By Wade Jackson, Founder of Manor House Films
A slick trailer is the ultimate marketing tool in selling your film—and it could be the ultimate tool in getting your film made.
“IT’S PUTTING YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS.”
Many filmmakers rely on mood boards or a solid ‘one page’ for their narrative pitches, but the most effective tool I’ve created in getting people’s attention is a proof-of-concept trailer that represents the feel and tone of my intended vision. The ability to show rather than tell is very effective, and it’s much simpler to take an Ipad to a meeting or email a link and say “this is it, this is what I'm going to do”. It’s the proverbial putting your money where your mouth is.
There’s plenty of good ‘clip-o-matics’ out there—Rian Johnson’s for Looper comes to mind— but presenting your own footage will show your filmmaking abilities far more than your skills as an editor of other’s content. To this point, I originally cut a clip-o-matic for this project from found footage, but it didn’t have the same impact in expressing what I was looking to create on the intended budget. The clip-o-matic did, however, serve as a loose structure of how I was going to cut my pitch trailer together.
I’ve had distributors contact me asking to ‘see the film’ and if it’s for sale, not realizing the trailer is a pitch for fundraising and not actual content from a finished film. As a result, my pitch trailer has led to partnerships with other creatives and long-term relationships with distributors.
STEP 1: PLANNING YOUR CONCEPT TRAILER
I would argue it’s fairly easy to conceive what shots and lines of dialogue you will use in your pitch trailer, even if you haven’t perfected your screenplay yet. For example, if you write a short precis for your film, it will become fairly apparent what visual information is necessary to convey your story in a short timeframe.
In my case, my story is about two brothers fighting for survival when a meteor triggers a local epidemic (written before Covid!) and their search for answers about the meteor as authorities pursue them. It’s set in a port town and their escape leads them across dangerous wilderness terrain.
From these two sentences, I knew I had to:
- Show a meteor.
- Allude to the idea of two brothers fighting for survival.
- Show conflict—the idea of the brothers being chased in pursuit of answers.
- Since there is some kind of mysterious outbreak occurring in the story, I also needed visuals to show disease or sickness (face masks / medical individuals, etc).
- Establish location, time, and geography of the story.
From here you can pull key ‘moments’ from your script or treatment and plan your production as you would for any standard shoot.
STEP 2: PACING
My intention for the real film is for it to be an emotionally grounded sci-fi with some thrilling edge of your seat moments. I therefore knew the feeling I wanted to create and since it’s a trailer for selling my brand, I also knew I had to include some dynamic moments to compliment the drama, and that it would all have to fit into a timeframe of about 90 seconds.
If you’ve ever directed any advertising content with a set timeframe, you’ll know the importance of determining how a shot will be used in the final edit. If you have 3 seconds to convey a scene, then likely you will not select a slow track-in on a character but something much more fast-paced and visceral. Plan shots accordingly.
I once remember hearing Spielberg in an interview say how he knows when he reads a script what shots will end up in the trailer and spends extra time to get those shots right—and I suspect that’s the same for a lot of directors, so it’s good practice to think about how you’re going to market your story when you’re making it.
STEP 3: CUT ANYTHING FROM YOUR PRODUCTION THAT ISN’T NECESSARY
This is a good rule for every production, but since a pitch trailer is for raising funds and not an actual sellable product, I tried to be extra vigilant in cutting the fat around the production. This went for recording dialogue, which I thought might slow me down and would end up being discarded when I cut everything together. Most of my trailer is MOS by design, and driven by VO, which kept things simple. Most likely, you’ll have some lines of dialogue from the script that will be perfect exposition for the audience and make for a good VO if you choose to go this route. To give you an example of our budget, the VO in my trailer is recorded on an iPhone showing you don’t need to go overboard on gear for this type of presentation.
STEP 4: EMBELLISH KEY MOMENTS WITH VISUALS
In my trailer I sprinkled some visuals to allude to intended scale. If you don’t have extensive set-pieces in your story, think about what visuals might be important for establishing and anchoring time and place. I set my story in a fictitious port town in Alaska. I decided I needed some boats and mountain aerials for my ‘embellishing’ moments. Since I started the trailer before finishing the script, some of my establishing shots are of Seattle, but that’s since changed in the story which is now set in a smaller port town (changes I’ll discuss shortly).
It’s also OK if the visuals don’t directly represent scenes in the intended film. The trailer is for pitching and doesn’t have to be rock solid in its visual representation. For example, I have an elaborate boat escape in my screenplay but substituted that with my characters looking like they’re facing danger in a car (with my cam operator representing authorities).
STEP 5: PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER. IT’S ALL ABOUT MUSIC.
Just like you wouldn’t go out and shoot a film without a script or some sort of foundational treatment, you shouldn’t shoot the pitch trailer without knowing how you’ll present or stitch it together in its ultimate form. Often, if I didn’t know where to start, I would simply start by placing the moments I selected from the screenplay in order and then spent a lot of time thinking about music to do most of the heavy lifting for my pacing and emotive tone. Knowing what music track you will use is really helpful to determine how much content you must gather. If you’re making an action versus a period film, then the requirements will probably dictate the path you’ll take with an action music track likely requiring more set-ups.
I was fortunate to have a composer friend, Daniel Suett, compose a track that represents some qualities we want in the real film—but ultimately there are plenty of places to find music to help orchestrate your trailer structure.
THE BENEFITS OF REVERSE ENGINEERING
An unintended side effect of shooting the pitch trailer was how effective it was in exposing holes in my original screenplay. It’s basically like designing a 3D prototype for manufacturing and then having the ability to build some iterative models before committing to a final design. Taking this into consideration, I ended up undertaking many subsequent revisions to the screenplay to better represent what I thought was working visually in the trailer, or sometimes push it in a completely different direction. For example, I switched the story’s location from Seattle to a small port town based on discussions with the actors.
Overall, the pitch trailer ended up being an amazing litmus test in developing what was good and bad in my initial idea and create a superior story. You can get some of these benefits in doing physical location research while writing a screenplay, but working with actors while you’re developing characters and seeing it up on screen is really impactful in your decision-making process.
- I originally shot scenes with other characters that I thought were key to the film, but when I added them to my pitch trailer, the tone didn’t feel right in the grander scheme of what I was going for and they ended up getting cut from my screenplay.
Filming your own pitch trailer might seem like a lot of effort compared with a traditional pitch but if you’re an in-experienced feature film director or producer then it’s a solid way to reinforce to your investors, be it family or friends, or private equity sources, that you can back up your vision in real terms. In my case, I haven’t made this film yet, but it did go under contract with an established production company before the Covid lockdown hit. More importantly, based on the qualities of my proof-of-concept, it has helped me raise money for a separate feature film as well as winning multiple projects for my production company.