Hype, Paratexts, and Over-sized Smurfs: The Case of Avatar

By Jonathan Gray

As Avatar runs rampant through box office records, it’s also doing a beautiful job of illustrating the key argument of my new book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, that hype and paratexts are absolutely central, not simply for profits but also for the construction of meaning.

First, everyone knows about Avatar. If Avatar or Twilight haven’t been words in your vocabulary in the last few months, you either aren’t living in a country that Twentieth Century Fox thinks it can get money from or you’re reenacting M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Avatar discussion, stats, trailers, posters, etc. are everywhere. Thus, at some level everyone is an audience of the film, whether you paid your $15 to see it on IMAX 3-D, whether you downloaded a copy online, or whether you don’t think you’re ever going to watch it. Its omnipresence shows clearly that movies aren’t just contained within the multiplex walls, nor are they simply a 2 hour (or, in the case of Avatar, nearly three hour) experience.

Beyond this simple observation, though, it’s worth noting that everyone has an opinion on the show. Indeed, opinions seem remarkably unified within two central camps – either it’s a great ride and a cinematic breakthrough, or it’s all hype and a piece of crap. But these positions develop before people watch. I’d pose that pretty much everyone is getting what they think they’re going to get out of Avatar: either you expect a wonderful visual feast and you get it, or you expect to find a stupid story (“Dances with Wolves on another planet”) with visuals that are either ho-hum or excessive, and you get that. To find someone who is truly ambivalent and neutral prior to watching the film would be a hard task.

Many of these judgments have sprung from the paratexts that surround the film. Granted, Some of them are intertextual, based on viewers’ regard for James Cameron or for Sam Worthington. Some are technological, as some viewers are itching to see anything in IMAX 3-D, while others think it’s the death of cinema as we know it. But many are also getting their cues from the trailers, the reviews, the posters, and from the background information that finds its way onto blogs, into magazines, and into late night talk shows. Put another way, so much of the work of the film, and so much of its creation of meaning, is happening before audiences set foot in the theater, and is being performed not by the film itself, but by an army of Fox’s marketing and PR staff.

I point to Avatar as a clear example, but every film, and every television show, album, and videogame for that matter, follows the same path. Even if “hype” is the dirtiest word in your vocabulary, and even if you can’t stand big-budget Hollywood, that movie poster outside the Angelika, the fact that the film’s even playing in the Angelika (or perhaps, better still, MoMA?), the New York Times’s review, the trailer you saw a month ago, what Aki Kaurismäki said about it – these are all still constitutive of how you regard the film that you haven’t yet seen. Much of the text is the paratext, and so hype isn’t just about sales – it’s also where meaning begins and where, later on (when the Avatar Platinum Super Special Other World Extended Uncensored Director’s Cut Edition is released on DVD), meaning is refined.