The Importance of Documentary Trailers

Watching a documentary

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Never underestimate the value of a good movie trailer, especially when the film being previewed is a documentary.

Like all movie trailers, good documentary trailers are interesting stand-alone tidbits of entertainment that convince viewers that they want to see the full-length film that's being 'teased.' But, with documentaries, a good trailer serves an additional purpose. It can and often does help the filmmaker raise additional financial backing to finish a film in progress and/or secure a distribution deal that will make the film available to the broadest audience base on the full range of current viewing platforms, including theatrical release, broadcast on public television or cable, DVD, Video On Demand, online streaming, mobile applications, and the rest.

The particularly high degree of importance that good trailers have for documentary films has to do with the way documentaries are produced and funded. Often, the filmmaker will begin working on a documentary film by actually shooting footage for it without having secured sufficient funding to complete and distribute it. The idea for the film is there and the time is right, and waiting for secure funding might actually mean losing an important part of the story. Unlike narrative features that shoot from already written and green-lighted scripts, most documentary films evolve over time, with the story becoming clear to the filmmaker as shooting continues. At a certain point, after the filmmaker has shot sufficient footage and has a good idea of where the story and its lead characters are headed, the film's producer (often the filmmaker, especially in the case of documentaries) turns to foundations, broadcast commissioning editors, and other potential funders to raise money to continue shooting the film, and to begin editing and doing other necessary post-production work on it, and eventually go into the film's marketing phase.

Trailers Are Essential for Fund Raising

Whether the filmmaker turns to pitch forums at festivals such as Sheffield Doc/Fest, IDFA or Hot Docs, or prefers to go on an independent campaign to find a documentary angel or seek crowdfunding through Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, the way that potential funders are made aware of the film's subject, story, characters and the cinematic quality of what's already been shot is a trailer that's carefully and beautifully edited to show the film's best attributes. Thanks to good trailers, some of the best documentaries have been made. Of course, it's possible for a funding pitch to take place without an effective trailer, but the chances of success are much diminished unless the filmmaker has a long and impeccable track record for the production and delivery of great documentary films.

What Makes a Good Trailer, or What Makes a Trailer Good?

It's just as challenging to edit a trailer as it is to edit an entire film, and sometimes harder. Within the film editing profession, there are actually editors who specialize in creating trailers. In fact, there are production companies that do nothing but create movie trailers, using the filmmaker's footage and adding titles, music, and other elements that make the trailer engaging, entertaining, and exciting so that anyone who sees the trailer will want to see more of the film and get its full story. The trailer must accomplish all of that in a minute or two.

In other words, the trailer must be a logical, consistent, and understandable introduction to the main characters, their circumstances and to the tone of the film -- is it funny, tragic, mysterious, or full of fascinating statistics some of which presented as pie charts. If pie charts are involved, are they good to look at? An effective trailer should not leave anyone wondering, "What was that all about?"

On the other hand, it should not present so much of the story that you think you know it all. The likelihood of that happening in documentary trailers is slimmer than it might be with narrative feature trailers that leave you feeling that you've seen all the impressive special effects or pratfalls and don't want to bother with the rest of the film.

The best documentary trailers do not always belong to the best documentaries, but a good documentary trailer will not camouflage a bad film, as is sometimes the case with great narrative feature trailers, which may lead you the best worst movie.

For Pitches

When the documentary trailer is being prepared for a live pitch session at a festival or private meeting, the filmmaker will be on hand to comment and augment what's presented on screen, giving details about what will be added as shooting or post-production continues. But, whatever is on screen must establish the lead characters, show what's most interesting about them and their situation, and indicate how their story pertains to larger generic issues that currently concern the general public who will be watching the film. Additionally, the trailer must be visually exciting, show how special effects, reenactments, animation, and graphics will be used and must establish that the filmmaker is competent and trustworthy. It must show that the filmmaker has an interesting, compelling point of view, even when the film's subject, which may be controversial, demands an even-handed, balanced presentation of facts.

Documentary trailers that are put on DVDs or online for viewing by potential funders must stand alone without live commentary from the filmmaker. Production notes are used to fill in, but the trailer is the real vehicle for funding success of a documentary feature.

For Theatrical Release

When the film is finished, the documentary trailer made for funding purposes may not -- actually probably won't -- present the most exciting aspects of the subject, characters and their story. It's likely that a new trailer must be cut, sometimes updating the trailer used for funding and sometimes starting afresh. The requirements and standards for the theatrical trailer, which will be shown on as many platforms as possible to reach the widest number of viewers possible and convince them to see the film, are pretty much the same as they are for funding trailers.

Judging Documentary Trailers

The ultimate test is, of course, whether the trailer raises production or post-production funds and/or attracts viewers for the film. But, there are also awards presented for documentary trailers.

The annual Golden Trailer Awards recognizes excellence in the making of documentary film trailers. For movie previews, the Golden Trailer Awards are the equivalent of the Oscars for best documentary feature. And, they feature a special category to honor best documentary trailer, in addition to a wide range of categories recognizing best trailers for various narrative feature genres, including drama, comedy, horror, and animation, among others. The Golden Trailer Awards have been held annually in April.