A FILMMAKERS TOOLBOX:
MAKING A GREAT PROMOTIONAL TRAILER
By Elizabeth English
Do you want to have a really good 2-3-minute trailer to send to producers, studios, film festival competitions, for your website & in social media ?
Haven’t quite finished post on your film yet, but want to promote it now?
Great trailers are in a special class of their own; little polished gems that showcase your film, and make people want to see more! But film trailers can be more difficult to make really well than the entire film, itself. It can be more time-consuming, judicious editing must be a main concern, you have to tell the main story, theme & concept quickly, harder scene decisions need to be made, and you need to sell your film in less than three minutes.
Can you tell the main story, introduce the lead characters, show the main conflict, and give the viewer a visual, memorable impression in under three minutes? And, remember, you need to hook the viewer in the first few seconds! You probably don’t even have a full 3 minutes to do the job, unless the first 30-60 seconds are fantastic.
You need to know how to turn your great story into a great 2-3-minute (or less) trailer. There is and always has been only one real secret to success in the entertainment industry. Tell a great story. Period. And you need to figure out how to tell that fabulous story in only two to three minutes or less!
Can you say “logline”? The screenplay for your film probably has one. Use that 25-word or 3-line mini-synopsis as the script for your trailer. When scripting your trailer, use a clear 3-act structure. Here’s an example of a feature animation logline that could easily be edited from film footage for a trailer: Orion, a rare green dolphin, grows up to save the world of sea creatures and their habitats through a series of fabulous adventures, conflicts and mystical occurrences. An epic saga of a larger-than-life hero dolphin, LEGEND OF THE GREEN DOLPHIN creates an undersea realm of incredible sea creatures and their beautiful watery habitats in the world’s seas and oceans. Orion seeks his purpose in life, and, along with his silvery dolphin companion, a wise old whale, the compassionate human he encounters, and a delightful Mermaid, he finds his way to his spiritual vision, and his reason for being. (underlined text suggests film clips to consider using in the trailer).
The first and the last 30 seconds are more important than the rest of the trailer!
You need to know how to get your film enthusiastically viewed by an agent and then a financial sponsor, producer, director, film festival judges, and even actors. Learn what they’re looking for. In order to raise money to make a film, it is essential to produce a high-quality trailer that will capture the imagination and confidence of grant-makers and investors. Your first impression to these movers and shakers is all about the fine art of pitching your film, your TV series concept or story idea, via your eye-catching trailer, which should be a dynamic collection of its greatest elements.
“SELL THE SIZZLE; NOT JUST THE STEAK!” A great title for your film is the first (and maybe only) introduction to a sponsor, an agent, a producer, director, film distributor, or studio. “You’ve got 3 minutes; pitch me what you’ve got,” is what you’ll hear from the entertainment industry movers & shakers who might buy your project. But you probably won’t even get that meeting, or a reply to your query letter, if you don’t have an interesting title and trailer that catches their eye. Know how to “dress” your film for success, make it stand out from all the others, and get it noticed in the first round.
You’ve got to cram a lot into a short, three-minute trailer: genre, conflict, character, action, location, time, any crisis to be resolved, hint at the potential transformation of the main character, marketability, and it needs to sizzle! The trailer is the key that opens the door to getting your full film considered. The same amount of thought that a filmmaker takes in directing the film should also be taken in creating the trailer. A trailer is not a mini-version of your film! It’s much, much harder to direct and edit a good two- or three-minute trailer than it is to shoot the short or feature film.
A great trailer can mean getting a million hits on YouTube and maybe going viral. For indie filmmakers, it’s a chance to have their low- or no-budget movies seen on iTunes and rented from Netflix. A movie trailer is the principal way most movies get exposure, these days, and is one of the most important marketing and promotional tools that is affordable and available to any filmmaker.
A viewer should be able get the full story concept of the film from these one to three minutes. He or she should know immediately what the whole movie is about and get excited about the story-line and idea, and can visualize the finished film. The trailer must propel the viewer through the experience of the film, itself, and build up excitement and anticipation.
Always consider who your target audience is. What’s the demographic for your story? Who’s going to be viewing your trailer? If your film has several different points to make, or could be of interest to different age-groups or a variety of audiences, film festivals, competitions, or distributors, you might even want to consider making several different trailers in order to attract them. It’s like going fishing; you need to have the right lure, the right bait!
Film festival programmers and promotions staff absolutely need fabulous trailers for the films they’ve selected for screenings, to show at media screenings prior to the event, get good media reviews for the festival’s films, and in order to entice audiences to buy movie tickets to see those films.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO CREATE THE BEST TRAILER:
- Be more inventive than other filmmakers. For example, assemble fake news footage into a montage, or show the biggest action first, even if it doesn’t happen right away in the film, or a comedy routine & leaving out the punch-line, or fade quickly from black & white into living color.
- While introducing the movie’s story and its characters, a trailer most often follows the order of the film’s story and plot, but it doesn’t have to!
- Don’t give away too much. Offer only brief glimpses of your most impressive scenes, accompanied by a quick fade-out & segue from one to the next.
- Teasers: While trailers often focus on plot or character descriptions, teasers establish the mood and tone of a film. A good trailer will artfully combine all of those powerful elements.
- Single words written across the screen have more impact than whole sentences; break your taglines up into its component parts and sprinkle them throughout the trailer. “MURDER” – “IN THE CAVE OF” – “THE RED DRAGON” keeps your viewer watching to see what’s next!
- Don’t forget, the title is the thing you want viewers to remember. Save at least 10 seconds at the end of the trailer for a slow reveal.
- If you have name talent as a director or known stars as leads, name them and show them in their roles first, to catch people’s attention (especially if any of them are half-naked or in mortal danger).
- Has your film been an official selection or an award-winner at Sundance, Cannes, Moondance, Toronto, or anywhere well-known? Got a great film review in The New York Times? Quote it! Let it be known right away. Nobody wants to be the first one out on the dance-floor, but they’ll often “like” something someone else approves of, recommends, and likes, first.
- You haven’t got much time to introduce your lead characters, so sum each one up with a few brief scenes that reveals who they are and what they do in the film. Yet do this in a way that coherently tells the story at the same time!
- Trailers for thrillers and comedies have a much faster cutting and editing style, and with louder music, than do dramas, romantic comedies, or documentaries. It’s a good way of ratcheting up attention and excitement for the film.
By Mary Case
1. What did you do before you decided to create Moondance?
EE – I was a writer, cartoonist, sculptor, artist, screenwriter and playwright, as well as a theatrical director/producer for about 20 years. I got the screenwriting bug when working as a technical advisor (on Lakota Sioux arts and culture) for Kevin Costner and producer, Jim Wilson, on location in South Dakota during the filming of Dances With Wolves, in 1989. Before that, I was an interior designer for international, high-end building projects (hotels, resorts, marinas, estates, palaces in Saudi Arabia, habitat in Antarctica, Lunar and Mars habitat design for NASA). I also worked as events coordinator for several international film festivals and environmental conferences, such co-founding Earth Day Colorado, Griz ’86, political fund-raising, and Native American issues.
2. What was your inspiration for Moondance?
EE – Frustration with the Hollywood system. I knew there must be many talented screenwriters “out there”, like me, who might be unable to get a read, due to the subject matter of their screenplays (non-violent/dramatic/woman-oriented); their non-L.A. locations; their age (over 30 or 40+); their gender (female); their lack of produced credits, and lack of insider contacts or a relative/friend in The Biz. I wanted to offer those women an opportunity to have their work read by a peer, rather than a typical young, male reader. I also wanted to give them the chance to get their work to prodcos after winning the Moondance.
3. What is the overall philosophy and mission of Moondance?
EE – Our work on reaching out toward film-makers and writers everywhere in the world is primary and ongoing. Writers and film-makers from all six continents, and from a wide diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups are an integral part of our mission and goals. We seek to inspire and invigorate this creative potential to perceive, conceptualize, and produce their works for the benefit of the world society. We are dedicated to preserving their accumulated accomplishments and visions as expressed through the art of film and writings.
Moondance also promises to raise awareness of the invaluable contributions of women to the entertainment community. Equity for women in the film industry does not mean stifling some voices so that others may be heard; it does not demand the compromising of personal standards to achieve success. Equity creates new standards which accommodate and nurture differences. Equity fosters the individual voice, investing women with confidence in their own authority. Equity unleashes the creative potential. We see the equal treatment of all women and the equal respect for all responses they explore as essential to their and our ultimate goals.
Moondance promotes, encourages, educates and rewards non-violent conflict resolution in the arts and film. Our much-coveted Columbine Awards are given to the film-makers and/or writers who best depict alternatives to violence as a method of dealing with conflicts, whether personal, local, national or international.
The long-term vision of the Moondance International Film Festival is to preserve and revitalize our intangible heritage, cultivate creative diversity, develop an intercultural dialogue, and stimulate this creative resource. Our mission is to present a vibrant and growing collection of films and writings, which is an ideal means for communication across perceived boundaries of race, culture, age and gender. These works document the complexity and depth of men’s and women’s experiences that will become widely accessible within the world film industry and to the public, and will encourage and inspire others to write and to make films.
4. What does Elizabeth English like to do besides film and script development and women’s issues?
EE – I enjoy writing poetry, screenplays, song lyrics, libretti and short stories, cartooning, and reading, as well as doing in-depth research on a variety of subjects, such as mythology and traditional tales. I’m now involved in researching and writing the definitive world encyclopedia of mermaid art and lore, and have just completed the section on mermaid myths of the British Isles. I’ve recently finished my musical animation feature screenplay adapted from the epic poem, Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve recently completed a pilot for a sitcom series for television and am marketing it. I also like to ride and drive Arabian horses. For money, I do interior design work and feng shui consultations. For leisure, if I ever had time for it, I would like to be relaxing on the beach of a quiet Greek island, watching dolphins frolic in the sparkling sea. Or just being with my three wonderful sons and three lovely grandchildren.
5. What do you think turns a good story into a great script and a greater film?
EE – Depth of characterization, great dialog, and uniqueness of story concept, well-told and moving, emotionally engaging elements. For films, add great cinematography and wonderful production values and the director’s ability to visualize the script and translate it to a memorable film.
6. What do you particularly find the most fascinating in a script or a film?
EE – I’m fascinated by the way writers and filmmakers can take an idea, message, concept, historical fact or personal experience, and translate it into a visual work that can reach, and move, movie audiences, and, for a few hours, take them into another world, and maybe even change their perceptions about life and other people.
7. How should a screenplay writer best pursue the marketplace? It sometimes seems so hopeless.
#1: Learn to write a great screenplay.
#2: Never give up. That’s my motto. Perseverence. But a screenwriter absolutely must learn his or her craft. Study with the pros, read all the books, attend seminars, read great screenplays, watch great films and study them, not as a movie buff, but as a writer. Figure out what makes them work, and then use that in your own work. Once you have a really great screenplay or two or three, then you can begin marketing it/them.
Make connections, schmooze everybody, network, get to know who can help you get “in” with the next person who may help you. Take seminars in moving your careers ahead, such as at the Flash Forward Institute. Get your work out there, via entries in film festivals and competitions and via online resources, such as Zoetrope.com, WordPlayer.com, WritersScriptNetwork.com, and TV Writers.com. Attend film festivals and parties. Join e-list groups of screenwriters and filmmakers. Get an agent or manager. But you still have to market your stuff without relying on an agent to do it for you. Win a film festival or competition.
Another possibility is to do it yourself: either do a storyboard of the screenplay for presentation at a pitch or produce a short film or trailer of your script to send out to producers.
8. What do you think are the most important steps in screenplay development?
Three words: edit, edit, edit. Seriously. Making sure it’s the best, most unique and sellable screenplay or potential film in the world.
Make contacts with anyone in the film industry, anywhere in the world.
Win screenplay competitions.
Deal only with good, honest, reputable people who care about your screenplay story, not just the money.
Be open to making changes in the script.
Never stop learning and growing as a writer. Take classes, read books on the subject, attend film festivals and conferences.
Constantly do re-writes and polishes, as you learn and grow.
Update that 10 year-old script, as far as dialog and society or world events change things, and as you improve as a screenwriter.
Be a person with whom producers and directors know they can work. Friendliness, openness to others’ suggestions and positive attitude make all the difference!
Get an agent and/or manager.
9. What projects have you written yourself and how is the marketing going on those?
EE – I have 10 feature screenplays, 3 short screenplays, 2 animated musical screenplays, several stageplays, and 5 treatments I’m marketing, with the help of my agent, Terry Porter, of Agape productions, a packaging agency. I’m writing, on assignment, a feature screenplay for a Greek director in Athens.
One of my stageplays has won finalist status in the prestigious Alexander Onassis competition, which is the international theatrical equivalent of an Oscar® nomination. A short screenplay won the Greek Film Centre’s 2001 competition and will be directed by Vangelis Maderakis in the spring of 2002. Another short screenplay is in early development with a friend from Dances With Wolves, stills photographer, Ben Glass, who will direct. My musical animation feature is with Disney composer, Andy Brick, prior to being submitted to studios. Another short screenplay was a finalist at the AFI Women Director’s Workshops 2001.
10. Do you want to produce and if so, where do you plan to seek the project you want to develop?
EE – Yes, I want to co-produce films, but I prefer to direct. I also like to do production design/art director work and edit. If I were to produce or co-produce a film, other than one of my own, I would look to the winners and finalists of Moondance, first.
11. What’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you in the development of Moondance International Film Festival?
EE – Seeing the Moondance writers and filmmakers go on to great successes after the festival. The most pleasant experience I had was at the first Moondance in 2000, standing in the center of the Moondance labyrinth, watching happy festival participants dancing along the labyrinth paths and being inspired and encouraged by others. That was one of the main goals of Moondance, and seeing it achieved was what made me so happy.
12. What’s the most disappointing thing that’s happened to you in the development of the Moondance International Film Festival?
EE – Lack of financial sponsors, frankly. But I’m positive this will soon be remedied, once we have our non-profit status in place, which should be very soon. I had mistakenly imagined that interested individuals and corporate sponsors would come out of the woodwork, without thoughts of their own financial benefits, to offer support for a great cause and organization working toward equity for women in film, for non-violent conflict resolution in films and TV, and with absolute top-quality films and screenplays.
13. What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in the history of Moondance International Film Festival?
EE – It’s not funny, but is poignant and made me laugh, joyfully. The very first morning of the first Moondance, I stood alone at 8 AM in the quiet foyer of the host hotel, wondering if anyone at all had shown up for my festival. I slowly opened the double doors to the private dining room, where I feared I would only see a dozen empty breakfast tables. It was a “Stella Dallas” moment, I’ll tell ya. But when the doors opened, there were 50 Moondancers seated at those tables, eating and laughing and getting to know each other, and another 100 showed up later for the workshops, then over 1500 people came to the film screenings.
14. What’s next for Elizabeth English?
EE – Making the Moondance International Film Festival even more of a successful event for our participants and sponsors. I am now in the process of forming a Moondance Foundation, which will administer the film festival events and judging, co-produce films by Moondancers, subsidize screenwriters and filmmakers of any age or gender and young (18 and under) filmmakers, educate and promote writers and filmmakers, produce puppetry theatre, promote non-violent conflict resolution in film, publish the Moondance magazine, publish a Moondance Catalog with items made by indigenous families around the world, and start a traveling Moondance film festival of selected screenings, internationally.
Another priority goal is to see films produced from my screenplays!
15. What advice would you offer the emerging screenwriter or filmmaker?
EE – Learn and practice your craft. Don’t ever accept mediocrity In your writing or directing. Never give up. Learn from the best. Cooperate, rather than compete. Believe in yourself, no matter what your circumstances are. Know and never doubt that you will achieve success, and it will come to you.
15. What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you?
EE – Be open to whatever honorable life path is presented to you. Be grateful for life, for love and for your innate talents. Write and film what you know. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
11. When thinking back on the films and scripts that have passed through your hands in the last three years of Moondance, do you see them in snippets, loglines, scenes, or whole films?
EE – Whole films. I see the best screenplays as films, too.
12. What do you think makes a film memorable?
EE – An engaging, unique, unforgettable story; directed, produced and acted well. In other words, a unique story, well-told.
13. What do you think readers are really looking for?
EE – A script that they can promote to the next level. A money-script.
14. What do you think the next trend in moviemaking will be?
EE – Less violent conflict-resolution, more positive depictions of women and girls, more films with women actors over 40, and more films written, directed and produced by women.
15. Is there anything else you would like to say to emerging writers, producers, and film makers?
EE – Now it’s your turn! You can settle for someone else’s vision of the world, or you can bravely embark upon a journey of your own. Moondance is about inspiration, encouragement, collaboration, stimulating self-confidence, learning new ways of perception and creative expression, and cultivating a whole new concept of success for women in the international film industry. There is purposely no elite-ism at Moondance; everyone associated with the film festival is both a student and a teacher. We seek to support and nurture dreams and to motivate creative artists to follow that dream, no matter the prevailing circumstances. Writers and filmmakers often perceive the world differently, and their reactions to these perceptions, expressed in the art of film, writing and music can invigorate and spark the creative imaginations of others in the world, especially that of our children and the future generations.
Women filmmakers and women writers are vocal and active participants in the social forces that shape our culture. They portray women as three-dimensional, complex human beings and thus defy the demeaning and pervasive stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. Moondance is dedicated to promoting visibility for women in the international film community and in Hollywood and their impact on the film industry. We see this as a means to disrupt and correct the misogynous, fantastical, passive, destructive and denigrating visual representation of females that has, historically, been rendered by men in media and has for so long and so plentifully pervaded our visual culture.
Moondance now encourages men writers and filmmakers to submit their work to Moondance, but in order to win or be a finalist, or to have their films screened at the film festival, we require that their work depict women and girls in a positive manner. The annual Moondance International Film Festival is for the benefit of both women and men, and all are encouraged to attend and participate.
This interview was conducted by phone in early December, 2001. Mary Case passed away December 26, 2002 from complications after surgery. She will always be fondly remembered by me, her family and her many friends and colleagues.