How to Create a Great Movie Trailer, According to the Pros

How to Create a Great Movie Trailer, According to the Pros

Feb 27, 2014

Green Band Trailer

With Best and Worst Movie Trailers of the Week approaching its third anniversary, it’s about time we sit down with some of the folks responsible for churning out those promos to get a clearer sense of exactly what it takes to deliver an effective movie trailer. It would seem logical for editors to get a final cut of a film and then sell the thing using only the best parts, but there’s so much more to it than that. Sometimes you’re stuck working with unfinished cuts, you’ve got to incorporate client recommendations, squeeze in critic quotes, work around incomplete visual effects -- the list of variables goes on and on.

In an effort to shed some light on the process, the team at Wheelhouse Creative, a boutique movie marketing and production company based in New York City, took the time to sit down with, run through the details and even offer up a case study, their latest trailer for the Academy Award-nominated film The Great Beauty. But before we hit the finer details, Wheelhouse Executive Director Rob Lyons and Creative Director Jeremy Workman offer up an overview of their most common workflow:

- A distributor or an independent film producer contacts Wheelhouse about working on their project.
- The client sends Wheelhouse the current cut of their movie.
- After viewing it, the team at Wheelhouse and the folks behind the movie have a creative call to discuss their options.
- Wheelhouse begins writing graphic copy or narration copy.
- A few days later, they send five or six scripts off to the client.
- The Wheelhouse team and the distributor (or producer) have a second call during which they discuss the proposed scripts.
- Editing begins! Wheelhouse starts by breaking down the movie and then builds it back up again while keeping marketing strategy information provided by the client in mind.
- When a version of the trailer is complete, it’s sent off to the client for feedback.
- Many, many revisions later, they have their final product!

Wheelhouse Creative Logo

Even though Wheelhouse is busy putting together trailers for horror films like Raze and All Cheerleaders Must Die, and raunchy comedies like Love & Air Sex, it has also made a name for itself as the go-to company for Best Foreign Language Film contenders at the Academy Awards. Wheelhouse is currently working on the The Great Beauty campaign and walked us through its cut of the theatrical trailer for the film, highlighting the storytelling structure it chose to run with, music choices, troublesome shots and more. Check it all out in the video below:

Having seen a wealth of highly effective promotional tactics and a number of others that don’t quite pan out, it was a treat to get working trailer creators’ thoughts on the choice to make narration a prime selling tool, when the use of voiceover is appropriate, how to incorporate accolades and laurels, and more. You get to see the films before you cut the trailer, right?

Jeremy Workman: Yeah, sometimes they’re not even finished. We’ve seen movies in all phases. We’ve cut trailers from dailies, we’ve cut trailers from rough cuts that are three, four hours long. Sometimes they’re totally finished and they come right hot off the presses from Sundance or Cannes. We get ‘em in all forms, and part of our job is to figure out the best version of that movie from whatever we’re watching. Have you ever had to cut a trailer without seeing the full feature, no matter what shape it’s in?

Rob Lyons: We’ve cut things for projects that don’t even exist yet using footage that we just pull off of YouTube or photographs. That’s more for marketing and sales.

Workman: There have been times when we haven’t had the full movie. Maybe there’s only an hour done on the movie. We just recently did that on a movie where they only had about an hour done and none of the special effects, so you have to try to do what you can. In that case, are you just working around the shots that aren’t finished?

Lyons: Yeah, exactly. We avoid the special effects shots and sort of create things on our own. There was a movie a few years ago where we couldn’t use any of the film and we had to use photographs, and we made a whole trailer out of just still photographs. What about when you get a movie that’s just flat-out bad? Even if it isn’t finished, you know there’s just no hope.

Lyons: [Laughs] It happens, and our job is to really find something in the movie that is exciting about it. And there’s always something. We always find something.

Workman: Even a bad movie is gonna still have its fans. It’s amazing how many movies people like, even if they’re terrible, so we have to wear different hats and try to think as different audience members a little bit. We do a lot of horror movies and we’re not necessarily fans of real gore and splatter horror movies, but we have to think about, "Well, who’s the audience for that? What would they like?" That comes up a lot.

Rob Lyons and Jeremy Workman Nothing is more important than solid storytelling in a trailer. Can you tell us about creating that narrative in your promos? Is it all you or more of a collaboration?

Lyons: It depends. With some clients, a movie will just show up here and we won’t even get a call from them because we’ve worked with them so many times, and they really leave a lot of it up to us. Others get into the real nitty gritty of it. But primarily it’s up to us to find that narrative. A three-act structure in a trailer is not always the narrative of the feature. We have to find some other story that we’re presenting in that form.

Workman: One of the things that we preach a lot here at Wheelhouse is that we really want the narrative or a narrative to come through in a trailer so that when you’re watching it, even though it’s two minutes or 90 seconds, you’re feeling a story progression, you’re feeling an arc, you’re feeling a three-act structure a little bit. That’s something that we think about a lot because we’re trying to think as an audience that has to sit there and watch a movie trailer and how are they gonna connect to it, and we’ve found that they connect to it when there’s a story that they can follow. It seems so clear that that’s such a vital part of a trailer, but there’s so many out there that try to market the movie in other ways. Is there ever a time for you when you have to say, "it’s not about story on this one"?

Lyons: It’s pretty rare for the movies that we work on. It’s not like it’s star power that we’re presenting most of the time. We really rely on narrative 98% of the time. I can’t think of an instance where it wasn’t front and center.

Workman: There’ve been times where people have said, "Oh, we don’t want a lot of story. We want a lot of style." A recent example was a horror movie we did called Maniac. It’s a serial killer running around and that’s all the story there was, and the rest of the trailer was mostly just a style, a tone. A lot of times we’re doing that. We’re trying to create a tone, a feeling. That’s something that is not so story driven. We don’t so much do cheating. That’s more a studio and we tend not to want to do that. Does it frustrate you to see trailers that ditch story for famous faces?

Lyons: There’s a place for that, it works and it’s effective. I sort of admire that. It’s easy in a way. We look at that stuff and we’re like, "Man, that’s easy. Wow, a movie like that is easy to sell." You throw a $40,000 song in there and boom! It’s a music montage with famous faces, you know?

Workman: I worked on some studio trailers before Rob and I connected and it was a lot easier when you had Johnny Depp or George Clooney, and you could cut to Johnny Depp and he does a funny line. We’re working on movies from Afghanistan and it’s a harder sell.

Lyons: But they’re great movies. World cinema, the foreign-language category is so rich. A lot of times I feel like that category is better than the Best Picture category. They’re more interesting movies in a lot of ways.

Workman: But it is hard for audiences. We worked on A Separation, which was a movie a couple of years ago that won Best Foreign Film and it was from Iran. It’s a domestic drama set in Iran. Immediately that’s a tough sell. That is hard to get people to go for so we have to use our wits and try to really come up with an approach that’s gonna connect with audiences and make them say, "Oh, I don’t normally go see a movie from Iran, but I’m gonna go this time."

A Separation What are the ups and downs of working in the studio system?

Workman: The studio system is very governed by numbers, by box office, by focus groups, by testing, all of the things that we don’t necessarily want to deal with or have to deal with. It makes it so that it takes a lot of the creativity out of it because you are really following a lot of the numbers. Obviously Hollywood movie trailers are really creative and they’re really well done, but a battery of tests have been thrown at them and that’s not something that we have to deal with. We get to really put a lot of our stamp on the stuff we do. What do you think about narration in trailers?

Lyons: It’s gotta be the right thing. It’s sort of out of favor at the moment. For the kind of movies that we work on, you don’t hear it a lot. But it’s very effective. We use it a lot for TV spots and less for theatrical trailers. With the right voice on the right film, it could be very effective. Who do you get to do it?

Lyons: We’ve had a few people. We’ve got some guys who are staple people who we can just fire off an e-mail in the middle of the night like, "Hey, could you read this?" They send us back a file within an hour and it’s in the cut. But ordinarily we’ll audition. We’ll get five or six different voices, we’ll eliminate one or two of them, internally show three of them, a cut with three different voices to a client and then they’ll make a selection. And there are agents who manage that stuff who we love working with. Some of the guys we’ve worked with like Scott Rummell, who we used to work with all the time and now he’s on every major campaign. We can’t afford him anymore! But we find the guys who are like us, sort of up and coming, willing to work on small budgets on really interesting projects.

Workman: It’s a tough sell for the producers and directors, too. They’re all so in on the joke, you know? "In a world …" -- they’re in on that joke so it’s really a tough sell to producers and directors to say, "Hey, let’s drop narration in the trailer." It’s immediately like, "No." How about handling quotes, accolades and festival laurels? How do you put it in there so you’re not just showing it to people, but it’s more a natural part of the piece?

Lyons: It’s amazing how important that is and the selection of that language. It’s on-screen for a very short period of time. You have to really edit it down and find those perfect quotes. The timing of where you place it in a trailer is really important as well. A lot of the movies we work on so rely on reviews and accolades of that sort, so it’s a very effective tool for our market.

Workman: We’re in the camp where you have to shout really loud to get people to pay attention, and we believe that that can work. There are so many movies coming out. I know there are less than there were a few years ago, but there are so many options for people. It’s really easy to not go to the movies, and it’s also easy to keep flipping on Netflix or iTunes for something else, so we definitely believe that you have to shout a little loudly, and part of that is really telling the viewer, "Yes, this is gonna be a great movie. Trust us. Here’s the trailer, but it’s gonna be great." That’s something that we think about a lot, trying to connect with them on that level.

Thank you to Rob, Jeremy and the rest of the team at Wheelhouse for opening your doors (or rather, your edit suite) to If you’d like to continue following our movie trailer coverage, you can catch Best and Worst Movie Trailers of the Week right here every Friday.




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