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1201 FM Trailer HowTos

1201 FM Trailer HowTos

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Published by Stu Pollard

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Published by: Stu Pollard on Aug 10, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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It’s only two minutes long. But 
 it’s the way a film greets the world. For a self-distributor, it can mean getting 100,000 hitson YouTube within a week. For indie film-makers trying to make an impression, it’s achance to have their no-budget D.I.Y. moviesstand shoulder-to-shoulder with
The Hobbit 
 Avatar 2
on iTunes. And it has a longshelf life; years after a theatrical release is over,it will be one of the first things to pop up ona Google word search. The humble movie trailer, once a delight-ful distraction seen only by punctual filmgo-ers exclusively in movie houses, is now theprincipal way most movies get exposure andremain in the public conscience. And as longas there is a computer and an Internet con-nection, it can be watched anytime, anywhere,indefinitely. Along with the movie poster, it isarguably the most important marketing toolavailable to a filmmaker. A bad trailer won’t automatically hurt afilm. Strong reviews and terrific word-of-mouth can make uninspired advertising irrel-evant. Then again, not all films are bulletproosuccess stories. What about that promisingfirst feature? That peculiar but compellingforeign language film? That oddball docu-mentary with seemingly banal subject matter yet an undeniably hypnotic style? These kindsof movies can really benefit from a memora-ble piece of advertising. (And, oddly enough,a bad flick can occasionally make for a fantas-tic trailer. More on that later.)Studio films typically break down into ahandful of genres: action, drama, comedy,horror, sci-fi, fantasy. They all have their con- ventions, and their trailers have a similarly categorized look and sound. Thick sans-serif font with jaunty music? Comedy. Elegantserif font with dour orchestral cue? Drama. These are mass-produced goods, and they areby definition formulaic. This is not necessar-ily criticism; there are excellent studio filmsthat have accordingly superlative trailer work.(Trailer campaigns for huge franchises suchas
The Matrix 
Harry Potter 
 are particularly well-crafted.) But indepen-dent and foreign language releases are usually hard to categorize. They often mix genres,subvert them or ignore them completely.Documentaries, too, can defy definition. Is itan essay film, an experiential meditation, agit-prop, social commentary or all of the above? At Kinetic, the company my partner Christy  Wilson and I co-founded 10 years ago, we havehad the opportunity to work on tremendousnon-studio movies that aren’t the easiest tocategorize; over 300 films, most recently Cary Fukunaga’s
 Jane Eyre 
, Agnieszka Holland’s
 In Darkness 
, Constance Marks’
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey 
, and Tom Six’s
The HumanCentipede 2: Full Sequence 
. From a marketingpoint of view, the options are wide open — which can be either intimidating or liberating,depending on your point of view.
So you have a movie and you need a trailer.
Put very simply, a trailer is a condensed ver-sion of a feature, so it should be a collection of its greatest elements. The best way to evaluate your film is to see it first not as a genre but interms of its fundamental characteristics. Doesit have arresting dialogue? Great cinematog-raphy? Searing performances? Memorableproduction design? Lead with its merits.Of course genre will guide the trailer pro-cess. But which aspects are the best ones tomarket? If it’s a comedy/drama, do you makeit funny with some gravitas, or serious with afew zingers for levity? Do you let genre definethe film? Doing so might attract more ticketbuyers, but could also alienate those people if the movie they see doesn’t match their pre-sumptions. Also, if the film has played on thefestival circuit, consider using laurels to toutits pedigree. Are there good reviews, and do you want to add them to the mix? Or willlaurels and reviews attract only a highbrow audience and alienate the general market?Do you think the trailer would benefit froma narrator? What kind of music is available —are there cues specifically composed for thefilm that would be appropriate, or is outsidemusic a possibility? Do you want a copywriterto get involved, or does the film have enoughexplanatory dialogue to sustain itself? Now that you’ve unpacked your elements, decideon a creative approach.
 Above all, and without exception, trailer 
 editing is about rhythm. If you don’t have aninnate sense of it, then your trailer will not sing. A trailer, cut well, will have a flowing motionto it, a sense that everything plays off every-thing else, and will propel the viewer throughthe experience of the film. Trailers build up ex-citement and anticipation, and a keen sense of rhythm heightens those sensations. While you may not choose for music to bethe defining characteristic of your trailer, it stillplays an important role in its basic construc-tion. It literally sets the tone and the rhythm. Iusually start every trailer by building my mu-sic bed, and that bed is generally composed of three music cues. Why three? Because trailerslend themselves to a three-act structure. Act One: Introduce the films’ charactersand environment. Act Two: Complicate their world with obstacles to overcome. Act Three:Intensify the conflicts and ratchet up the ten-sion/excitement/humor. (Montages invari-ably end up in Act Three.) There can be fouracts, there can be one — it really just depends
on the material. But three acts is a good placeto start. Most importantly: never resolve any-thing! Whenever possible, leave questionsunanswered. Don’t tie up loose ends. Keep theaudience wanting more.I mentioned before that bad movies can havegreat trailers. That’s because trailers are aboutraising expectations. Films are made because agroup of people really believe in the ideas be-hind that movie. All films start out being poten-tially great. By the time the filmmaking processis over, reality has intervened. Is it still great? That’s open to debate. But a trailer doesn’t revealthe whole movie. It just reveals the movie’s po-tential to be great. It pitches the promise of thepremise. And if the trailer has seductive rhythmand an arresting structure, then any movie canlook like a winner.
In order to make a trailer for your film,
have to take it apart. Every trailer editorgoes through the film meticulously, breakingit down and turning it into basic buildingblocks. The main way to do this is to createtwo sequences: a dialogue string and a visualstring. These are highlight reels. But they’realso like basic ingredients. Imagine taking acake and reverse-engineering it, extractingthe eggs, flour, sugar and butter.Editors are like tailors. They cut materi-als and shape them, letting them out here andtucking them in there, until they make a perfectfit. But editors, particularly trailer editors, arealso cooks. They take their materials and they boil them down, condense them and extracttheir essence in order to flavor the overall meal.Common sense might suggest that the edi-tor who cut your feature should cut your trailer,too. But in certain ways they are the least quali-fied. Yes, they are familiar with the footage, andtrailer editors need to be, too. But feature edi-tors are too familiar. They have lived with thefootage for months, sweated over the choicesand labored to make every shot fit perfectly into the specific context of the film. Trailer editors, on the other hand, are dis-respectful. They de-contextualize everything. That half-smile the heroine gives to her boy-friend that secretly devastates him? The trailereditor only sees a smile. A dog bark is a dogbark. It’s not Spot’s excited howl that saves thelife of his master — it’s just a dog bark. Trailereditors have to see everything for what they areinherently, not how they function in the fea-ture film. They have to unpack the feature inorder to repack it and turn it into a trailer. There are also many familiar editing tropesin trailers: dissolves, fades from black, fadesto black, white flashes with the metal-doorslams, fast-paced flutter-cuts, double expo-sures, speed adjustments, audio rises, audiodrones, audio stings. These effects are like theimages from the film itself: they are tools in atoolbox. Got something lush and romantic?Use dissolves and fades. Got something fast-paced and tense? Use increasingly faster hardcuts that crescendo in a metal-door slam anda white flash. This is simplistic, but the basicmessage is this: Use these tools (the soundeffects, the editing tricks, etc.) to tell a story. And to
a story.
Certain films have subject matter that might 
turn off audiences who think they ’ve seenthat type of movie before. Myles Bender, se-nior vice president of creative advertising atFocus Features, was concerned that their new production of 
 Jane Eyre 
would be perceived astoo literary, too outdated and be viewed as achick flick. He requested a trailer that playeddown the traditional romantic melodramaand emphasized something else: horror. So Wilson mined and exploited the darker, eerieraspects of the film and treated the story not asa treasured classic but as a very modern tale of madness and obsession.Let’s say your film deals with controversialissues. Some people who might really love themovie may recoil when they learn what it’sabout. Respect that. Don’t rub people’s nosesin it. Be subtle. Or at least be tactful. In RyanFleck’s feature debut
Half Nelson
, released by  THINKFilm, Ryan Gosling plays a belovedhigh school teacher who is also a crack head. When we did the trailer, we were very con-scious of not naming what drug he was using. We alluded to drug use, but we weren’t specific. Also, this movie is about so much more thandrug use. It’s also about adults inspiring teen-
agers, having human weaknesses and gettingsecond chances in life. So we underlined thetragic parts, emphasized the positive and didn’tdwell on the more salacious, negative aspects.Before we started Kinetic, Wilson cut thetrailer for
, a critically acclaimed dramaabout pedophilia on Long Island, releasedby Lot 47. In this case, the material is so po-tentially toxic that it’s difficult to explain thestory without it seeming lurid. But the moviehad a melodic yet sinister song (Donovan’s“Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), sumptuous cinema-tography (courtesy of Romeo Tirone) andevocative shots (thanks to director MichaelCuesta). Lot 47 co-founder Jeff Lipsky asked Wilson to make a trailer using only the onesong, drop all the dialogue, and cut a montagepeppered with critics’ quotes and laurels. Heasked her to create a mood instead of a narra-tive; something that was by turns alienating,thrilling, dangerous and ultimately haunting. Without saying a word, it is an incredibly faithful reflection of the film.
is essentially a music-driven montage
trailer. The song and images dictate the feelingand structure, but don’t reveal a story. Certainfilmmakers have such a distinct visual styleand use of music that the best sort of trailerfor their films is usually a music-driven mon-tage. Gaspar Noé’s
 Enter the Void 
is a perfectexample. The trippy film about the ghostof a junkie watching over his stripper sisterin the neon-drenched city of Tokyo practi-cally begs to be a visual head-trip trailer. IFCFilms, who released the film, totally supportedthat approach, but vice president of market-ing Ryan Werner and director of marketingShani Ankori wanted to make sure the twomain characters were also established. So themontage is book-ended with the two of themtalking to each other and promising to alwaysbe together no matter what. Along with be-ing a string of trippy images set to a poundingtechno cue, the trailer also has an emotionalundercurrent that humanizes the material andmakes the psychedelica oddly poignant. Another incredibly visceral filmmaker isLynne Ramsay, whose 2002 film
, released by Cowboy Pictures, fol-lows Samantha Morton as she assumes herdead boyfriend’s identity, claims his book asher own and becomes a celebrated author.Cowboy’s co-heads, Noah Cowan and JohnVanco, wanted the trailer to tell that story, butthey also wanted it to be impressionistic and toshowcase the visuals and the music. The filmhas an incredibly eclectic soundtrack (Aphex Twin, Stereolab, Lee Hazlewood, Ween), andI used four different cues throughout. Thestory is about, essentially, an identity crisis, sothe music keeps getting interrupted by stray bits of dialogue that are jolting realizations. The structure of the trailer is one of disrup-tion and deliberately jerks from exultation toanxiety and introspection.
 Although documentaries are technically 
non-fiction, they usually abide by the samerules as fiction films. They tell a story. The trailer for the Zeitgeist release
Bill Cunningham New York
, cut by our junioreditor Laura Tomaselli, is absolutely aboutfashion, since the subject is a fashion pho-tographer. But it’s also about the sacrificesone person makes in order to do what heloves. She makes his story compelling in twominutes because she captures his monastic,Spartan lifestyle and contrasts it with flam-boyant wealth. And she shows how this manhas just as much individuality, taste and styleas the most outrageous clotheshorse. It’s aneloquent ode to having the courage of one’s
For independent filmmakers hoping to use an appealing trailer 
 to create interest in their undistributed film, the process of getting a trailer into a movietheater or onto a mainstream digital platform like iTunes or Yahoo is something of aCatch-22. Independent filmmakers want their trailers seen in these venues in order toincrease exposure for their projects, but it’s nearly impossible to get placement in either venue unless a project is already quite exposed.Let’s start with theaters. Filmmakers going the DIY route, or who have partnerships with small, niche distributors, should all but count out the possibility of getting theirtrailers into the major theatrical chains. These theaters generally show four to six trailersbefore a feature. Two of these slots are allotted to the studio releasing the feature, and theremaining trailers are decided on by theater executives based on demographic research.It’s a well-oiled system, with no clear entry point for small independent filmmakers —especially if their films aren’t playing at the chains in question.Independently owned theaters provide an entirely different quandary. These theatersgenerally only show trailers for films that they will be playing. Elliott Kanbar of Manhat-tan’s Quad Cinema elaborated on this practice in an e-mail to
, explaining, “It’san important aspect of marketing films. Trailers are owned by the filmmakers/distributorsand they require the exhibitor to play them in advance of the film opening.” Filmmakersfour-walling a theater should expect that theater to play their trailer in advance of the run;again, though, others will have a hard time.It can be just as difficult and costly to get a trailer into the mainstream digital realm. Yes, iTunes and Yahoo both allow open trailer submissions. (iTunes’ contact address istrailers@mac.com, and Yahoo’s is yahoocs@blssi.com, but note that each site has specificinstructions about what details to send.) Both sites are also quite selective about the trail-ers that they accept. As a prerequisite for consideration, iTunes requires that films already have a theatrical run planned, or have been “accepted to a major film festival.” Meanwhile, Yahoo’s submission form asks the filmmaker to specify release date and distributor, twofields that should give an idea as to how far along they expect their trailer submissions tobe. A simple perusal of either site’s current trailer roster confirms that both iTunes and Yahoo favor studio films and indies being released by large distributors almost unilaterally. The rare self-distributed title does make it onto iTunes (recent examples being JenniferFox’s
 My Reincarnation
and Tze Chun’s
Children of Invention
), but these projects generally have a good deal of hype behind them before they reach Apple. In an e-mail,
producer Mynette Louie discussed how that film’s festival run was an asset in getting it oniTunes. “They actually first posted our [trailer] in May ’09, four months after we playedSundance, while we were in the thick of the fest circuit,” Louie explained. “Then when wedid a theatrical release in Feb ’10, we just e-mailed again to ask to repost on their homep-age, but offered them two exclusive clips of the film as well. When you do this, they havemore incentive to post/feature [your film].” —
Dan Schoenbrun

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