Notes from a Festival Programmer: How Your Trailer May Kill Your Chances of Being Accepted

Movie Posters and Trailers. Two marketing tools that are nearly as old as cinema itself, with posters going back hundreds of years when you link its lineage to the theater. Of the two, Poster has become a (lost) art form unto herself. Unlike her marketing sibling, Trailer, Poster can't use clips from a film, or sound, or narration, to convey what a movie is or what it's like. She knows that she can never--well not never, maybe super duper rarely---distill a 90 minute story line down into one image. Astute, she's skipped trying to tell you what the story is, and she's honed in on recreating the experience of a film.

To that end, Poster has earned herself a reputation as having the ability to be iconic, even avant-garde. She can be mysterious, she can be daring, she can be bold, she can be sexy. She's understood that when she does her job well, when she connects on an emotional level, a visceral response will entice even the jaded to look a bit deeper.

Her brother though, he's a lucky ass bastard because he can use any clip he wants from a film. The problem is, Trailer often forgets that conveying the ups and downs of a 90 minute movie actually becomes both more complicated, simplified, and riskier.

The simple? The audience can now see the story, the genre and quality of a film even more clearly. "Hey, it's a comedy, I'll show a pratfall here." "It's a romance, here's a guy yelling a man or woman's name in the rain." "Insert obligatory man jumping something dramatically with a determined face shot here to indicate there'll be action." Audiences see, they process, they understand...but, wait...

The complicated? Good films, and great films most of all, are rarely that easy to break down. The more reductive the clips, the more likely Trailer is to over or under sell what a film is. If he leaves out a key moment or three, he could entirely mislead an audience into thinking a romance is a comedy, or a drama film is all action. If what he creates doesn't piece together just right, he can effectively tell you what the story is, yet bungle conveying what experiencing that story will be like.

The risky? Audiences can now make a decision if the film is something they one, want to see, two, will likely enjoy, and three, want to share--for good or bad--with others, even if it is or isn't for them. And most important, Trailer can't hide the quality of a film. Sub-par picture, sound, acting, that will always come through.

So what does that have to do with being accepted into a film festival? Programmers are no different than anyone else. Just as it is with audiences going to a local multiplex, we look at trailers and we instantly decide if films are ones we think we want to see, as programmers and as film lovers, and if we think will enjoy them. We can also decide if it's a film we believe we can share with our festival audience, even if we personally aren't reacting to the story or subject matter.

However a regular audience member isn't watching 2000 films to decide which 140 they want to watch on Friday. And even if they skip a film, they can probably choose to take a chance on it at a later date. Or they may even have someone else persuade them that they should take a chance. Once we have formed an opinion, it's been formed. It can be altered, it can be changed, but there's almost no going back to one and reevaluating a film from scratch. As such, there's a reason I and most of my screening committee try to avoid seeing or reading too much about some film if we can do that (it's why we always want at least two eyes on a film).

Unfortunately, too many films submitted to festivals either have misleading trailers--stop playing by the Hollywood big budget marketing playbook and you would be much better off. Or they do not have strong trailers at all.

So far this season I've seen at least three films that a filmmaker sent me a trailer for that had me pumped, and I walked away a little disappointed that the film was nothing like the trailer. Those films aren't out, but they are not as high on my list as when I watched the trailer. Based off the trailers alone, I could see telling audiences they need to see X film for Y reasons, because Y reasons was in the trailer and I know their interest would be piqued. Afterwards, I had to throw out Y reasons because that wasn't what the films really were and to a greater extent not even about. Now my Z reasons are formed not by the film, but by me taking those Y reasons with me as I watched the film and having those shaped and reshaped as I react.

Film festivals, having festival in their descriptors, should be about experience first and foremost. It's about sitting in the dark for hours and hours and being moved to action if it's a social doc, to tears if it's a drama or laughter if it's a comedy. The films I personally react most strongly too, aren't the ones I just think are just of great quality, it's the ones I'm betting (rightly or wrongly) an audience will react positively to on an instinctual level.

As any film goer can tell you, there are few things more exciting than having a film exceed the promise of its trailer. They will also tell you that there are few things more disappointing than a film that doesn't.