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Helen Campbell: The Essence of Trailers

Published in IndiVision News April 2008.

Helen Campbell and her business partner Shaun Farrington established Zealot in 1999 as a specialist marketing business for the film and broadcast industries. They work alongside sales agents, distributors and producers to create the strategy and marketing materials for feature films and television programs. These materials include sales promos, trailers, posters, television commercials, radio spots and press kits. Today Zealot has offices in Sydney, London and New York and in 2007 created over 50 trailers in the UK and Australia. In 2008 Zealot will work for a broad range of studios and major Indies - Magnolia, Think, Warner Bros, Fox, Sony Classics, Dendy, Madman, Momentum and Miramax, and sales agents such as The Works, Fortissimo, Myriad, Handmade, Content and Capital.

Helen Campbell: There is an awful lot of science to try to get a film down into a minute-and-a-half trailer that helps people make a buying decision. Phillip Noyce, when he was working with a filmmaker on a script, said that what the filmmaker needed to do was to imagine the scenes they needed to have in their trailer because if those scenes aren't in the film, they can't then be in the trailer. I didn't take that to mean that the trailer comes first, but what it does mean is that nothing is going to highlight the challenges of your film (and sometimes that is going to be the weaknesses) like a trailer will. This is simply because the trailer needs to boil down the essence of your film - if all of that is just script and no visuals it makes our job really, really difficult. The visual language of your film needs to be something that comes out in your trailer so we can show the uniqueness of your film. At the end of the day what a trailer needs to boil down to is the essential moments. That might sound really obvious but the three things we look at when we do a trailer is: Who is this person or these people? What is their problem? And, why should I care? That is what your audience is going to be looking at. They sit in a cinema and that's the three things, whether they are conscious of it or not, that they ask.

I was catching up with [distributor] Andrew Mackie a few weeks ago and he said that Working Title had once told him that they ensure every film they do has five really big trailer moments. In terms of budget that means, I think, taking the time to get the two shots, taking the time to get the cutaways. It's not just about getting explosions and lots of people and all those sorts of things; it's about finding those moments that allow turning points in your film, and those moments can also be the turning points in your trailer. So what we love to see in these five moments are:

Characters clearly delivering their lines. If one of your characters is going to tell another character that they love them, we really want to see them saying that line. I know it sounds obvious but there have been a number of times that we were not given the 'money moment' that we needed for the trailer.

Cutaways to people's reactions around them. Now sometimes those cutaways are used out of context. For example, in the film Control you had a critic's quote which was emotional or exhausting and then you had a scene from the film where the wife is giving birth to Ian's child. The audience doesn't know that but it's a moment where you think, "Oh my God, something is happening!" That's what we look for, that's what I meant about boiling your film down into essential emotional moments.

We look for unique character traits and the fact that they are physically displayed in environments. For example, again in the film Control you have Ian Curtis' wife against a white wall saying, "What does that mean, 'I love you'? What does that mean?" There is nothing else in that frame but she is in the centre of it and she is on her own. Someone has just told her that they love her and the desolation of her response is a turning point - it's wonderful. From there we can start to wrap up the trailer and you as an audience can start to understand another layer of this film.

We also look for some kind of physical expression of the emotional journey. Sometimes we are so busy in films saying it that we don't also think to show it. We had a situation a few years ago where a character in this film had always feared being left on their own, but what you could see throughout the film was that he was driving away the one person who accepted him for what he was. Unfortunately, at the moment in the film where he actually pushed this person away for what feels like forever, you don't ever see her walking away and you don't at any time see this guy on his own. So what happens in the film is that you constantly see his point of view looking out to sea - and the reverse shot of him in the film has his brother walking up behind him. The only way we ended up getting around it in the trailer was by talking to the editor and asking if he had this shot without the brother in it? And he said, "Oh yes, there was a take where he forgot his cue." That's the bit we ended up stealing for the trailer and it saved it. But that was a mistake in the filmmaking, so I guess I would really encourage you to think about showing what you are also saying.

When we look at a film, the very first thing we do is break it down into moments. The moments that we go for are:

Great shots of the lead characters that quickly, sharply and very beautifully set up who they are, and why we should care about them. How does your film introduce your main character? How does your film say, "This is Joe and he is incredibly self-satisfied with his life"? If it is not just in one scene and you need seven scenes to do it, guess what, the trailer is going to have to use seven too and it can't. So it is going to have to use the script or be a "Meet Joe, there once was a man...." This is so often why certain films do that because they can succinctly do in voice-over what, visually, the film never lets them do.

We also look for an emotional connection - people touching, fighting, loving, menacing but always in landscapes too. We don't just want people talking to each other; we want people reacting with their environment. They help to open a film up, so if it's just two shots or mid shots of whatever else, it gets really boring in a trailer. We want to see big vistas, although not always beautiful, which might mean the inside of a warehouse, the outside of a beautician where the lead character is working. It's about the environment that these characters are finding themselves in.

We are also looking for what we call the 'icon moments' - those moments that you tell people about a film you love. In Control it's the scene of him walking down the street going off to his civil service job. The camera comes round behind him and he's got "HATE" written across his back. That's an icon moment.

Finally, symbolism. We look to give trailers layers of meaning for people - it's the mother's hand on the barbed wire fence in Rabbit Proof Fence; it's doors closing; or a landscape shot that reappears and shows the progress of the story. Maybe it's colours that go from barren to green and back again. We look for those things in a trailer because it's a way of giving people a narrative suggestion of the film, and by suggestion I guess what we try and avoid as much as possible is actually telling people the story. What we try to do is give them a small taste of the film. We don't try and solve what is going to happen because that's the film's job. What we are trying to do is help them make a buying decision about your film and the best way to do that is to be able show them why your film is different, unique, beautiful, unusual - your characters in the story is something they might want to go on.

I don't think it is always helpful to cut your trailer from your script, because your film is an organic thing, a creative thing and you are going to find the lens flare as you go. But I do know that that is how the studios approach it, they actually know what their trailer moments are before they go out and shoot their film. There might be others that come along the way but, for me, there are certainly no surprises in most films that you see of what those trailer moments will be. There will be lots of other moments that will resonate with other audiences. Ideally I think a wonderful situation would be a circumstance where, as you are going into pre-production, you are able to give your script to someone who has experience in making trailers. They can identify those key scenes within a trailer narrative that they would need to have to be able to cut even the basis of a trailer, so you can make sure you shoot them with attention. That would be my ideal.

Helen Campbell (co-founder of film marketing business Zealot) at the 2008 IndiVision Project Lab.