TRAILERS AS A SUBJECT OF ACADEMIC INQUIRY: Q & A with British University Students

My friend and colleague Dr. Keith Johnston, Senior Lecturer in Film & Television at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, contacted me recently, asking for a referral to a “real” trailer producer who might be willing to conduct a live Q & A session with his students in a film promotion course called “Selling Spectacle.”

I set him up with a client who runs a busy trailer company based in London, but work obligations prevented his participation. So, I pinch hit, channeling what I know as a copywriter and what I’ve witnessed of the process, as a participant, interviewer and scholar of the subject.

Regular readers of the blog–you two know who you are–will recognize my responses from other posts. Apparently there are another 11 questions that were posed, but which were truncated in the email I received, so I hope to continue this post later in the week.

Above, I’ve provided a link to a small independent film that I watched being produced in person, rather than strictly via phone and email. When you’re working in house, the writing process is much more recursive and directed. You start by writing generally; then, as the trailer gets built by the editor, you start writing for its needs.

    Trailers & The Industry

1. How did you get into trailer production? What skills did you need to get involved in that industry / job?

I finished grad school with a Ph.D. in English Lit (19th Cent. British Fiction, specialization) and couldn’t quickly find a teaching/academic job. All my friends in LA were in movie marketing, including the center of my social circle, who was the “king of coming attractions,” Andy Kuehn. He never really encouraged me to enter his field, since I was never really interested until I’d finished preparing for a different career. But, he got me my first free-lance project, writing taglines for the movie poster for City of Angels, (not the Wim Wender’s version, but the one with Meg Ryan/Nicholas Cage!) In other words, I fell into it.

In Hollywood, the “biz” is a guild system, so employers don’t care about advanced degrees and fancy diplomas (I had both) but prefer you to start at the bottom (in the mail room, at reception, as an assistant) and work your way up. No one trusts anyone they haven’t already worked with, or about whom they don’t already have plenty of references/recommendations, so it’s advisable to take any job at a trailer house, demonstrate competency and enthusiasm and curiosity to learn.

You need to love movies/moving images and like creative workplaces, tight deadlines and long hours.

[Nota bene: I did everything wrong—I would have been much better served by applying for a reception position at a trailer house when I finished grad school, rather than advertising myself as a copywriter, as if I knew then what I was doing.]

2. RICHARD: What are your responsibilities as a trailer producer? What role do you play?
[My experience as the “producer” is rather minimal, but as a copywriter, I’ve sat through the production of several trailers and documentaries, and been involved in the creative decision making alongside the producer, so here’s my insight.]

The trailer producer, depending on the boutique or trailerhouse, may be an arms length creative, or he/she may be the writer/editor/account executive and voice over artist, all rolled into one, or any combination thereof. It depends, which is the default answer to all these questions. In the established houses, a producer is assigned to create the materials for the client, whether a studio or a feature film producer. The trailer producer will hire/assign copywriters to draft exploratory scripts and hire/assign an editor to begin uploading the digital assets (the film) and making selections (the select reel) from the incoming dailies/or finished film. Usually the client has a vision for what he/she/it wants the trailer to “do” as marketing material. Or, the trailer producer will be asked for his opinion/input. Usually, it’s collaborative. The client has a general notion and the trailer producer responds and advises, and often skews it in the direction s/he deems most likely to achieve the result—i.e. sell tickets to the film.

The copywriter comes back with scripts and concepts. A few are chosen and sent to the client for approval. Then, from that “direction,” or creative outline/blueprint, the editor will begin cutting a trailer. The producer will assign a graphic designer to assist in creating the graphic appearance of the trailer, as well as its titles, cast run, copy, etc. A voice over artist may also be hired to read the copy dramatically.

Versions of the trailer are completed by the editor. Those are sent to the client, who approves or sends back. Then, those approved trailer(s) are sent to the market research company which tests them, often via mall intercepts, with hundreds/thousands of average movie goers. The response and feedback from the market research firm is fed back into the creative process and another version(s) of the trailer is/are cut, approved and returned for testing. Of course, the trailer can test brilliantly and be approved by the studio/client right away. Or it can go through generations of revision, approval, testing, etc. etc. The studio is typically looking for an objective “score” from the tests, that confirm that people definitely want to or probably will see it opening weekend.

The producer’s job is to organize the creative and also to translate the objectives of the client into a trailer that realizes what he/she also thinks is the most effective way to sell the movie, given its strengths/weaknesses.

At the granular level, a producer will work closely with writer, editor, graphic designer, music librarian, and voice over artists to obtain the best possible “solution” to the creative challenges. Most Producers are also writers with editorial chops, so they see their role as collaborative as well as mediating.

3. RICHARD: Who do you (or the company) make trailers for?

Independent producers who bring us their films and studio’s who are handling the marketing for the films’ they’ve financed and will be distributing. At my former company, we also created trailers for films that had yet to be shot—we called them sizzles, which is the term of art in the industry for creating a visual identity for a “concept” or pitch. Basically, you “fake” what the finished film and its marketing will look like using odds and ends of other films, occasionally supplementing these odds and ends with specially shot materials. We also made promos, which are trailers for films that haven’t yet found a distributor. They are made to take to the film market –say Cannes, Toronto, etc. and they are typically longer, more informative and less gimmicky, since the end user (the film buyer) wants to see how well the film is made and how the acting/directing/production has been accomplished.

4. JOANNA / LOUISE: How long does it generally take for a trailer to be made, start to finish? And how many people are involved (in the whole process)?

As short as a weekend; as long as half a year. It depends, of course, on budget, time constraints, complication, research and testing, decision making hierarchies, etc. However, a month is very typical. At a small trailer shop (house/boutique), the creative director/producer may also be the owner and copywriter. Sometimes he/she is a recovering editor. But in terms of discrete jobs there are: account executive (handling client communications, budget negotiations, time frame); producer (project manager) creative director (creative supervision), copywriter, editor, graphic designer, music librarian, voice over artist, and assistants (coffee, food, comic relief).

5. LOUISE: Has the process of trailer production changed during your time in the industry?

Yes, it’s gotten faster. There are more competitors in the business, and other centers beyond H’wood and NYC & London. It’s cheaper to open a shop – Final Cut Pro is a fraction of the cost of Avid based systems, so it no longer takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a boutique. Rather, two writer/editors can work from a garage or spare room, for 10 or 20K. There’s more content than ever before and anything/everything goes. It’s a totally post-modern era of creativity, where you can try something that worked in the 30’s or whenever, or you can try to “reinvent” movie marketing all over again.

6. FIONA: Do you watch the entire film before you make the trailer, if so, how many times and are there any specific things you look out for?

As a writer, I watch what I’m sent—sometimes an unrendered draft of the feature. Sometimes, it’s complete. I’ll watch it once and if I can read the script, I’ll do that too. I take notes. I don’t need to know every detail of the plot—that’s too much information, but I do need to understand genre, story, emotion, appealing qualities and weaknesses to finesse/conceal.

An editor would watch the film, dailies, b-roll—repeatedly. (That’s the downside of being an editor—you have to watch things—even or especially bad movies–over and over and over!) The producer will end up seeing a feature repeatedly, but usually as part of the process of working with the creative team. S/he won’t start by watching it repeatedly—just once or twice to understand what it is that is to be marketed.

7. LOUISE: Are you supplied with a particular brief or set of guidelines, and do these change depending on genre and the studios who finance them?

Yes, sometimes. And “of course.” The distributor of a film (a studio, for example) has enormous experience/expertise with marketing movies, so they will have detailed input that you ignore at your peril. Some films come in, though, without an especially knowledgeable or confident producer/distributor. They come to you (a given trailer house with a reputation) because they want your expertise and advice. Sometimes, the creative director/trailer producer will write the creative brief, if one hasn’t been done by the client/studio. These are almost always general, vague and ambitious. But, clients do expect to see that you have taken their wishes into consideration. Lastly, remember that every film, no matter how formulaic, is different and enters a different marketplace (however subtly) than its predecessors. This is what makes trailermaking artisanal rather than the result of a factory, assembly process.

8. GEORGE: Do you only get certain scenes you can use, or can you use any part of the film?

It depends. If the project is eagerly awaited and there’s a concern over piracy, the client/studio may be extremely parsimonious about materials that the trailer producer gets to use, for fear of it getting “out” into the public arena. And, more commonly, a feature might not be complete or completely rendered at the time that its marketing efforts begin. In that case, you work with what you can get. Video Game projects add this wrinkle: given the game engine and the fact that this is a digitally created asset, it is possible to create special materials—not found in the game—for the marketing. Often, when I wrote vid game scripts, I was invited to describe things that weren’t in the materials I was shown on the understanding that the editor could most likely create /generate/fake them.

Generally, the client/studio/film producer will make available as much materials as they have, in order to give the trailer maker everything possible to make the best preview. So, the short answer to the question is anything and everything including materials from b-roll and dailies. You can reverse shots and assign Visual FX artists to “sweeten” or enhance images. No one remembers the trailer when watching the film (well, almost no one) so you are licensed to do whatever with whatever materials you happen to possess. Outright lying/misrepresentation is discouraged—(it doesn’t work so well; audiences resent it) but mixing up elements, plot order, causality, separating dialogue from scene, suggesting complications that aren’t in the film, diverting attention from unpopular issues (like cancer!)—all of that is perfectly acceptable and appropriate in service of your marketing objectives, which, I must remind you are different from the artistic objectives of the film. ‘

9. MICHAELA: What are your main concerns or main things in your mind when making a trailer and how does this differ depending on the territory or the genre you are making for it for (if at all)?

There’s a couple of questions here, so let me unpack them: The main thing on my mind is satisfying my client so that I continue to work on his/her projects and continue to make a living doing this amazingly interesting work. How I do that is by listening to what they ask for and applying my knowledge/expertise/experience to fulfilling that request or demand. The artistry and the creative challenge are motivating, because even a terrible movie can have a genius trailer; and a great movie is all the more stressful because you believe in it and want to create materials that rise to its level of excellence. People are in the movie business, believe it or not, because they love film and would rather think of themselves as creative artists, at the end of the day, than as paper shufflers or widget makers. So, “solving” the marketing problem and addressing the challenge of finding an audience within a competitive, saturated marketplace, is job #1. There are formulas, of course, but there is not a “formula” for any given film. Every project is unique and therefore complicated. All of the component parts are difficult and combining them into a compelling trailer is complexity squared. Ideally, your team does a great job—you as the producer do a great job—and the client approves your work on the first version. (Which almost never happens!)

As for different territories and genres, they imply different expectations and approaches. Foreign marketing is often best done by a boutique in that nation. But because of budget constraints, an American or UK based boutique will often do a “card” trailer (using text on screen, rather than voice over) which allows the trailer to be translated into other languages and tailored for the cultural differences that inhere across nations and languages, without having to be opened up and re-edited. Different genres imply different formulas (or styles of approach) but they still have to be adapted (or, as often, rejected) for the particular film in question.

Ultimately, trailer making professionals want their work to be recognized for its skill, artistry, sophistication, effectiveness, intelligence, cleverness, etc. etc. There are awards for trailer makers and there is the incentive of a great career and a good salary. Plus, in this business, you can’t rest on your past successes. You have to keep delivering.

10. GEORGE: Do you (or the company) make a series of trailers for a film and choose the best?

Often, yes, there will be versions produced that the client gets to review. And of course, even if the client (studio/producer) loves your trailer, the great unwashed public whose opinions are solicited by the market research professionals, will be consulted about which trailer they like best. There’s a saying that the editor (and by extension, the trailer house) only gets Version #1. By that, it’s meant that an array of other marketing opinions and judgments and “decisions” are going to be integrated into the final trailer. A trailer is often “done,” only when time has run out before its release.

11. RICHARD: How do you (or the company) get to make a trailer – i.e. do you/they make each trailer as a separate account/commission, or are you/they under contract to a certain studio / company?

Making trailers is a relationship business and very client oriented, as you might expect. Clients are looking for the best work and so loyalty and past satisfaction will take you only so far. But, if a client knows and trusts your team, then he/she probably won’t drop you to patronize a rival at the first sign of creative difficulties or disagreement. Still, it is a very competitive business and one’s peers should be assumed to be angling for the projects and clients that you have today. Often, a trailer will be given to multiple vendors in order to see who comes up with the best preview. And often, one boutique does a great opening; another has a great ending; and a third, may be hired to stitch the two parts of other company’s trailers together. (This is called the Frankenstein and while it’s not popular, it is common practice.)

Creative Commons License
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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