That’s because the first rule of thumb for a movie trailer is to make sure it represents the tone of your movie. If your movie has the same tone as Kill Bill, you blew it – they already made that movie, and odds are they made it better on their budget than you did on yours. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but only gives people the idea that you’re a second-rate wanna-be if your indie film is paying homage too closely to an existing piece of pop culture. Know YOUR tone, and even go out of your way to make sure it isn’t too representative of something already out there.
The tone of a trailer is set by two things: music and editing pace. If your film is a thoughtful, independent drama, you might want to stay away from a techno-beat base. If you made a film like Stranger Than Paradise, are you going to have a hard cut in your trailer every ten frames? This might seem obvious to a lot of you, but you’d be surprised how many people miss it. Consistency in tone is tough to pull off for some people, and it’s easy to detect when someone’s just off the mark.
When it comes to trailer tone, I tend to work backwards. I start with the music. I find a piece of music that I think “fits” my story, and I tend to know I’ve got the right one when I start looping it constantly in the car or at my home computer. If you start imagining sequences to that music, that’s a good choice.
Some people advise that you avoid any popular mainstream song, anything associated with another film or television program, but I go either way on that one… Hollywood recycles the same music in their trailers to vastly different effects. (The James Horner theme from Glory has been used in a number of trailers, and maybe never more effectively than it was used in the wonderful preview for Backdraft!).
Some trailers shouldn’t include music at all.
Again, there are no hard rules for this, but I want to give you the blueprint for the types of trailers that have been successful for me, personally, over the last six years.
First, every trailer should include three basic parts. Like a good script, your trailer should break down into acts. Some have two, some have three, but it’s the ones with only one act – with only one tone – that are the least effective. They go nowhere, they tell you only one thing about the movie, and the rest is nothing but repetition. My latest two films, Ghosts of Hamilton Street and Oculus, have very different trailers… yet are very similar in structure (and cast, as a matter of fact). Ghosts has three acts, Oculus has two.
Let’s start with Act One. I like to call it the “Program”. This can be thirty seconds to a minute depending on your total length, and should introduce the characters and environment. Your pace should be relaxed here; you need to give yourself a place to go emotionally. For Ghosts, I used the actual original score from the film and wanted to not only introduce my specific characters, but also speak in general terms that anyone viewing could relate to. Using title cards like “Love”, “Sex”, “Friends”, and “Family” evoke normalcy, things anyone can easily relate to, and in between cards I tried to show the SPECIFIC examples of these themes from my film.
In the Program, or the foundation, your objectives are simple – lay the groundwork, and make the universe of the film and the characters that inhabit it as clear as possible. You’re not trying to be artful, that can come later if you’re brave – you just need to let people know what they’re heading into. The simpler the better.