By Lance Weiler, December 31st, 2008

Zak Forsman reports -
I’ve just released a trailer for HEART OF NOW and wanted to share the things I’ve learned about this little marketing niche. What I’m doing is taking the lessons of the commercial world and applying them to my indie film work. So these are the conventions, the general “rules”. And yes, they are just waiting for someone like you to come along and break them!

Trailers can be a real challenge for filmmakers. The tendency is to withhold some of the more dynamic and compelling aspects of the film to preserve the experience of watching the film in a theater, streaming to one’s laptop or on a DVD. And that is admirable, but often lessens the potential impact of the trailer.

I used to cut these things for a living for the studios and I’ve developed the rare ability (for a filmmaker) to be able to shift gears from invisibly revealing the emotional truth of a scene to whipping up a concise, tantalizing preview. And I’ve come to some conclusions that I’d like to share…

Feature editors have a natural inclination to want moments to breath. Trailers editors are skilled with the ability to compress moments down to a core idea. Asking a feature editor to cut a trailer would be like asking a novelist to write a song. It seems like a no-brainer to have the person who knows the footage best create the preview, but the result is often unbalanced. First, filmmakers often want to save the good stuff for the screening. That’s a problem from a marketing standpoint where you want to hook an audience with the most compelling details of your film — more on that later. Just know that the ability to reconceptualize is very difficult for an editor who has been living and breathing your characters for weeks or months.

Most filmmakers are hesitant to show too much and that’s understandable. We universally complain that trailers give too much away. But there is a reason for that. I have background in the test marketing of films and trailers. Major studios know the most effective means of advertising is word of mouth and that is why they will continue shaping a film and their advertising campaign until they get as close as possible to having 80% (or better) of the test audience saying they will DEFINITELY recommend the film to friends or family. Repeatedly, the trailers that score highest are the ones that give the fullest understanding of the story. People may say they don’t want the plot ruined but the numbers indicate that more people are moved to pay for a ticket or a DVD when they have a more comprehensive understanding of what they’ll get for their money.

If the idea is to submit or mimic an MPAA approved theatrical trailer, you should know that the MPAA generally limits trailers to a running time of 2 minutes and 30 seconds, including the MPAA green band card. It does not allow for fades or dissolves on the green card. It must be straight cuts and exactly five seconds long (no more, no less) followed by a minimum of 1 second of black before picture or audio for the trailer begins. Most trailers fall between 2:15 and 2:30. Teasers run shorter, less than 2:00.

The first act of most pictures have all the set-up, all the character introductions, and all the bites of dialogue that can be laid out to present a concise version of the story. This is not necessarily the actual story of the film, however. My trailer for HEART OF NOW takes some liberties in order to present something that is as compelling as it is easily understood. The film itself, goes into territory much deeper than that of a girl deciding whether or not to have an abortion. But you can’t show that in less than three minutes.

Use multiple music cues. Most trailers have three to five. I used three in the HEART OF NOW trailer and each pushed the drama into a different realm and tone, eliminating any sense of this being a monotonous, one-dimensional motion picture. Not saying it is, but a lack of music changes can have this adverse effect on a viewer’s perception.

Only let the trailer do one thing at a time. If you have a title card up that says “In a world…”, do not run dialogue or voice-over underneath it. Viewers can only connect with one or the other. At the same time, don’t let the trailer hit a lull either. If a bit of dialogue ends, follow it immediately with a bit of action featuring a heavy sound effect or swell the music as it goes into a change. But again, don’t let dialogue overlap music transitions or key sound effects. Something is always happening, and only one thing happens at a time.

Getting creative feedback from trusted professionals and researching how the trailer plays with a sample audience are two very different things. The first satisfies our own ego and confidence (not a criticism, this is important) in knowing that our work resonates with more discriminating individuals. But the second satisfies how well the film or trailer will truly perform in your niche market. I tested the trailer for HEART OF NOW (see below) and removed an effect where the image turned black and white and grainy when a character was pushed to the ground. Almost uniformly, test viewers thought she might be experiencing some kind of psychotic break putting her on a vengeful path, distracting them from the actual plot being presented. I tested it again without the black and white effect and didn’t hear one word about it… problem solved. You can read some of the feedback in the Facebook Group’s discussion board. The first thing you will notice is that I asked five specific questions, mostly geared toward how effective it would be at generating word of mouth.

Get quotes from reviews and festival laurels to draw from. Having another entity validate the quality of the work has a subconscious effect. In testing the HEART OF NOW trailer, results were split between viewers that denied the quotes had any effect and viewers that said they made a positive impression. That being said, the overall response to the trailer greatly improved with the simple addition of a few quotes and the use of the phrase “award-winning filmmakers”. Now the responses and feedback were coming in the form of, “I could see this playing at (my local arthouse theater)”.

Consider making a “Sizzle Reel” instead of a trailer. By taking the framework of a trailer and the addition of interview bites and a little behind the scenes footage, you can further engage a viewer beyond the story of the film, with the story of the filmmakers who made it. Below is an example of a Sizzle Reel I cut for A LONELY PLACE FOR DYING.

One last piece of advice…

I’ll just say two things… take an hour and sign up for accounts at every video hosting site in the TubeMogul network, then use TubeMogul to simultaneously upload your trailers, podcasts, et cetera with one click. In addition, put it on Facebook and attach it to the Facebook Group that I know you’ve already created (hint, hint). The facebook community is not like MySpace (not yet anyway). I have over 4500 “friends” on the HEART OF NOW MySpace profile and rarely receive a single word back on any of the news blasts or video content I post. My Facebook friends, on the other hand, are only 700 in number, but are very eager to engage and interact with you. The “quality” of the community there is at a higher level. Within 24 hours of uploading the HEART OF NOW trailer and sending out a news blast, I had requests from Magnolia Pictures and representation at ICM to screen the film. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

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Zak Forsman is an award-winning American independent filmmaker whose emotionally-charged work is known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. Ain’t It Cool News praised his work as “…brilliant…” and “…absolutely gorgeous…”. His stories often depict compelling human threads in a poetic and minimalist style that reflect deep sympathy for the brokenness of people. Recently, he wrote and directed the feature-length motion picture, “Heart of Now” (currently in post) and the short films, “I Fucking Hate You” and “Eloquent Graffiti”. He is currently developing two new DIY cross-media projects for production in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

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Lance Weiler is the founder of the WorkBook Project and also a story architect of film, tv and games. He's written and directed two feature films THE LAST BROADCAST and HEAD TRAUMA. He's currently developing a number of transmedia projects.


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