This past Wednesday night the New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) hosted a to capacity panel, Bait Your Hook: Create Your Best Documentary Sample and Trailer. The evening boasted filmmakers and funders, moderated by Marcia Rock. Each panelist not only showed examples of their successfully funded trailers, and discussed what elements they felt were important, but also spent the last half of the night, evaluating audience member trailers. Filmmaker and The D-Word Founder, Doug Block began the event by speaking about his new film, 112 Weddings (Opening night at Full Frame this year will be shown to a sold out, 1,000 seat theater crowd!). Screening his 4 minute trailer, shown at the HotDocs 2012 pitching forum, Block addressed key elements contained in the piece that created a successful trailer. This particular example was shorter than what he would normally submit for funding, since the hot seat at HotDocs gives each pitch a very short amount of time. He normally considers a fundraising sample or trailer to be between 8 and 10 minutes in length. Block said the trailer should find a balance in showing and telling the viewer what the film is about without giving away too much. When beginning a fundraising trailer, Block said he takes a practical approach by not hiring an editor, who would take time and money to review all the footage. Instead he works on it himself since he is most familiar with what he has. This exercise also helps him find and refine the story, much as grant writing helps filmmakers clarify what their story is.
Editor and filmmaker, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon of Mrs. Goundo's Daughter, 2009, showed a promotional trailer from Documented, and talked about the importance of a viewer's experience of being invited to be a part of it, rather than hitting someone over the head with the social issue angle. If it's a social issue piece, the issue will come out organically in the story. Another great point, which I have found challenging, is that often filmmakers try to fit in too much in order to show funders all they have. Sometimes it's best to focus on a few moments that really matter than to try to squish in all the different kinds of footage or scenes that has been shot, even if all of it is awesome.
It's always nice to have someone on a panel like this who specializes in helping filmmakers with storytelling, whether it's a fundraising sample or a feature length rough cut. One of those experts is Fernanda Rossi, who has served as doctor on many a film. Rossi screened a trailer from How to Lose Your Virginity, 2013, by Therese Shechter. The trailer was used for two successful Kickstarter campaigns along with other uses. The event audience was asked to view the trailer and name the other important element it contained besides humor. The answer was contradiction. The trailer cleverly juxtaposed different opinions on the definition of virginity, which made for a funny, insightful and open ended debate, as each interviewee in the trailer had a different take on it. Rossi also said that every trailer should contain an outrageous statement, universalizing concept and two concepts that don't normally go together. She recommended to leave questions and create suspense. Don't offer closure or you'll have a completed short film, and don't forget to start with character. People relate to people, more than subjects.
Panelist Judith Helfand offered the benefit of perspective as a filmmaker (Blue Vinyl, Everything's Cool) and funder (Chicken & Egg Pictures). Helfand screened a Chicken & Egg grantee's trailer for Sepideh, 2013 and pointed out the feeling of it being like a mini movie, but not in a way that gave closure. The sample gives a sense of the struggle that is at the heart of the film. Within the trailer is a scene where the viewer experiences a moment. It isn't rushed, or ovelry slick or fast. Helfand says she's always looking for that extra little moment in a work. She also pointed out that it's a good idea to offer excerpts of scenes so one can get to know a character. Sepideh premiered at IDFA and Sundance and is now on iTunes.
Fresh from viewing over 40 trailers as a Jerome Foundation judge, Cynthia López of American Documentary, POV reminded her audience that there is no one way to do this, but there are certain things to consider. For instance, information is power. Give a piece of information that isn't commonly known. López sited Documented's trailer which included a factoid of the amount of U.S. taxes illegal immigrants pay and contribute to the economy. She also reiterated the importance of subjects being universal and to refrain from telling the whole story in a trailer.
During the last portion of the evening, trailers from audience members (previously arranged) were shown for panelist feedback. There were several screened and a wide variety in subject, approach and level of development. For the most part, panelists were kind but forthright. The word that continued to return for several of the trailers, was "clarity". If it's not clear what the story is, then the trailer definitely needs more flushing out and maybe the story at large needs more development. Each submitted trailer had it's strengths and weaknesses. It was a terrific opportunity for filmmakers, even though it did require some courage to be opening judged. That is the business, however, so being willing to be subjected to public critique is a good thing.
This NYWIFT panel is part of a continued series. Other events will be on documentaries for television and engagement. Check out the event calendar here for more information.