The importance of a good trailer

August 11, 2011
posted by sheric

Many times when independent filmmakers send a request for help to me, they attach a link to their film trailer. This is the video they have on Youtube and on their website as a representation of their film, a reason to see it or buy it. Often, they are terrible. They are too long, they are too slow, there is no sense of what the film is about or why I would want to see it. A trailer should not be a 3 minute cut down version of your film. It is an advertisement meant to pique the interest of prospective viewers and there is a talent to making them work. This isn’t a job for your intern.

I asked professional trailer editor Bill Woolery if he would share his knowledge about what makes a good trailer, what are common mistakes he sees so many filmmakers (and distributors and studios) making, how to use trailers if you are trying to fundraise and what techniques are commonly used to ensure action is taken. Your trailer should make people say “I’ve got to see this film!” or “I want to donate money to help it reach its goal.”

For over 2 decades, Bill worked as a trailer editor for major studios and production companies on their theatrical and TV campaigns. He has since moved into editing trailers for documentaries and non profit humanitarian projects  for use in fund raising.  He has established himself as the go-to trailer expert for documentary and independent film producers and is often asked to speak and critique trailers in seminars hosted by Carole Dean and other high-profile members in the documentary community. His regularly scheduled “Trailer Clinics” help give filmmakers the tips and tools to improve their fundraising trailers.

An example of Bill’s past work is the trailer for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “My boss tossed me the project saying, ‘We don’t know what to do with this, so come up with something.’  It turned out to be one of my most satisfying challenges. Janácek’s chamber music set the tone for the editing.  The film tanked at the box office, but AFI now includes it on their 100 best American films list.  A young Daniel Day-Lewis stars with Juliette Binoche.”

How does editing a trailer differ from editing an entire film?

“These are not only two different styles of editing, they’re two distinctly different realties.  A trailer incorporates the same scenes as the full-length piece but uses a totally different “language” to express them.  When filmmakers come to me, it’s often because they tried cutting their own trailers.  After much labor in the edit room, they were never able to achieve a sequence that felt like a trailer.  There is a characteristic pace and flow to a trailer you don’t find in narrative editing.  It’s the same material but presented with an urgency and immediacy that’s very different from your whole film.

A feature documentary has emotional moments, but a trailer is basically one emotional moment from beginning to end.  It takes you immediately into an emotional reality and holds you there until it drops you at the end.  During that span, it must also convey specific information: who the characters are, what the story is about, why the characters are doing what they’re doing.  Most importantly, it must answer the questions: Why is this doc (or feature) something you should see?  And why is it important to see it now?

These are a few of the many elements that make a good trailer and constructing it is more complicated than most narrative filmmakers realize.  A well-edited trailer is a very busy ‘world.’  At every moment you’re moving through multiple arcs: characters’ arc, the main story arc, the emotional arcs.  They’re all intertwined.  It’s a lot to keep track of.  And over-arching all that is ‘the build.’

The ‘build’ is probably the element that most clearly defines the difference between trailer editing and feature editing.  A trailer must maintain a continuous forward momentum.  This momentum usually picks up in speed and urgency in the second half of the trailer.”

How to evaluate a potential trailer editor for your project?

“Beware the editor/producer/filmmaker who has some downtime and says, ‘Sure, I can cut you a trailer.  I’ll do it as a favor.’  Also, stay away from anyone who thinks a trailer is basically a cut-down of the feature – because you will get a cut-down of the feature and not a trailer.”

Why should a trailer editor be used instead of just an intern or the editor already working on your film?

“During the past 10 years, the role of the trailer has changed, especially in the funding strategy of documentary and indie production.  Traditionally, trailers were edited by the filmmakers themselves because (a) budgets were tight and (b) they had the edit system and media sitting there in their second bedroom.  ’Outsourcing’ a trailer didn’t make sense.   Over time, with the development of the Internet, people became accustomed to seeing videos (addicted to seeing them, really).  Eventually, the pitch, the proposal, the text on your website – all of these took second place to the video trailer.  It was as if your project wasn’t real unless your intended audience could ‘see’ something on the screen.   Today, some distributors or funders will ask to see your trailer before talking to you. So the trailer has become the most critical element to getting your project funded or distributed.  It needs to be really good, really effective.  Paying a trailer editor is now considered a sound investment.” (I totally agree!)

What are the different types of trailers?  such as theatrical, TV etc

If  you check the Doc Trailers page of my website you’ll find this:

Fundraising Trailer – the key element to your project’s success

Work-in-Progress Trailer – to find your finishing funds

Showcase Trailer – specifically pitched to buyers/distributors/broadcasters

Sizzle / Teaser trailers – to generate buzz when you don’t have much to show

Theatrical Trailers – the all-purpose video that establishes your project’s identity

The majority of my editing projects now involve FUNDRAISING trailers.  As a trailer category, it’s wide open because it depends on what you have to show, how good your footage is and what you want to accomplish with it.  In terms of length, it could be anywhere from 3 to 8 minutes long, possible up to 12 if you’ve got a compelling story and/or extraordinary footage that can sustain it that long.  It also has to do with who it’s intended for: a foundation, grant qualification, a private funder.  Research your intended viewer and find out what they’re looking for.

Everyone agrees a trailer should not reveal the end of the story.  For theatrical-style trailers that is certainly the case.  But when you’re putting together a fundraising trailer the purpose is to sell your idea to people who can share your vision and might invest in it.  They need to see what they’re buying – all of it.  It’s important for them to know you have a satisfying ending so don’t hesitate to show it.

WORK-IN-PROGRESS trailers run longer so the viewer, usually a major funder, can feel confident about the project’s progress, that their investment is worthwhile and in capable hands.  In terms of length it’s determined by the funder’s needs and could be anywhere between 4 to 14 minutes.

Every project needs a THEATRICAL-STYLE trailer.  This is the one that’s used as the all-purpose “calling card” for your project, the one you post on YouTube and Vimeo and the project’s website.  It’s normally made after your doc is finished and mastered – but sometimes there’s need for it before the projects gets to that point.  This kind of trailer is short, usually 1.5  to 3 minutes.  It’s energetic and dramatic and makes no obvious solicitation for funds and does not reveal the end of story.  The cliff-hanger ending that works so well for commercial entertainment trailers is also the most effective “out” for documentary trailers.

Finally, there are TEASER or SIZZLE trailers.  These terms are used pretty much interchangeable.  Their purpose is generating advanced buzz for the project.  In both cases, they’re often put together with rip-o-matic images from the Net with a voice-over telling you how great the project will be once the viewer contributes the funds to realize it.  These kinds of trailers might include a “pedigree” montage of the filmmaker’s past projects – if they exist.  A teaser is short, 30 seconds to a minute and a half, unless the “past projects” are very prestigious and need screen time to be showcased.”

In part 2, Bill will talk about techniques such as motion graphics, using music to set the tone, using voice overs and the biggest mistakes he sees people make in editing a trailer. Stay tuned!

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