Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Beginning of the End(game): Promoting Avengers: Endgame

By James Deaville

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and directors Anthony Russo and Joseph V. Russo (collectively the Russo Brothers) have been notorious for their reluctance to give away anything that would spoil their films. Thus for Avengers: Endgame—title withheld until the end of the first trailer—they “almost opted for a no-marketing campaign for the movie” . When they did drop the first trailer on December 7, 2018, it was only four-and-a-half months before its cinematic release on April 26, 2019 (compared with eight-and-a-half months for the forthcoming Star Wars IX) and presented “footage from the first 15 to 20 minutes of the film.” They used this limited body of visual material, augmented by clips from earlier films, to produce fourteen film promotions: three full-length trailers, eight television spots, one “film clip,” one “special look,” and one featurette (see Table). The scant trailers and spots teased without giving away any significant plotlines or outcomes, an approach to marketing that replicates the successful strategy for Avengers: Infinity War (first trailer released on November 29, 2017, film opened on April 28, 2018).


Official Trailer                          December 7     2:25
Big Game TV Spot                  February 3         :30
Official Trailer                          March 11         2:26
Honor” TV Spot                      March 21           :30
We Lost” Featurette               March 26         1:53  [April 26: no voiceover]
Special Look                            April 2             1:00  [Tickets on Sale Now] Marvel
Film Clip                                  April 8             1:13
Mission” Spot                         April 11             :30  [On April 26… Tickets on Sale Now]
No Mistakes, Kids” TV Spot   April 15             :15  [On April 26…Tickets Available Now]
To the End”                             April 16           2:29  [In 10 Days]
Go” TV Spot                           April 23             :15  [In 3 Days]
Everything” TV Spot              April 24             :15  [Tomorrow]
Big Review TV Spot                April 25              :15  [Tonight]
Save” TV Spot                        April 26              :16   [Now Playing]

The makers of Avengers: Endgame have reason to be wary of the trailer, since as “the most important marketing tool of a film campaign,” it receives the most attention from fans, who search the footage for narrative or character information down to the individual frame. As Lisa Kernan observes in Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (2004), “trailers both satisfy and withhold satisfaction of audience desire to know about a film’s story.”  In doing so, they “inevitably withhold more than they reveal—and the withholding can be just as revealing as what’s shown or told.”<1> Kathleen Williams designates the excitement surrounding a trailer release as a “culture of anticipation.”<2> Vinzenz Hediger has speculated about the nature of the anticipation: “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.”<3>

Those responsible for Avengers: Endgame clearly wished to foster the “culture of anticipation” by delaying or even bypassing the traditional sequence of trailers. To cultivate uncertainty and defeat expectations the studio went so far as to engage in a disinformation campaign, whereby they not only carefully curated a limited set of images that reappeared throughout the trailers and spots, but they also “used footage that’s not in the movie in order to form their trailers, favoring secrecy over marketing.” The Russo Brothers confirmed the practice when Joe Russo remarked to Josh Horwitz on his Happy Sad Confused podcast, “We use all the material that we have at our disposal to create a trailer… So at our disposal are lots of different shots that aren’t in the movie that we can manipulate through CG to tell a story that we want to tell specifically for the purpose of the trailer and not for the film.” Russo’s comments on having created separate trailer narratives that accomplish something other than showing the movie’s best bits argues for them as “unique layered texts in their own right,” in the words of trailer researcher Keith Johnston.<4>

In the case of the Avengers series, veteran film composer Alan Silvestri had created an epic trademark motive: the upward leap of a fifth followed by a downward scale over a i VI | IV6 VI VII progression in the brass and strings (my thanks to Grace Edgar for clarifying this). Fans may have expected to hear Silvestri’s Avengers theme in the December teaser trailer (“Capstone”).  In the spirit of non-revelation, however, the trailer house used the pre-composed soundtrack “So Say We All” by Harry Lightfoot, featured on the album Volturnus by production-music company Audiomachine (released January 30, 2018). The company’s track, “Redshift,” had already been featured in the final trailer to Avengers: Infinity War, and despite a few cuts for length, “So Say We All” takes up the entire trailer, sans Silvestri. The images and dialogue were edited to the music, the overall impression is one of gloom and loss (thus footage from the beginning of the film). Customary for the teaser, this first trailer features an extended scene, with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) narrating a farewell message to love interest Pepper Potts, followed by snippets of action. Fan comments on the various trailer postings—a record 289 million views within twenty-four hours—typically do not mention the music or even the absence of Silvestri’s theme.

Perhaps to continue the obfuscation, Marvel/Disney also called the preview released on March 11 “Official Trailer,” without the benefit of a number (and you find the descriptive title “Reflections” only on mOcean’s website). Here we perceive a clearer Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) context for Endgame, but through footage from earlier franchise offerings, including Iron Man and Captain America, and concluding with Infinity War. Indeed, the Russo Brothers seemed intent on demonstrating how you could fashion a trailer with virtually no new footage. However, in contrast to “Capstone,” Silvestri’s Avengers theme leads us through images of franchise characters, with an extension of its final notes that becomes a lament for the lost and then a call to action. A wordless choir signals the climax, which leads into the Avengers logo re-assembling itself—suggesting the team’s physical re-forming--against the only full, forceful statement of the theme.

After producing the two trailers from December and March, the studio unexpectedly released a two-minute twenty-nine second promotional video called “To the End” a mere ten days before the theatrical release of Endgame. Marvel/Disney did not give it a designation other than its title, but its intent seems such that it nostalgically memorializes the characters and the films, in the final marketing push to theatrical release on April 26. This promotional “tribute” video or highlight reel may have been produced in house by Marvel/Disney, since it involves the sights and sounds from each of the story lines that make up the MCU (twenty-one films before Endgame).

A multi-layered, semiotically rich text, “To the End” falls into two parts, the first offering brief visual and musical glimpses of major characters, framed by Nick Fury’s words from the 2012 Avengers: “Heroes, it’s an old-fashioned notion… We need heroes.” In that first minute, we see footage and hear theme music from each component of the MCU: Iron Man (composed by Brian Tyler), Captain America (Alan Silvestri), Thor (Patrick Doyle), the Guardians of the Galaxy (Tyler Bates), Dr. Strange (Michael Giacchino), the Avengers (Silvestri), and Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson), with voice-overs describing each figure’s strengths. All of this is seamlessly woven into a musical narrative that climaxes on the Avengers theme. (Colleagues Bradley Spiers, Ryan Thompson, and Grace Edgar will address the film’s indebtedness to prior music from the MCU). After a brief silence, Captain Marvel sonically exerts her power, and as if what came before wasn’t adequate, we fly chronologically through the logos and moving images for all twenty-one Avengers films—this visual montage devotes only two seconds per film, but is unified by a powerful rising scale in the orchestra under lines by Vision from Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The high point is attained with Infinity War, which stops the music; Dr. Strange says “We’re in the Endgame now” (from Infinity War), we hear the metallic sound of Thanos’ snap (known as “The Decimation”), then Silvestri’s Avengers theme in full orchestral garb, with images of the team in action and under Tony Stark’s Avengers narration “If we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we'll avenge it” and Captain America’s quote “Whatever it takes.” The Avengers “A” logo is again re-assembled under the sustained minor chord followed by an echo.

Quite the musical journey in two minutes, but this non-trailer does everything the studio and directors desired of it: without giving away anything of the Endgame plot, it visually and musically summarizes the franchise in a narrative that anticipates the conclusiveness of the film. At the same time, “To the End” ramped up audience expectations of seeing and hearing their favorite Avengers superheroes in a film that promised closure. Here the studio is not just selling a film, but also calling up memories from ten years of individual and collective experiences with these characters and their stories. However, as Tony Stark reminds us in the first trailer and in the film itself, “part of the journey is the end.”
1>Lisa Kernan, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004), 71.
2>Kathleen Williams, “Fake and Fan Film Trailers as Incarnations of Audience Anticipation and Desire,” in “Fan/Remix Video,” edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9 (2012), at https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/360/284.
3>Vinzenz Hediger, “A Cinema of Memory in the Future Tense: Godard Trailers and Godard Trailers,” in Forever Godard, edited by James Williams, Michael Temple, and Michael Witt, 141-159 (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004), 156.
4>Keith Johnston, Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), 126.
James Deaville teaches Music in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He has edited Music in Television (Routledge, 2010) and has co-edited Music and the Broadcast Experience (Oxford, 2016). He is currently working on a study of music and sound in cinematic trailers, a result of the Trailaurality research group that has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He is also undertaking a co-edited anthology on music and advertising as one of the Oxford Handbooks. He regularly gives papers at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and Music and the Moving Image conferences (among others), and has published on music and media in Music, Sound and the Moving Image, the Journal of Film Music, and Music & Politics (among others).

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