Alfred Hitchcock knew how to keep an audience on the edge of its seat. Though he loathed movie promotions, the master of suspense could have been the master of movie trailers. His films were feature-length cliffhangers—and the cliffhanger is the most important element of a successful movie trailer.
Of course, there’s no one way to do anything right and that easily includes making movie trailers. Look online for examples and you’ll find a variety of styles. But if you’re struggling against a deadline or have limited resources, you may want to use a formula for writing your trailer. Here at the BBC we’ve developed our own method called “The Robin Hood Technique.”
Imagine yourself as the legendary archer: You’re standing in Sherwood Forest with a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. In the distance is a bull’s-eye nailed to a tree.
Think of your trailer as the bow and arrow; the bull’s-eye is the climax of the film. As you pull back the arrow, you set up the plot. When you release the arrow, you build to the climax. The trailer races forward like the arrow flying toward the bull’s-eye, except for one difference: It never reaches the target.
The purpose of a trailer is to leave the audience hanging. They’ll have to fork over the price of a ticket to see what happens.
ALL MOVIEMAKERS KNOW THE FEAR OF STARTING WORK ON A NEW TRAILER. It’s like the helplessness a writer feels when confronted with a blank page of paper. But don’t panic, the following steps will help to show you the way.
LOGGING • BEFORE YOU WRITE YOUR TRAILER’S SCRIPT, TRANSCRIBE THE FILM. Yes, we’re speaking about logging the movie—taking note of the sound bites (dialogue) that define what the movie is about. There are two types of dialogue to look for: Thematic bites (the moral statements spoken by the movie’s characters) and narrative bites (those statements that reveal the plot and the motives behind the characters’ actions).
This may be the most boring and thankless part of the trailer-making process, but it’s also the most critical. Skimp here and you’ll handicap the entire project. Remember: A detailed log is a trailer-producer’s best friend.
THE PAPER CUT • AFTER YOU’VE LOGGED YOUR FILM, OUTLINE YOUR TRAILER ON PAPER. This is the best way to experiment with different styles without spending a dime. Start by choosing a scene or sound bite to put at the end of the trailer. This is the “cliffhanger,” the target at which to aim your arrow; everything else should build toward this moment. Then choose a scene to place at the beginning; something that rivets the viewer’s attention and reveals what the movie is about.
Now you’ve got the two most important elements of your trailer: The beginning and the end. You know where you’re starting and where you’re going. All that’s left is to fill in the middle.
FILLING IN THE MIDDLE • THE MIDDLE OF YOUR TRAILER IS A MIX OF COPY AND CLIPS. Typically, you should start with the copy (the draw back on the bow) then follow with action and sound bites (the release) right up to the cliffhanger. The goal is to draw a line of thought revealing the movie’s plot, its characters and the tension between them. It doesn’t matter whether your film is a drama or a comedy; all movies have characters and conflict.
DRAWING BACK THE BOW • FOR MANY OF US, COPYWRITING IS THE MOST INTIMIDATING PART OF THE TRAILER-MAKING PROCESS. Perhaps that’s why so many trailers have no announcer at all. But a well-written turn of phrase can reach an audience in a way no montage of clips alone can do. Good copy rings true and makes a trailer memorable.
HOW TO WRITE COPY • BEFORE YOU WRITE A WORD OF COPY, STEP BACK FROM THE DETAILS OF THE PLOT AND LOOK AT THE STORY FROM A POSITION OF WISDOM. In other words, look for the film’s life lesson: Fear, honor, truth, greed, hope, etc. This is the theme of the film, the broad idea of the story. (You can usually find the theme in the film’s dialogue, so look for characters speaking truths.)
When a trailer uses copy to highlight the theme, the audience will sense a truth behind the tale and experience a revelation. It almost goes without saying that an audience will be more interested in a film if it reflects a personal sense of right and wrong.
THE COPYWRITER AS “MINI-PHILOSOPHER” • TRAILER COPY TYPICALLY CONSISTS OF ONE OR TWO SENTENCES THAT CONVEY A SUCCINCTLY STATED MORAL TRUTH AT ISSUE IN THE FILM. But be wary of writing something overly profound. Copy should be written in a conversational style; the words should flow in a simple manner so that the audience doesn’t realize they’re hearing it. Well-written copy is unobtrusive and registers in the back of the viewer’s brain.
Writing copy is not like writing a book report; it’s a means to convey dramatic perspective and the “relatability” of a film. The copy can be about a person’s experience in life, a group experience or what a nation experiences under the same circumstance as that in the film. That’s why copywriters are called “mini-philosophers.”
PRACTICAL BENEFITS OF WRITING THEME-RELATED COPY • WHEN YOU WRITE COPY ON THE MOVIE’S THEME, YOU’LL BE SURPRISED HOW EASILY DIFFERENT CLIPS FROM YOUR FILM WILL FIT WITH WHAT YOU’VE WRITTEN. This is particularly helpful when you are looking to replace a clip in your trailer. Copy that’s written about the characters or the small details of the plot will paint you into a corner and reduce your options, but theme-related copy will open up various possibilities.
PLAYING CHESS WITH WORDS • WRITING COPY IS MORE THAN EXPRESSING BIG IDEAS IN SMALL WORDS. Whatever you write should be composed in language you’d hear on the street. For this reason, smart copywriters keep a running list of memorable lines overheard from people they know or strangers on the street. These “street sayings” are gold because they’re verbalized in a spontaneous manner, by people inspired by a particular moment. The following are examples of observations recorded outside of work and used later as inspiration for copy:
“IN A HOLY WAR, NOTHING IS SACRED:” An observation overheard in a bar while watching a television news report from the Middle East; perfect for a drama about today’s world.
“LET SOMEONE IN AND YOUR SECRET’S OUT:” Spoken by a friend after hearing gossip.
“THE REAL TERROR COMES AFTER THE ATTACK:” A reference to the invasion of Iraq after 9/11.
And there are always comic observations worth remembering:
“IF THESE WALLS COULD SPEAK, THEY’D SCREAM:” Blurted out by a friend in a well-worn hotel room; perfect for a horror flick.
“WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE SURROUNDED ON ALL SIDES? SHOOT IN ALL DIRECTIONS:” From a story told by a Vietnam vet. We used these lines in a trailer for a Bruce Willis action flick.
“BETWEEN DATING AND DIVORCE IS A STATE OF LIMBO CALLED MARRIAGE:” Spoken by a friend after his second divorce.
“YOU CAN’T MAKE FRIENDS WHILE YOU’RE SHOOTING AT THEM:” Overheard on a subway train in New York City.
INSPIRATION ONLINE • THE INTERNET IS A RELIABLE RESOURCE FOR COPYWRITING INSPIRATION. One method is to search movies similar to yours on IMDb. Type in the theme from your film in the search box, filter your search for “keyword” and then sort the list of titles by date (older movies have less copy and fewer taglines).
It’s also helpful to read the online reviews of the film you’re promoting if possible. Critics are accomplished writers whose prose can inspire your own thoughts.
You can also Google “quotes on” the theme of your movie. You’ll be directed to Websites devoted to motivational sayings by some of history’s greatest writers.
At the BBC, we Googled “English village” to find copy ideas for “Clatterford,” a British comedy series set in a fictional English village. We also Googled popular phrases like “global village” and “it takes a village.” The research gave us a better understanding of village life and helped us craft the perfect copy: “Every village has its characters… and its quirks.”
RELEASE THE ARROW • WHEN THE LAST WORD OF COPY IS COMPLETE, IT’S TIME TO QUICKEN THE PACE OF YOUR TRAILER. This is the release of the arrow. Fill this section, known as the “back end,” with sound bites, action and music—all of which should support the copy that precedes it and create an expectation of the cliffhanger ahead.
REVISITING THE PAPER CUT • AFTER YOU’VE FINISHED YOUR OUTLINE ON PAPER, DON’T RELAX; IT’S ONLY YOUR FIRST DRAFT. The paper cut should go through numerous versions (try switching the end with the beginning) until you’ve exhausted every possible sequence of sound bites, copy and action. This is an efficient way to make creative decisions early, saving time and money later.
THE RADIO CUT • YOU’VE GOT A DETAILED LOG OF THE MOVIE AND A STRUCTURED OUTLINE ON PAPER. You’re now ready to take the project to the next step: The edit suite. But before you even think about the pictures, consider making a “radio cut” first. This is the sound design of a trailer and probably the most underrated part of the process.
Why is sound design so important? A viewer hears more than he or she sees—especially when watching a trailer on television. There are always visual distractions when you’re watching TV at home, but whenever the eyes wander, the ears still hear.
Is TV simply radio with pictures? When it comes to cutting movie trailers, the answer is yes.
THE GRAMMAR OF A RADIO CUT • MOST PEOPLE RECOGNIZE THE FOUR BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF RADIO DRAMA: Speech, sound effects, music and silence. Bronwyn Woodhead, an editor at the BBC, calls the use of these elements the “grammar” of a trailer; she punctuates her work with the deliberate placement of audio hits, drum builds and drones. To Woodhead, the elements of sound design are to moving pictures what commas, periods and exclamation points are to prose.
USING MUSIC • MUSIC GIVES A TRAILER ITS FEEL, but wall-to-wall music is almost passé. This is not to discount the use of music entirely; a production score works well in the last third of a trailer and builds tension along the way to the cliffhanger.
THE EYE CANDY • NOW THAT YOU’VE BUILT A RADIO CUT, YOU’RE READY TO MOVE THE PROJECT INTO THE VIDEO EDIT SUITE. Take along the time code numbers of the sound bites in the radio cut. Align the sound bites with the pictures and—voila!—you’ve got a trailer with 90 percent of the pictures already in place. Now you can relax and enjoy editing the “eye candy,” the quick edits and explosive graphics that make a trailer fun.
THE IDIOT CHECK • AFTER THE TRAILER IS CUT, DO AN “IDIOT CHECK” BEFORE SHOWING IT TO A POTENTIAL INVESTOR OR GENERAL AUDIENCE. This means going back and re-cutting the trailer every which way possible. Experiment with the structure like you did on paper: Reverse the beginning with the ending, move around the elements in the middle to see which sequence works best with the copy. Try every combination until you’re satisfied that you’ve created the strongest and clearest reason for an audience to see your film.
Lastly, watch the spot with the sound off and ask yourself, ‘Do the pictures tell a linear story?’ Then listen to the spot and ask yourself if the sound alone works. Continue experimenting until the trailer makes sense either way.
THE RESOLUTION • HITCHCOCK CRITICIZED MOVIE TRAILERS FOR GIVING AWAY TOO MUCH OF A FILM’S PLOT, but it can be argued that he misunderstood the reason for having trailers at all. In the end, you should never be afraid of what you take from a film to use in a trailer. If it gets an audience interested enough to buy a ticket, then you’ve succeeded. MM
Hamilton Fisher has been writing and producing movie trailers and television promos for 15 years. Andrew Jackson is senior vice president of marketing for BBC Worldwide Americas.