Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Pee Chee Folder, a Shoe Box of Baseball Cards, and a Fan Trailer

Let me set the stage: it's late 1998 and I'm in a theater lobby waiting with my then two youngest daughters to see The Rugrats Movie, and when I look up I see hanging on the wall a rather large poster. There are no words on this advertisement, only a young boy standing amid sand dunes dressed like Luke Skywalker.  It takes me a few moments but I soon notice the boy's shadow, how it stretches out into the shape of Darth Vader. This wasn't my first clue that this film was on its way. Still, I nearly pee my pants with glee. But I am waiting for the movie trailer...


On the advent of that film's teaser trailer a CNN article (11/20/98) put it this way:

"Star Wars" junkies eager to catch a glimpse of the first prequel, your wait is over: 75 theaters in North America got to show a sneak preview [italics mine] of the trailer for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" among the trailers shown before other full-length feature movies.
The preview will appear nationwide on Friday. But loyal fans who paid close attention to the official Star Wars Web site learned there would be a sneak preview Tuesday in some theaters across the country.
Some people are apparently paying the full price of a movie ticket just to see the two-minute preview. Variety reported that nearly two-thirds of the 500 people in an afternoon showing of "The Siege" in Los Angeles walked out after seeing the trailer. Movie theaters across the country reported other fans doing the same thing.
Asked to comment, one fan who saw the trailer in Washington said "Unbelievable. I consider myself a harsh critic, but after the trailer I was applauding."


"Yousa rare card!"
A film trailer that had its own sneak preview? Yes. Call it the Honus Wagner rookie card of film previews, although not quite as rare today. Previews of coming attractions are the whip cream on the pumpkin pie of going to the movies, the vanilla ice cream on that hot slice of cobbler. That's why I like to get to the theater early, so I can be wowed by what's coming in the weeks, the months or the following summer. What about you Hobbit fans out there, remember over a year ago when you went to the theaters and the first sneak peek for An Unexpected Journey roared to life? There's little doubt you first came across it on YouTube, and not your local cinema. My friends, like or not, this is where we're going to experience many of our first peeks of new movies.

Don't worry. I managed to watch the trailers for Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 on YouTube with just as much excitement as enjoying the surprise of seeing it at the cinema. True, it's not part of the traditional theater-going experience, but watching and sharing film trailers through Twitter, Facebook and Google+ is a new normal. These social medias help elevate sneak previews as a stock worthy of trading, giving the film trailer cultural value and helping forge a budding amateur film industry. I'd go so far as to say that the movie trailer is becoming the new baseball cards of this generation.

When read aloud laboratory rats exploded.
Between my two oldest daughters and I, it's hard to tell who's the biggest geekoid when it comes to Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman (Dark Knight only!) or The Avengers gang. We can't wait for the next production tid-bit. The best way to traffic in such wares is the Internet, and with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ we can grab anything that leaks out of the studios, deliberate or otherwise. Back in the 40s and 50s when no Internet existed such wares came in the guise of gossip magazines and newsreels at the local cinema. With the advent of cable television came Entertainment Tonight and E! Entertainment, where one could grab pics or brief scenes thrown to the public like bits of meat to ravenous dogs forgotten by their drunken masters. For fans, movies trailers at the local cinema were the closest thing to understanding and appreciating the actual movie before its debut.

"It's a paradigm shift." A what?

The ability for the common man to make his own movies through video has become so common place that it eventually gave birth to the Godzilla of media: YouTube. The advent of home computer technology, creating high quality video has turned amateur hour into the Indie Film Society. My case in point: fan film trailers.

Full disclosure here: They annoy me. When that movie, the highly anticipated event hits my radar, like Star Trek 2, I want a glimpse of it. I want to get a sense of plot. I want to participate in the story event long before it completely unfolds before my eyes in the cinema. That's where the film trailer comes into its purpose and when it debuts on YouTube I'm not waiting to catch it at the cinema. And after a few clicks I'm on YouTube, I find the trailer link, and--bang!--its unfurled before my eyes. And...it's a fan trailer?!

I understand the impetus to create them. The audience is participating along side the poet, sharing in the event by composing their own art. This is no different than all the post 1977 Star Wars art drawn in art classes or on Pee Chee folders where the audience can create new continuing adventures and characters. How many fan trailers were churned out in advance of the latest Harry Potter or (shudder...) the Twilight movies? But more on fan trailers later.

"Quiet, the previews are starting..."

My discovery of the first bona fide Iron Man 3 teaser trailer happened when I tripped across a reference to it on my daughter's Facebook page. (Why hadn't she told me? Doesn't she know what a ginormous fan I am of the movies?) Quickly I went to the site and after some serious fumbling and bumbling I managed to get the video loaded up.

Now, let me pause right here and say that I am from an old school of movie theater goers. When I see a preview for a new film that I am slobbering over like a St. Bernard, the viewing experience must be unsullied, uninterrupted. I need my headphones in my ears, and I don't need the...BLOODY STREAMING TO STUTTER AND STOP! I wait for it to upload in it's entirety. I want to see that download bar to go completely white. After this I go full screen, press my laptop screen right up to my face, adjust the volume about three-quarters full and I let 'er rip. The idea is to become lost in the moment and be hurdled into the mini story, as much as I feel in theaters when a real kick-butt movie makes itself known. In April of 1977, months away from my 12th birthday, Father and Step-mother took brother and I to see Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. Rather than embellish the moment, here is the movie trailer I saw...

I had no idea such a movie existed. I was reminded of 2001:A Space Odyssey, possibly from the way the spaceships were lit. I certainly took notice, and then forgot all about it, until July when news of the movie's popularity had caught the attention of the national and local news outlets. When would we go to see it, I asked parental units? Soon, parental units would say, soon. The movie's buzz was the blather out of every mouth where ever two or three should meet. "Who hasn't seen this movie?" I groused. "Me." And I wouldn't lay eyes on it until August 6th at 9:00 pm, the night of my 12th birthday. When Darth Vader's ship escaped back into the darkness of space and the closing credits played out I was a mesmerized fan and my taste for anything related to this movie swam in my veins.

He who buys by the sword...
I didn't have a way to transmit my love and appreciation for the movie on a cultural scale--and no, buying the action figures and spaceships wasn't a cultural transaction, only financial. It's what you do with the memorabilia that constitutes a cultural transaction. Here's why: Dealing strictly as kid's stuff, baseball cards, even marbles (remember them?) are collected and traded. But why? With baseball cars the players your collection signifies a personal value to the game. This can be done with action figures and movie posters. Owning Edward Norton's The Hulk, the first Two Spider-Man movies, and not The Green Lantern, reflects your discriminating appreciation of that culture. If I had the Star Wars action figures in 1978 and they simply sat in their boxes, then I'm in a different realm of collecting, no longer dealing with kid's stuff but a financial commodity. (Heavens, if you're a fan of CBS's The Big Bang Theory, how often have you seen this kind of comic book collateral used by the boys to negotiate their way in or out of mayhem?)

But if I had a movie camera I could use the memorabilia to make my own Star Wars movies or at the very least a weird puppet show of sorts (I'm looking at you Seth Green). I'd want to keep the movies alive through the continuing antics of the characters. No camera or sense of theater? No problem. How many reams of art paper kept alive the antics of Star Wars characters, ships and other inspirations alive and well? How many sheets of three-hole punch paper retold Star Wars related fan fiction, even poetry, traded friend to friend?

What's this have to do with film trailers? Well, in 1978 some fellas made their own fan trailer (albeit a satirical spoof) of Star Wars called Hardware Wars, which to this day is a George Lucas favorite among fan films. (You can find part one here and part two here.) This was right at the onset of the rising home video rental era and here anyone could start trafficking in the film trailers, home made or otherwise. By the time The Empire Strikes Back rolled out in May 1980, Hardware Wars had become a cult classic. Our family enjoyed multiple viewings on a 16mm print checked out from the local library long before we watched it again years later on our very own VCR.

When did film trailers become a mass transaction of cinema, even a collectible? To help pay the bills, and give home viewers a real theater experience, studios began packaging their video releases with theatrical pre-show entertainment: Coke and Pepsi commercials, video and VCR maintenance, home rental industry adverts, and of course, trailers for upcoming films. All you had to do was put the video in, kick back with your theater-styled microwave popcorn and 20 ouncer, and let the entertainment blast you in the face. Maybe at the first or second viewing you resisted the urge to lay on the fast-forward button and get straight to the movie, but by the third or fourth viewing of Turner & Hooch, sitting through the trailers became a bother. They had lost their luster.

"In a world..."

Mostly copies of Universal Soldier and Ernest Goes to 'Nam
Jump ahead a few decades. In garages and basements throughout most of the world, that's not mold we smell but nostalgia for the good old days of VHS movies. Hidden stockpiles in homes that hadn't made their way to local dumps, find new homes at local Goodwill and Deseret Industries stores. Where ever they might be, the old formatted movies and the lost gems of pre-show entertainment found their way onto YouTube. Here, people like me gathered up the lost memories and racked them up into collections, or playlists, like this one here by Leanna Jacques, or this one here by videomix22, which I most enjoy.

Another grand source of movie trailer collections can be found at Archive.org located in their Movies section. Here 833 film trailers have been uploaded into their community-fed library. Many of these trailers contain classic horror and sci-fi movies, while many others are from 1950s-60s sexploitation splatter-gore genre that are too lurid for my tastes. Give me giant tarantulas eating farmers over sex-crazed knife-wielding zombies any day. Really. Nonetheless, its a treasure trove of nostalgia frequented by many who long for a taste of a cultural pie whose flavor reminds them of a simpler age. This has not gone unnoticed by baby-boomer entrepreneurs collecting these film trailers and other cinematic bric-a-brac and selling them. DVD collections like Drive-In Madness, which you can sample here, feature a wide variety of film trailers and snipes packaged to convey a great many things about the drive-in theater experience.

"I just can't wait..."

Just an eighteen inch puppet chewing on plastic. I hope.
The cultural excitement that surrounds a movie can drive the filmmaker within to hammer out their own facsimile. I understand perfectly where this comes from. At the age of seven on a Saturday morning, I watched the very first Godzilla movie on television. Perhaps that very afternoon, or the next day, I went out in my backyard to recreate the movie. My friend and I made buildings from scraps of wood and folded paper airplanes that we dangled from strings. While I directed the action, my friend played Godzilla and destroyed our homemade village. Any kid whose father takes them to their first big league baseball game, and is wowed by the experience, keeps the program and follows the players stats. He goes to a neighboring sandlot and plays baseball with his friends looking to recreate the excitement of the game. Baseball cards of pro players complete the hero worship. Fan trailers are no different.

Now, I do prefer my film trailers straight from the horse's mouth, not some kid in his basement trying to give me the slip. Still you can't deny that the overwhelming enthusiasm of churning out your version of a movie you love. Usually, these fan trailers are Frankensteins, trailers from other movies or prequels that convey a vague time and place, and they are overlaid with music and minimal dialogue that mimics the totality one might enjoy in a movie theater. Sample this faux teaser trailer from Iathamfilm for The Hobbit. It's an amalgam of The Lord of the Rings and Dragonslayer. Several others Hobbit fan trailers exist and in the transaction of these cultural emblems on YouTube, the highest quantity of views and "thumbs up" by commentators, wins the contest of creative wills.

I believe the impetus behind these cinematic artforms is our intense need to participate in a cultural event beyond the reach of our great unwashed hands. When news broke that a fourth Transformers movie was on the boards, well, it didn't take long for the fans to start cranking out their versions, until the real thing comes along. Right at this moment, what's floating around on YouTube as Transformer 4 fan trailers are more satirical mashup using previous movies and foreign commercials featuring morphing household appliances than any serious envisioning what the new film might be about. This may indicate the public's enthusiasm for the franchise's collapse in quality. (I'm looking at you Spielberg. Executive producer my arse...)

While fan trailers need to encapsulate the visual/audio impact of a theatrical preview, invariably they come off like a plot-foggy teaser trailer because they lack key dialogue to give their sequence of scenes a clear sense of story. To fill in the "plot" gaps you can essentially rip off other film trailers for select scenes. My youngest daughter is a big fan of the Transformers cartoons and enjoyed the first movie, and four years ago, in anticipation of the second movie, yes, I took up the challenge to make for her my own visioning of Transformers 2. Using early trailers for Transformers 2, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2012, I ran them through iMovie and made my first and only fan trailer, bringing to life the potential terrors unleashed on our hero and the world...if you mashed together all three movies. I took the narration of Optimus Prime and selected key phrases to give sequences from the three movies a binding effect. I would have preferred using higher quality videos, but the editing, music overlay, and the flow of the "story" is one that I'm proud of, considering the resources I had. My daughter loved it and watched it repeatedly.

There are those average joes whose passion for the craft elevate them. Unlike a movie studio with prime access, these trailer-makers create their own reasonable facsimiles by using animation software, blue/green screen technology and local production at their disposal, or with supreme ingenuity cannibalize other film trailers for shots, scenes and music to convey an emotion that represents their own sentiments of the film. If they are exceptionally creative and do manage to cannibalize the right footage, the results can fool the great unwashed. This fan trailer for Revenge of the Sith is perhaps the most visually complex I have seen from any fan.

Very few of us who love and play the sport of baseball, or any sport for that matter, will go on to play professionally. For those having a taste of filmmaking, you can play along side many of these professionals, and the dream to play for the big leagues may no longer be necessary. Through the network of social media you can play to an audience of thousands if not millions. With these little fan trailers you create, they help satiate that hero craving in all of us.

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