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.

Notes from a festival programmer: A film synopsis should never start with "The film begins when..."

In my four years at the Atlanta Film Festival there are some things, peripherally as communications director and now directly as a programmer, I've run into time and time again with submissions. Many are common mistakes (or nitpicks on my part) that several filmmakers are making when they're submitting their films. Many of them can be easily corrected, many cannot. As a result, I've been posting tips and observations to my Facebook page in the hope they'll be useful. Then I figured, hey why not put this on CinemATL. Expect more of these. So behold the first piece of advice:

A film synopsis should never start with "The film/story begins when..."

This is not only a clunky way to start a synopsis, it's wasted words as the reader should already know it's a film. Even at four words in length, the phrase is a slow burner, delaying the start of any action. You want to drop your audience in immediately.

Here's a plot synopsis pulled from for Some Like It Hot that works beautifully:

Two struggling musicians witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and try to find a way out of the city before they are found and killed by the mob. The only job that will pay their way is an all girl band so the two dress up as women. In addition to hiding, each has his own problems; One falls for another band member but can't tell her his gender, and the other has a rich suitor who will not take "No," for an answer. Written by John Vogel

Note that the first sentence immediately identifies the protagonists and the inciting incident that kicks off the entire film. By itself, it's already a strong introduction. It's the second and  third sentences that up the ante by pulling us in. Telling us how the musicians uniquely make their escape and what out of the ordinary obstacles that escape introduces. Another strong point is that this breakdown tells us the film is probably a comedy and not a thriller without relying on adjectives like hilarious or uproarious.

A classic film summed up in 3 sentences.

ATLFF 2010: "Love" Rocks Festival

Rebound relationships can be a real bitch. So goes the theme of the RomCom/Horror mash-up Love on the Rocks which is written and directed by Georgia Tech grad Justin Edwards whose feature film marks his debut at the Atlanta Film Festival.

The film tells the story of Amber and Gavin who are ending their relationship for presumably greener pastures. Not so fast, my friend. Amber meets Patrick, an unexciting but thoughtful man that appears to be the kind of guys she’s been seeking. However, Patrick’s relationships never seem to end on friendly terms. Meanwhile Gavin meets Yasmine, a hypnotist who needs her mates to become her pets, literally. Fatefully the lives of the two new couples intersect.

Justin assembled a veteran cast and crew from the Atlanta area including Producer Kapil Gandhi (Rex), Cinematographer Jon Swindall, and Justin Welborn who’s no stranger to Atlanta Film Festival audiences with prominent roles in past festival favorites like The Signal and Dance of the Dead.

I asked Director Justin Edwards a few questions about his film.

This is your third feature film as a director, correct? Was it easier this time around or were the challenges more complex?

Second actually... My first film was a student feature, "John's Blender" which was done through Buzz Studios, the filmmaking club at Georgia Tech. This is my first film with an actual budget though, and it certainly was nice to be able to solve a problem during production by throwing money at it (albeit a small amount of money). With no budget, the smallest things can hold up production, so it was reassuring to know I had reserve funds I could tap into in an emergency. But of course (to quote the late Biggie Smalls) "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems".... A bigger production definitely brought about a myriad of logistical headaches. Luckily I had an extremely dedicated cast and crew, so we were able to collectively "share" this headache together.

You currently live in Boston but decided to come back to Atlanta to film “Love on the Rocks” what factors helped you make that decision?

I've lived in the Atlanta area most of my life, and it’s the place where I know the most people. And on a low-budget feature, friends and family are your greatest assets. We also were able to pick up Kapil Gandhi as a producer, who after just coming off the Union Feature "Rex," had made a lot of connections in the Atlanta film community. He was able to assemble a fantastic production team in the Atlanta area.

What were the biggest challenges in getting your film made?

Casting gave us a bit of a scare... I remember being two weeks from production and still not having three of our principle actors. The same thing with locations... some scenes we were able to find locations for only a day before shooting. Those are the kind of things you laugh about at the wrap party when it’s all over, but at the time, you tend to lose a lot of sleep for it.  Editing was another big challenge, a two year endurance run, many different cuts, many arguments, many punches thrown, many makeup hugs over a beer... and in the end we all got what we wanted.

What was the inspiration for the movie?

I remember five years ago, when I first came up with the idea, how I thought it would be fun to take two genres (romantic comedy and horror) from complete opposite sides of the spectrum, and see how they would react to each other. From this the character of Patrick was born, and the idea of a "hopeless romantic turned psychopathic killer" really intrigued me.

What are the next steps for “Love on the Rocks” and you as a filmmaker?

For "Love on the Rocks" we plan to continue our festival run, and hopefully somewhere down the line land a distribution deal. As for me... well, I'm gonna keep on truckin' I suppose....

Martin Kelley is Editor-in-Chief of He's also a local screenwriter and filmmaker who co-founded the Atlanta Screenwriters Group, one of the largest screenwriting organizations in the Southeast. His latest film "Battle" is in post production