TRAILER COPYWRITING: Practicalities (continuation of an earlier post)

In this post, I describe typical work, emphasizing variety and context. Please refer to my post of January 17th for an overview of the terrain and the process.


First, we stipulate that every project is unique and presents its own challenges. Although this should be obvious given the nature of the creative “products” (films, tv shows, video games, etc.) being marketed, it bears repeating. Even remakes are different, regardless of how faithful they are to predecessors (think Gus Van Sant’s Psycho).

Let’s start with a fundamental formal distinction in copywriting, between a card (or sometimes, “graphic”) approach and a voice-over treatment. Usually, the marketing department and creative director will have decided whether, for a given film, the “voice-of-god” narration is appropriate. If it is, I’ll write language meant to be spoken, language that can rely on the human voice–intonation, phrasing, pitch, rhythm and resonance– to deepen and develop meaning. Of, as is more and more the trend, creative direction will specify a card or graphic approach, my words will appear (if at all) onscreen, like captions and titles, their lettering, size and shading selected by the graphic artist/designer.

Voice Over (or V.O.) scripts tend to be longer; it appears that the audience can process words spoken over the moving image more easily and quickly than written ones competing with it. And natural speech is naturally wordier. Words on screen (“cards”), on the other hand, tend to brevity: short phrases or individual words designed to attract and hold but not exhaust the eye and the attention amid the rush of sound and image. Cards are designed to be memorable, epigrammatic, and imperative. They are tagline-length sentiments, informing, engaging and exhorting.

Whether I’m writing for V.O. or cards, I’m typically asked to sketch the story (introducing characters and conflict(s) while hinting at likely outcomes) and set up some key scenes, shots, dialogue or sequences selected for their capacity to quickly convey the tone, style, scale and quality of the moving picture in question.

Or, I might be requested to hide certain things and subordinate others in a script that isn’t necessarily faithful to the film it markets. I might be asked to avoid storytelling entirely, and focus instead on mood, spectacle, or stars. Sometimes, a copywriter is asked to do seemingly impossible things, like telling the story using only three words, all of an abstract and general application. Sometime the subject matter of the product has “unappealing” or problematical aspects, in which case, the writer must finesse those qualities. It’s an oft-repeated story that “ballet” was not to be mentioned in the trailer for the Turning Point; and cancer was not to surface in the trailer for Step Mom. More recently, I heard of similarly tale about the tv spots for a blockbuster in which the basic concept was to be side-stepped. Discretion forbids me to say more. I never said creative direction was rational or logical or easy to fulfill!

More often than not, in trailers, a copywriter creates “scaffolding”(1) for the trailer that will guide the editor in combining shots, scenes and dialogue into the finished trailer. Of the 10 or so lines that may have been approved as the working script,(2) perhaps only a few will survive into the final version. There’s a strong lobby for the idea that films, tv and video games can best market themselves using their own materials in preference to introducing “outside” advertising and promotional language. In this view, the copy is expected to disappear into structure and plot.

I happen to think that a combination of both works best, but I admire much of the less is more school. Copy from the classic and transitional eras of filmmaking (1920’s –1960’s, very roughly) was copy intensive, even distracting. I think we’re still reacting to that excess of Voice Over and on-screen hyperbole which oversold, overpraised and over-whelmed the film itself.

Sometimes, the best thing a copywriter can do, is identify language in the film that tells the story better than anything he or she might draft. If there is a narrator in the film, that’s a great place to start. If there is dialogue that explains critical concepts (see the trailer for INCEPTION, for example), the copywriter does well to get out of the way and let moving images speak for themselves.

For a copywriter, writing for a special shoot offers the most scope for the imagination. Mostly, directions are specific, and great creativity is needed to deliver a satisfactory result. But on a special shoot trailer—often it’s a “Teaser” without footage (or not enough) to supply a traditional trailer —copywriters are invited to imagine ways to sell the product without being able to show it.

There’s a special shoot teaser for War of the Worlds (the Spielberg version) in which ominous narration (taken straight from H.G Wellsnovel) about the alien threat is heard over stock footage of world capitals and teeming modern life. Then, a 30’s second shot of Maryland suburbanites exiting their homes to gawk in horror at the light-show of the distant invasion. This teaser doesn’t need the finished film to capture the personal, existential threat of the film’s sci-fi horror. A copywriter “concepted” that.

The teaser for Kubrick’s The Shining is a static shot of an elevator bank in a dowdy lobby. A trickle and then a torrent of blood comes through the gaps of the sliding doors, washing away the drab furniture. That’s it, and we get. Bloodletting in a hotel. A copywriter concepted that. (I don’t know this for certain, but if a copywriter didn’t, it’s because someone else on the team came up with it first.)

When writing copy for Video Games, I’ve faced the terror of being invited to conceive a trailer almost from whole cloth. I was told that the editor could probably produce whatever images I proposed, so not to be confined by the visuals of the game that I’d just played. I even got to write dialogue for THE ROCK, who was the star and celebrity voice for one of the Spyhunter series. For that, I had to research THE ROCK’s public person and message in the attempt to capture his inimitable manner of speech. Of course, he also had to say things relating to the game.

Lastly, in terms of structure, copywriters write the line to close out a trailer script. In this role, an A/V copywriter most approximates a print copywriter, since the “button” is intended for a brief final image; it’s the line you get after the final title–one last indelible impression of the film. In a comedy, button copy should be a laugh line or set up for a sight gag; in horror, you need to write something appropriate for that sudden, startling glimpse of the monster, alien, or killer before the smash cut to black and the resonating bass note. A Button is like a print tagline: short, dense, and memorable. It may have almost nothing to do with the script so far, but it sets a seal on the trailer.


(1) I credit copywriter Marjery Doppelt with this choice expression. See her entertaining and illuminating discussion of her own practice in a diary she published in Slate in July of 2004.

(2) 10 lines is an average or typical length, some of which may include the title, and lines referring to the director and producer and possibly the release date. Scripts for :30 or :15 TV spots are much shorter, and may consist of 3 or 4 lines, or even less! Semantic density increases accordingly.

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 TRAILER COPYWRITING: Practicalities (continuation of an earlier post)

  1. Jerome says:

    I’m soaking up everything good I can about movie tagline writing and this was definitely worthwhile. thank you.

    Jerome Hambrick
    P.S. The first time I receive pay for writing a movie tagline (and it will be a suitable one) I shall have your savvy advice to thank among others.

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