I recently watched a trailer for a new independent film that seemed to be a mini story in its own right. The clips were so well put together and the ending so clear that I was completely satisfied and didn’t need to see the film. That same day I saw another trailer that gave me just enough information to be curious, which drove my need to see more. Curiosity festered within me until I had to see the film.
Trailers must create that sense of desire and curiosity to draw an audience. By raising a question in the audience’s mind, the filmmaker forces the audience to seek out the answer and purchase a ticket. Unfortunately, filmmakers struggle with knowing what part of the film should be promoted and what part withheld for for the film’s theatrical release.
This delicate balance can be achieved using a few rules:
USE SET PIECES FROM FIRST HALF OF MOVIE – Set pieces are scenes that are designed to have an obvious imposing effect on the audience and many times end up in trailers. They are also the scenes that stand out and say this film is unique and special. When done correctly, the scenes are easily remembered and generate a good deal of marketing buzz.
A strong set piece withstands the test of time. Many remember the light saber battle between Darth and Obi-wan Kenobi. Another iconic set piece was the scene where Indiana Jones runs away from the giant boulder. I’ll never forget the DeLorean racing across the wet mall parking lot and seeing it vanish into a pair of fire trails in Back to the Future.
Set pieces distinguish a film and drive the buzz that skyrockets a title to success. It becomes the story’s leverage to entice audiences to shell out money for tickets. It also tells the press that the film is new and fresh, making it newsworthy and promotable.
USE ACT ONE HERO AND PROBLEM SET UP – The hero has to be likeable or his situation relatable to the audience. By introducing him in a humorous way, or by establishing some form of crisis that people can relate to, will all help build a desire in the audience to find out how the hero will deal with his dilemma.
Establishing the hero’s flaw or problem is also prudent, but only using enough of it to establish the question of how it will be solved. “Why” answers satisfy and “what” answers generate conversation, which leads to ticket sales.
NEVER USE ANYTHING FROM ACT THREE – By act 3, the audience knows exactly where the story is headed, but don’t know how they will arrive at the climax. If something is used from act 3, it’ll be too easy for the audience to determine the film’s outcome before they see the movie. Act 3 elements are sacred and are considered off limits in the promotion of a film.
DON’T USE THE THEME – The theme is typically associated with some form of moral or social lesson. It’s a part of the story that should never be revealed during promotions because once a person understands the lesson there is no longer a need to see the film. Many times the lesson might seem forced unless it’s properly woven into the full story, which a trailer can’t do.
RAISE THE UNIVERSAL QUESTION – Every film raises a question in the audience’s mind that needs to be fulfilled or completed. The trailer also needs to raise the question, but in a way that causes the audience to wonder how the hero is going to accomplish it. This drives the audience’s desire to see the film and find out how the hero succeeds.
The above rules will keep the filmmaker safe from giving out important information that needs to be saved for the film. It also positions the filmmaker’s mindset to focus on the action he wants the audience to take – purchasing a ticket so he or she can watch the film and answer the question haunting his or her mind.
“Don’t use the theme.”
Is there any place for using the theme in promoting your movie?
If your theme is well woven into your story (ex. The Blind Side, Fireproof, October Baby) won’t the theme show up in some way?
The first rule in filmmaking is to master the rules. The second rule is to find a creative way to break the rules to create a new masterpiece. With that said, yes, some films are promoted using the theme rather than its action plotline. These are typically films that only play to niche markets or smaller audiences. They are also films that struggle to get an audience since its throughline is typically buried or non-existant.
As for The Blind Side, the theme was not presented in the trailer. Here is the throughline, followed by the theme for your review.
The Blind Side was based on the true story of Michael Oher. The plot was about an African American high school student who was down on his luck, coming from a drug infested, poor and broken home life. Michael learned from the well-off Leigh AnneTouhy how to work for his dream of playing football. Through working hard with a tutor and his football coach, Michael succeeded both in school and on the football field, which led him to college and his ultimate dream of becoming an NFL football player.
The producer of The Blind Side, Andrew Kosove, described the theme in this way, “We live in a society made up of different kinds of families, where the only things that really matter are our love and support for one another.”
The film Fireproof gets a bit cloudy because its action plot is very close to its main theme. The story is about a fireman who becomes a hero to everyone but his wife. During the divorce process, his dad asks him to put the divorce on hold and commit to taking The Love Dare. By diligently working on his marriage he learns about himself and his wife, which leads to the restoration of their marriage.
The theme is not promoted in the trailer, although it gets close due to the throughline being very close to it. The theme is about, “loving others through God’s love for us.”
The story of October Baby is about a girl who finds that her entire life was a lie and goes on a trip to find her birth mother. She is faced with lots of internal questions and even questions why her best friend stays by her side no matter what, when her own mother gave her up. This leads the girl to learn about the choices she has and decides to forgive and move on rather than becoming bitter.
The theme is about surviving a botched abortion and its ramifications in life. This pro-life message stopped the film from getting the normal theater distribution it deserved.
Now, you can argue that I don’t have the themes right in the two Christian films because they have 4-6 themes in the story, but the theme is 100% accurate for the Blind Side as it only has one theme. I’d even suggest that the clear presentation of the one theme led to the films $300MM+ box office success, while the other films extra themes slowed down its impact at the box office. But, that’s just a thought.
I’m a firm believer that clarity of message is extremely important and the Christian Genre tends to be overloaded with themes.
However, as I stated above, the second rule is to break the rules and make something great. In fact, one filmmaker I chatted with yesterday suggested that there are no rules in film, as long as your film works.
Thanks, CJ! I think I understand what you mean better.
It seems though (after reviewing the trailers) that though they may not have the official theme of the movie (aside from Fireproof, but then all of the Kendrick films have strong themes evident in most if not all of their promotional material), they do seem to have some sort of a theme.
But I’m not going to argue that out. Your response was so kind and informative, I’m satisfied. 🙂 Thanks again.
(Great article, btw. I really enjoy these.)
Thanks CJ, great information !!!
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