When it comes to trailers, I think that the one that really did it for me first was Batman Returns. At some point toward the end of the trailer, as a barrage of clips crescendo with the climax of the now iconic Danny Elfman score, I turned to my younger brother and said, “I’ve GOT to see that movie.”
Since then, Hollywood trailers have run the gamut, showing signs of great evolution and, sadly, devolution. MTV has shortened the attention spans of an entire generation, and so music has come to play a much more important part in trailers. In fact, some theatrical trailers are nothing more than seemingly random shots fastened to a piece of music from the Billboard Top 10. And for every piece of trailer art we see, like The Man Who Wasn’t There, we get an Armageddon. In fact, there is no discernable difference in pacing, logic, and style between the two-minute Armageddon trailer and the finished film!
For independents, the importance of the trailer is paramount now in a way it never was before. Before digital filmmaking, finishing a film was something of an accomplishment, and the fact that a film had been seen through to completion was enough to compel people to give it a shot. Now the market is flooded, the bar for quality is significantly lower, and you’re lucky to get someone’s eyes on your work for ten solid minutes, if that.
But a trailer… anyone will watch a trailer. A trailer means a guaranteed viewer for anywhere between one and three minutes, and might end up being your only leverage to find an audience. Sure, you’ve spent and slaved and agonized over your film, but can you sell it in two minutes? Can you put forth something that represents not only the production value, the quality of the actors, the structure of your story, but also the TONE of your film as well, all in less time than you’ll find in a network commercial break block?
If you can, you may separate your film from the ever-growing pile of digital dreck (not to mention celluloid crap) that’s jading festival programmers, distributors, and even common audience members out there in a market that’s high on volume and low on quality. The problem is that this is a technique not taught in any film program, not covered in any editing course, and judging by the quality of the indie trailers I’ve seen on the circuit, completely lost on a number of filmmakers.
Before we begin, you can take a look at two trailers that I have done for my own features, as they will be referenced later in this article:
I believe there are three relatively simple parts to an effective trailer, and while indie filmmaking is all about thinking outside the box and breaking rules, hopefully these three things will help make sure your trailer is accessible and will get your film noticed.
I’ve cut trailers now for all three of my own features, and at least twice that number for other filmmakers. I see them constantly; I’m sent links, I browse festival selection websites, and now that MySpace and YouTube have become bonafide marketing tools, anyone can get their story into a spotlight for a few minutes with a well-crafted trailer.
The problem is that, more times than not, trailers are made BY the filmmakers themselves. Why is this a problem? The trailer is made by the one person who is familiar with every aspect of this universe and story, who knows it inside and out. The fact is there could be (and often are) HUGE holes in the trailers, things that create confusion in unbiased viewers. There are gaps that the filmmaker subconsciously fills in as they watch the trailer, thinking everything is making sense, while uninformed viewers fall into those gaps and never quite recover.
I recommend starting with the same rule of thumb I’d tell any aspiring writer or director: watch. Watch a lot of trailers. See the various styles, and see what works for you.
A lot of young filmmakers try to emulate popular styles in their trailers, and often this is to their detriment. The most often copied filmmaker I’ve seen out there is Quentin Tarantino. There’s a genuine sense of hero-worship out there with a lot of indie filmmakers, and the minute they start yanking musical tracks from the Kill Bill soundtrack to supplement their trailer, I know that they’re doomed.