what is to be taken seriously and what is just supplementary fluff?

  2. Steve, I think you're right that there are problems with seeing merchandise (the Happy Meal, or a T-shirt) as part of a coherent narrative experience. Although fan use of such merchandise (using toys to produce fan videos etc. that are set in the same fictional universe) could be construed as part of a wider definition of narrative...

    I don't think I see advertising as a separate media (because technically advertising works across different media) and, while the T2 example does fit into the kind of prologues I was talking about, I still think that it is a piece of film that was designed to promote another film. So, again, no real cross-media narrative, simply a narrative that is extended across the same media.

    As for what counts as 'canon', that's a whole other debate!