'Menthol' Micro-Budget Film Case Study Part 1: 'Your Trailer is Your Film'
In this series of posts, I'm going to test, prod, and explore the process of releasing my first feature film almost entirely online, with no money or nepotism. As some of you know, I've been regularly writing about distribution on No Film School in recent months with the intention of one day putting what I've learned to use. That day has come with the imminent release of my narrative feature Menthol -- and what better place than here to have the discussion as the process evolves? Read on for Part 1, in which I discuss decisions in cutting and releasing the all-important trailer.
First, check out the trailer:
So when I said we're releasing the film almost entirely online, you'll notice that we did manage to get into a couple of film festivals. This has gone a long way for us so far (mostly for our own sanity), as there were some pretty rough months of doubt while in the thick of it.
When I set out to make this film I knew it wasn't going to be an instantly popular, commercially viable project. It's a slow-paced character-driven movie about four friends in a 24-hour timeframe. Which means there are no explosions, despite my best efforts in After Effects.
In general, I have a pretty cynical (realistic?) outlook on truly micro-budget independent film that leads me to believe the following:
For all intents and purposes, your trailer IS your film.
Or, to euphemize: your film is only as good as your trailer.
Now this might seem a little harsh, but the way I see it, most people aren’t going to watch your indie film unless they know you or it has some kind of serious credentials, i.e. play at major film festivals, viral social media buzz, or star power. Our executive producer was the sole producer on Boyz n the Hood, so that's the only real buzz-worthy thing we have going for us. I watch a lot of independent film, and the thing that causes me to set aside the time and press play isn’t any of these things. It’s usually because I feel drawn to the discourse of a particular film or filmmaker -- or because it has a great trailer.
If things weren't complicated enough: I hate trailers, and have (mostly) removed them from my media diet.
Since 2007 or so I made a decision to actively stop watching trailers. I’ve developed a relatively purist perspective on film viewing, in which the less expectation generated before watching a movie, the better the experience (usually). Studio trailers are created with one intention in mind: getting asses in seats and making money. So trailer editors for studio flicks will unashamedly blow their narrative load (so to speak) in their trailer, leaving little mystery left for the real movie (asses in the seats -- at any cost).
For me, cutting a trailer under these conditions becomes a high-wire juggling act. Not only do I feel that I need to accurately represent the tone and pace of the film, but I need it to be exciting enough to impel someone to click through. On one level I’m trying to achieve Truth in Advertising, and on the other hand I’m trying to achieve Advertising.
Once a film is complete it must be released -- and therefore must have a trailer -- so I concede there. Of course, there are always exceptions, so let’s take a look at some trailers that I do really like:
The Men of Dodge City trailer is what I call an 'art trailer.' It doesn't try too hard to impel, it just shows you seemingly random glimpses into the film. This is the kind of trailer I wanted to do initially.
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/64312899
The Lily & Kat trailer is a little more traditional. It showcases the aesthetics of the film above all, aided by the beat of a driving pop song and a marginal movie star. It gets me excited, it's a 'pump up' trailer.
The Hills Green trailer shares nice a mix between the traditional pump up trailer and the art trailer. As a film with an equally non-existent production budget, this trailer was a nice touchstone for me.
What do all these trailers have in common? They impelled me to actively seek out the films and the filmmakers -- in fact I interviewed each of them for No Film School here, here, and here respectively.
I’ve always felt caught in-between idealism and pragmatism, and the 2-month process of editing the Menthol trailer really highlighted this. Since a trailer is a pragmatic, practical tool for driving interest for a film, I felt I had to shed some of my purist philosophies in the interest of getting the movie released and (fingers crossed) seen.
With so many platforms out there to choose from, my producer Nate Kamiya and I picked Reelhouse for a number of reasons. It was a mix of ease of use (I got tired of tweaking code on our old website), a competitive pricing model (Reelhouse takes 6% vs VHX's 15%) and that the team at Reelhouse seemed like a good match of personalities for us. They are eager to help filmmakers and to help promote films on their channels.
Now, in a direct distribution model it's really up to the filmmakers to drive traffic to their product, and being on any platform over another isn't going to automatically grant you any more exposure -- but we felt that Reelhouse did have a community that is worth fostering. In the end I don't know if this (or many other) direct distribution platforms will survive through this year, but Reelhouse -- with partnerships with Sundance and now Warner Bros -- seemed like a good horse to bet on. I think they are poised to actually be a decent entertainment platform, but they need people like us to take the dive if it's ever going to blossom. (note: our Reelhouse page is a work in progress)
Film Festival laurels make all the pain go away. Carve out space in your trailer to add laurels and reviews.
All the pressure I put on myself for editing this trailer -- thinking that it basically had to be perfect or nobody would ever give a shit -- made it take a long time to finish. To give you an idea, I had 20 different edits of the Menthol trailer before I settled on the one we're using now.
However, sitting on the trailer was helpful. I started editing the trailer before we had been accepted to any film festivals, and our energy on the project was pretty stalled out. Once we did get accepted to something though, the momentum started rolling. A trailer and a poster with film fest laurels is sexy. I think there's an argument to be made that it doesn’t really matter what laurels they are, people just want to see those palm fronds or whatever -- just some sign of validation from someone other than the filmmakers' parents.
Waiting on publishing the trailer also allowed us to finish our sound design/mix (by the awesome and all-powerful Neil Benezra) which then allowed me to work better sound into the trailer. I changed the intro, plugged the laurels in, and suddenly I had a trailer that was feeling more complete.
The last thing to go in was the quote. I had a section in the edit where I knew I wanted text to go, but we didn't have any reviews yet. Then I remembered something really flattering that Zach Weintraub -- a really great filmmaker in his own right -- said about an early screener of the film. It was the cherry on top of the trailer, and this taught me that it pays to share your film with people who might like it (and actually watch it) early on in the process.
Remember: use what you have, not what you don't.
Menthol will have its world premiere this weekend at the 29th SBIFF. I will be doing my best to document the fest (my first film festival experience from the filmmaker's side) and report back here.
What do you think about the trailer? Did I succeed in piquing your interest in the film or have I crashed and burned miserably? Let me know in the comments below, and look out for more posts in this series.