Copy? Copy! What Trailer Copywriters Do (Part I)


The popular AMC series Mad Men has made it easier for copywriters to explain their work and their value. And yet, when I name my profession to strangers, they often hear “copy-righter” and assume I’m a lawyer or intellectual property expert. Often, I’m greeted with a look of astonishment at the idea that trailers are written and have a script. If you’re reading this post, you probably know better and know more. For the record, however, I’d like to describe what the sub-set of copywriters who serve the feature film, TV and video gaming industries actually do.

Having never worked in traditional advertising, I won’t venture to speak to the approach, method, training or expertise of your typical agency copywriter. And, given the paucity of my “in-house” experience, I’ll restrict my discussion to my role as a writer for hire working project by project.

Trailer making is an editing-centric endeavor, and I bow before the visual creativity and digital skills of those visual artists who translate a few lines and concepts into a finished preview of coming attractions. Still, their work requires words and concepts– lines, phrases and scripts– to proceed. Copywriters, for all their cultural invisibility, perform critical roles at make-or-break stages of the campaign.

The One Sheet / Poster with copy tagline

A copywriter will propose (brainstorm, explore, draft, polish, re-phrase, etc.) the key message of the print campaign, usually the first and guiding piece of brand identity for the film product. In entertainment copywriting, there is a division between those specializing in print and those who work primarily on A/V projects, although many writers do both. Print copywriters are those who provide words for the print or “key art” materials, producing language to support the central and defining image of a movie campaign that will appear in newspapers, on flyers and posters, for in-cinema promotion, and tie-ins (think of all the merchandise you might get with purchase at McDonalds; or the movie-branded merchandise available at Target, etc. See the famous example from Godzilla above.) Frequently the words and the concepts come first, guiding the graphic designer or illustrator toward a suitable image.

Other copywriters enter the conversation and contribute to the effort when it is time to create audio-visual materials for advertising and promotion of an audio-visual product, whether feature film, tv program or video game. An A/V copywriter may well inherit a tagline or a call to action or a “marketing direction” from the print work, which he or she is then asked to incorporate into the teaser, trailer or tv spots. Consistency of message is considered essential to a marketing campaign, just as it is for politicians. (nota bene: Developing a brand concept or idea is useful and encouraged; multiplying or complicating a brand identity in the mind of the consumer or audience member is inherently risky, and usually considered to a grave mistake.)

Trailer copywriters begin the discrete labor of creating a trailer. Upon being hired or assigned by the creative director of the trailer project, who provides marketing objectives, audience parameters and creative guidelines, the writer will translate those instructions, that “creative brief,” into scripts that explore and develop the directions indicated. We call the resulting submission to the client a copy exploration. A writer may be asked to make more than one attempt (or pass) at that assignment, given the time constraints and the reaction to the work. Clients don’t want “close” or “clever.” They want “just right.”

A typical exploration will consist of 10 or more short scripts that work through an idea or various ideas related to the movie. 10 lines is a typical length for a 2 minute trailer. Although there is no exact right number of lines or words, brevity and compression are preferred. The language should be easily legible and pronounceable, yet simultaneously dense and evocative. I think of trailer scripts as prose poems: they can and often should be appreciated in terms of rhythm, meter, alliteration, assonance, consonance, word play and resonance, as well as other terms of literary analysis.


Depending on the creative direction, a writer may be asked to tell a complicated story briefly and compellingly; or a writer will be invited to highlight characters, situations and conflict; or the assignment may be to side-step story and focus on the genre of the film or its special effects, or its incredible cast, or other qualities that it is believed will appeal to likely audiences. A copywriter is a writer for hire and expected to respond to the direction. Some latitude for creativity and marketing insight is invited, but the copywriter’s own creative solutions should be subordinated to the lines and scripts that meet the clients expectations.

Of course, marketing departments, creative directors and market researchers, among others, truly begin the process of trailer making by determining how to sell a given film. But once that decision has been taken, then it’s the copywriter who gets to take the first stab at translating general directions and concepts into specific, dense, memorable and affecting language that will position a film, tv show or video game within the marketplace, which is to say, within the mental real-estate of the likely consumer.

Drafting lines that quickly and powerfully present the “saleable” qualities of a film is the goal of course, but the job involves other measures of success than merely delivering a “slam-dunk” script for an editor to translate into images. Often, a copywriter is helping the trailermaking team understand what it doesn’t want, what isn’t effective and what directions are likely to prove dead ends. Other writers may understand their work differently, but I’ve always believed that clients are paying for a variety of “right” or “appropriate” answers as well as a few obviously wrong ones. If I can ventriloquize different voices, points of view and attitudes, subject to the demands of the overarching “brief,” then I consider that I have earned my fee.

As a copywriter, I believe that beyond the challenge of writing the “right” or “perfect” script, Clients want options and limits, they want to see what’s out of bounds and be alerted to promising possibilities they hadn’t yet considered. It’s crucial that a copywriter understand what a film is about, as well as what kinds of visual resources will be available to support whatever “story” the trailer is going to tell about it. It’s helpful to know related films and marketing approaches that have been successful for similar projects. You wouldn’t want to write a script calling for scenes and settings that aren’t in the negative or “rendered” print.

Trailer making is highly formulaic and highly innovative. Twisted familiarity or recognizable invention—such paradoxical formulations describe the tension between old and new, groundbreaking and traditional, which every great trailer negotiates. Consequently, the scripts a copywriter will draft for a client emerge from between the horns of a dilemma. We have to connect with established audience desires, using recognizable vocabulary, figures of speech and idiomatic language, only we ought not to repeat the work of others. Our job is to update and refresh, to say new things in new ways about very familiar characters, conflicts and situations.

It’s a unique balancing act; like tightrope walking along a line drawn on the ground. Whereas a graphic artist, editor, creative director or market researcher has a professional expertise—with degree or certificates attesting to specialized training—everybody in the business, from the receptionist to the mail room staff, is a competent language user, with a facility for what we do and strong opinions about it. You will be second-guessed by everyone through whose hands your copy passes. Get used to it.

Being a copywriter doesn’t require any specialized training—not even an English or communications degree. Rather, it requires an ear for speech, a pleasure in language, an obsession with words, denotation, connotation and popular idiom. It requires practice and patience, a modicum of verbal wit and agility, a strong ego and a thick skin, since you are constantly exposing your ideas, your creativity, your verbal art and your verbal intelligence to others who may not be especially well-qualified to judge. You will be making arguments about what’s funny, what’s sad, scary, exciting or disturbing to teammates with their own strong and often divergent opinions about such subjects.

But when you nail it, you not only know, but your may find your words entering the popular idiom.

Check back for Part II of my discussion of copy and copywriting, when I leave generalities for case studies and specifics.

Oh, if you’re a copywriting colleague, please reach out. I know so few and I’d love to learn about your experience and hear your thoughts about the above post.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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One Response to Copy? Copy! What Trailer Copywriters Do (Part I)

  1. Pingback: TRAILER COPYWRITING: Practicalities (A continuation of an previous post) | REVIEWS OF PREVIEWS

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