Trailers: How to Tell Your Story in Two Minutes or Less

Are trailers miniature versions of your film? Are they marketing tools? Are they fundraising tools? Or are they mood creators, offering just a taste of what’s to come from the finished product?

The answer is yes to all of the above. That’s because there’s more than one kind of trailer. Some are intended for fundraising, some are designed for audience engagement on digital and social platforms—before, during, and after production—and some are to showcase the finished product and hopefully draw in the hordes. With documentary trailers, which were the topic at the recent Hot Docs Industry Conference held in Toronto, there’s the added challenge that the story you start with may not be the one you end up with.

So what’s a documentarian to do?

A group of producers, filmmakers, and editors came together at the Hot Docs 2019 conference to share their knowledge of things non-fiction with people interested in tips for making the best trailers. For documentaries, trailers are often the number one marketing tool, and not just in their final form. As many documentaries start their lives as indie projects seeking to drum up interest on funding platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon, sneak peeks and early montages are often important parts of the filmmaker’s toolkit.

“Death, grief, and older women”

The New York-based brother/sister filmmaking team of Jonathan and Elan Bogarin learned about the multiple use cases for trailers early on in the development process for their documentary 306 Hollywood, described as “an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s house.”

The two siblings started the project by self-funding it with dollars from their day job, which is their company that produces digital media for museums and cultural organizations. According to Jonathan Bogarin, figuring out what approach to take with an early trailer for the film was anything but obvious. “We had a not famous grandmother, she died, my sister and I went through her stuff. That’s a terrible description for a trailer.” So what the Bogarins did instead was opt for a visual treatment that expressed the underlying themes of the film. “Death, grief, and older women,” said Jonathan. “We used art forms that come from outside the world of documentary, like mythology and literature, and this approach helped us get to those who otherwise wouldn’t engage with the story to engage with the story.” One review of the film said it felt like “a whole new way of tackling documentaries,” and that the filmmakers looked at their family “through a Wes Anderson lens, with a tone so playful and visually poetic that it drops into surrealism.”

When asked when they started working on the trailer, Jonathan Bogarin answered, “As it became necessary,” which in this case meant just before they came to pitch the project at Hot Docs 2017.

“We had an editor we were already paying a weekly rate to, so we just put her full time on the trailer, and did the whole thing in a little over a week.” 306 Hollywood became the opening-night film at Sundance 2018, was featured in 35 film festivals, and broadcast on PBS. “And we didn’t get any outside dollars until two weeks before Sundance,” revealed Bogarin.

Think “Back to School”: A trailer is like an essay

Toronto-based editor Christine Armstrong, who has a long track record in TV, shorts, and feature films in the United States and Canada, says she approaches the task of creating a trailer in a back-to-school manner. “It’s like writing an essay. Know your thesis. And then ask yourself: What does the director want to say or convey?” Sometimes editors are tasked with creating an “in-between stage” trailer to demonstrate progress made to date for funders and broadcasters. Armstrong said this is the moment when filmmakers look at the footage they have, and then need to think about what the threads and themes are. She found herself in this situation when working on a mid-stage trailer for Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In, a documentary that aired on CBC described as “the Canadian contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement.” Because the story was still in the process of unfolding, Armstrong’s solution was to construct what she called “a more ambiguous narrative,” leaving space open for interpretation and for the footage that had not yet been shot.

A promise not to waste the audience’s time

Producer Mila Aung-Thwin of Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm had additional insights to share about the construction of mid-stage trailers, in which the filmmaker often has the choice between showcasing sample footage and creating more of a “teaser” type of trailer. The former puts the filmmaker in the position of having to show an actual scene unfolding, as opposed to a montage of edited highlights, and according to Aung-Thwin, “a scene shows that you’re actually a filmmaker.”

He also shared some of his experiences as producer of the 2007 feature documentary Up the Yangtze. The film is the story of the building of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam on China’s Yangtze’s river, which also marked this largely rural area’s shift from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one. Aung-Thwin notes that though the film was passed on by a big Canadian distributor, it ended up becoming what he described as a “secret hit,” with $2 million in North American box office. “We didn’t expect any of that. But the audience found the film,” which he partially credits to the various cuts of the trailer that were posted to the then-new video sites YouTube and Vimeo.

With close to three dozen documentary production credits to his name, Aung-Thwin knows that a trailer has many functions. But when asked to define what a trailer is really for, he replied, “It’s a promise to the audience that I’m not going to waste your time.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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