The good news is that you have a great idea for a movie.
The bad news is that you don’t have the cash to produce it.
But the really good news is that you can make something wonderful out of your idea: a faux trailer that previews your dream. And if your preproduction trailer is a success, you can use it to attract backers and other allies to make the real movie. That’s how the Coen brothers raised the money to produce their first hit feature BLOOD SIMPLE.
Making a trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist can seem daunting. Luckily, there’s a simple strategy that will make the job easier, namely, starting with a classic trailer pattern.
While every trailer—like every movie—is unique, most will fit into one of the following formats. By choosing a pattern that fits your material, you’ll have a plan that you can follow to create your movie trailer.
Before choosing a pattern, get a clear fix on your story. If you haven’t done so already, write a logline (short synopsis) of between 25 and 50 words. For example, here’s a synopsis that might have been written by the creators of King Kong:
“A group of male adventurers plus one female visit a mysterious island where they encounter prehistoric animals. They capture a gigantic ape—Kong—whom they bring to New York where they exhibit him for money. But Kong escapes and causes much mayhem before he meets his fate.”
Now, with your story in mind, you’re ready to go shopping for a pattern you’ll use to make your trailer. The examples used to illustrate each pattern are drawn from the International Movie Trailer Festival’s “Preview Your Dreams” filmmaking contest. (www.imtf.biz).
Pattern 1. The “Character-Driven” Trailer
This pattern features the main characters appearing in your story. Although some character-driven trailers feature several characters, focusing on a single figure can be riveting.
Write a brief description for each character you plan to shoot. You can later use this text for your voice over or superimposed titles. Here, for example, are possible character descriptions for a King Kong trailer:
- A beauty with one talent: she can scream.
- A shrewd operator willing to put a city at risk to make a fortune.
- An ape who can knock planes out of the sky, but can’t resist a blonde who fits into one of his paws.
In some trailers, each character is presented solo; in others two or more of the characters will appear together in dramatic situation.
To make an effective faux trailer using this formula, you’ll need to find actors who embody your vision. For the sake of economy you can often omit spoken dialogue. Costumes, make-up, and props go a long way to creating dramatic characters, as you’ll see in these examples from the international movie trailer festival:
The Devil and Me
Director: Kenneth Michael Condon
Pattern 2. The “Plot-Driven” Trailer
This form—which works well with action-filled movies—requires identifying several plot points that suggest the storyline. A plot point could involve characters talking. But if you include too much dialogue you risk ending up with a trailer that’s talky and slow.
A completed plot-driven movie, almost always involves dozens of locations. However, because shooting in many locations takes time and resources, generally you’ll want to film your plot-driven trailer in just one or a few places. Hint: Many filmmakers use fade-outs so that they can stage different actions in the same location. The fade out suggests that time has past.
You might worry that building a trailer out of only a few scenes will limit your ability to convey the story. But there’s a greater danger in including too many actions. We’ve all watched trailers that reveal so much of the story there’s no reason to see the movie. The old adage “less can be more” is especially relevant when producing a trailer.
Here are two examples of plot-drive trailers that don’t give away too much:
Pattern 3. The “Trigger-Event” Trailer
One classic storytelling strategy is to introduce a huge and unexpected element that changes everything. It could be the arrival in town of a ruthless gunslinger or the discovery that an asteroid is heading toward Earth.
In this pattern, you first need to show the world as it is—people going about their ordinary lives—and then introduce the disruptive element as in the following IMTF examples, the first in the science fiction genre, the second a comedy:
Pattern 4. The “Theme-Centered” Trailer.
Among his many pronouncements, movie producer Samuel Goldwyn is remembered for saying, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Nevertheless, just about every memorable movie has a message—its theme. You can create a gripping trailer by focusing on what the story is about.
Thematic trailers present issues such as revenge, fear, courage, paranoia, or justice. While the theme approach can work for fiction, it’s especially appropriate for documentaries.
Mixing & Matching
When it comes to using story patterns, you don’t have to be a purist. Character-driven movie trailers may include exciting actions, just as trigger-event trailers may be built around strong themes. Ultimately your trailer will be judged on one criterion: Does it make the audience want to see more?
Murray Suid is the co-founder of International Movie Trailer Festival. He produced a faux trailer for a paranormal (www.espaffair.com) and is working on a second one for a family comedy “Don’t Call Me Chicken.”