Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Trailers

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Why does your film’s trailer look completely different from your film?

This DDF applies to both fundraising and promotional trailers, and it basically boils down to the idea that playing a bait and switch game is generally a bad idea. For filmmakers who are still in the process of making your film – whether that’s late development, production, or post – a fundraising trailer is a pretty much a necessity. It can show potential investors, co-production partners, or funders what your vision is, and, hopefully, encourage them to support you. For filmmakers with completed projects, your promotional trailer can help you attract audiences to seek out the film at a local festival or to purchase the DVD, for example.

This may all sound incredibly basic, I realize – it should be very clear what functions a trailer should serve, and how the trailer should represent your work. Some filmmakers, however, seem to have forgotten these basics, or instead have let their aspirations get ahead of reality and concoct a trailer that ends up looking like it came from a completely different film than what it’s supposed to be promoting. It’s important that your trailer accurately and honestly reflects the content and style of the film you are able to make or have already made – not the film you would make if you had a $5 million budget or the world’s most acclaimed cinematographer working for you.

Be genuine. For your fundraising trailer, try to capture the tone and approach your film will take using the footage you’ve already shot. If you are trying to make a more personal appeal – something for a site like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, for example – consider including direct to camera footage of yourself or someone from the production who is articulate about the project. (Noting my general dislike for filmmakers making themselves their film’s subjects, I should stress this tactic would be for fundraising purposes, not something that should probably be in the final film…). For your promotional trailer, work with an editor to cull the most compelling couple of minutes from your film – footage that will excite an audience, motivate them to want to see the whole film, and that is provocative but hopefully doesn’t give too much away.

What I don’t recommend you do is put together a trailer that bears little resemblance to what you have in the can. What’s the sense of getting a funder excited about amazing cinematography or music when you have no plans or no ability to match that content in the final version of your film? Even if you are hoping to raise resources to help you realize your aspirations, be incredibly clear about what you are presenting. Don’t pass off someone else’s work as your own, and be transparent about what you are able to achieve if you do receive funding.

Similarly, with promotional trailers for finished films, the viewer who decides to rent your film on Netflix or to go to a festival screening will be pretty annoyed that the finished film she sees includes little to none of the content or style of the fantastic trailer that led her to your project in the first place. This kind of bait and switch tactic will just engender disappointment if not active dislike for you and your doc. The trailer is just the introduction – your film itself will have to carry on the conversation, so it’s paramount that these two are telling the same story.

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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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