January 31, 2014

'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.


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.

Why Reelhouse?

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.

Menthol Pre-Order

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.


Your Comment


awesome. Great post, Micah. Best of luck in Santa Barbara!

January 31, 2014 at 12:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Micah, thanks for sharing. I'm also just wrapping up my first feature and it's always encouraging to hear someone else share their story, fears, lessons and triumphs.

I look forward to checking out 'Menthol' on Reelhouse and your future updates. Best of luck at SBIFF!

January 31, 2014 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Tim Driscoll

Micah Van Hove, that the gods of cinema smile at you from the cinematic heavens! :)

January 31, 2014 at 12:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

guto novo

The Lily & Kat isn't a trailer it's a teaser. The Men of Dodge City is just a poorly edited trailer. And the Hills Green isn't a good mix. It's simple a very well edited trailer.

January 31, 2014 at 1:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


"Use what you have, not what you don’t."
Perfect phrase to describe the technique used in these films. Personal films, with trailers (or teasers) that have an all-important component: great visuals. Active camera, in the "Now", demanding the viewer take notice and seek them out.
Micah, great article and a great trailer. Enjoy the fest!

January 31, 2014 at 1:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Great article, and well done for getting your film made. The Men of Dodge City trailer is brutal... I'm the exact audience for odd independent films and—for want of a better phrase—mumble-core type stuff, but I would actively avoid that film based on it's trailer; you made a good choice to go the more traditional route.
I've always thought Le Mepris had a fun 'art trailer' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72xGErvgStM)
Bonne chance!

January 31, 2014 at 1:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


great trailer.. looks like a great achievement! honesty, very well done.
If the film lives up to the mood/ tone in the trailer, you could well be onto something big!

January 31, 2014 at 2:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Really great post. I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to your future posts.

I have one question, and that is why haven't you released the movie yet? You are obviously going to get a lot of interest from this article, doesn't it make sense to give people something to buy now than something they need to remember to buy in a month or 6-months or whatever?

I guess I sort of look at that Ryan Lightbourn article NFS posted a few months back, and how excited I was to read it, and based on the comment board everyone seemed really excited to see the movie. But the movie wasn't out then, and I its not out now. By the time it is actually available to watch, won't he have lost a good portion of his article's audience?

I am under the impression Menthol is finished, and that you have further articles in the pipeline. I hope before you post the last article, the movie will be available to watch, so all these people reading your articles and showing interest have some place to go spend their money right away.

January 31, 2014 at 2:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


A great point, Drew. That's exactly the plan, I will be writing this series up until our online release this Spring. The reason we haven't released yet is so we can play a few festivals.

There's also a pre-order option on our Reelhouse page for those who would rather not wait or be bothered to remember.

January 31, 2014 at 2:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Micah Van Hove
director, producer, dp

Congrats on the SBFF nod, Micah - we're so proud to have you apart of the family! We appreciate all our film fans on Reelhouse and couldn't be more stoked on the community we're all building for eachother :)

January 31, 2014 at 2:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


We have the challenge of our film being science fiction on what we're calling a "nano-budget" - so although we didn't want a lot of special effects there are some.

For the trailer I really wanted something different than the norm (the Little Children trailer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hshcNfaXkwk and The Social Network http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RB3edZyeYw are two of my favorite). I think we got at least most of the way there:


January 31, 2014 at 6:50PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I don't know what I was expecting but that actually looked pretty good, acting aside, but I try not to judge that too much on indie films. Only criticism I would note is don't title your film a science fiction feature film. It sounds like you are begging sci-fi fans to watch it because they see the keyword sci-fi. If they watch the trailer they will already know pretty clearly that it is sci-fi you don't need it in the title.

January 31, 2014 at 8:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Congrats, Micah. You story gives us all insight and hope!

January 31, 2014 at 7:03PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


This are the kind of articles that are worth the time to read. Great post.

I have also, unwillingly, stopped watching trailers. It was kind of natural I think, mainly boredom drew me apart from them. And, as you say, the movie experience is better, no doubt about that.

Best of luck for your film and I can't wait for the next post about it.

January 31, 2014 at 7:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


At it's heart, I like it, because it is unpredictable. I strive for that quality in my own films when it's possible. For my taste, this may have been a little too unpredictable. I couldn't quite understand it. But I applaud the director for attempting to reach their vision.

January 31, 2014 at 8:12PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I would have preferred to have more info about the characters and/or plot from the trailer, even if with a voiceover or random audio clips. (Ya, let's see your rejected dozen now)

January 31, 2014 at 8:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Is it possible to sign up with VHX and Reelhouse or is that out of the question?

January 31, 2014 at 8:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Hussain Al-Khalil

Both platforms are non-exclusive, so there's no reason you couldn't.

January 31, 2014 at 9:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Micah Van Hove
director, producer, dp

although Lik and Kat is not up my alley in terms of genre, and I will never watch the movie, the trailer is very well done. Great style, pacing and just overall editing.

February 1, 2014 at 6:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I liked the trailer for menthol and it did make me want to watch it. Well done. I also liked the way you spoke about it, the process and your choices. It's true if a trailer is shitty I won't see the movie most likely. I think I'll watch this one. Congrats on making a movie.

February 1, 2014 at 10:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Peter Staubs

That's a heck of a poster. I will be checking this out. And thanks for sharing your journey!

February 3, 2014 at 5:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM



Wise words. Great trailer. Good luck.

February 3, 2014 at 5:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Mark Thomas

Hi guys, pls allow me to say that it really is great to hear from fellow filmmakers cos I realise that I am not as mad as the world makes me out to be. Thanks a lot for the lovely article. It was both informative and encouraging.
We are based in johannesburg South Africa, just wrapped up a feature and we r looking to finish the trailer this weekend. Took us a lot of time to figure out how to go about it, so thanks a lot cos now we know that we r not alone. I'd love to send it out for a slight crit if that's possible. Thanks a lot guys.

February 6, 2014 at 4:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


It's nice to see there's more to twenty-somethings than just angst-filled, drug and alcohol-induced "bonding" experiences....oh wait.... that's the ONLY thing these trailers seem to convey, however marginally, beautifully shot. Where the hell is the content(see:depth) nowadays? It's either bored white kids or over-priced comic book films.

February 6, 2014 at 6:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


I agree with you. This comment makes me think you actually might like the movie. The trailer is -- in the end -- just advertising.

February 7, 2014 at 3:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Micah Van Hove
director, producer, dp

You did a good job. Even though it is obviously, as you sat, a dialogue driven drama etc... you did make me curious to know what happens in the movie. The hint of dark events the scream and the flashes of cops. It worked.

February 7, 2014 at 1:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Nice trailer - though I am confused about the producer reference for "Boyz N The Hood" ? Was Nate part of the movie? Don't see it on IMDB ....

February 8, 2014 at 7:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Nate Kamiya is our producer, but our executive producer is Steve Nicolaides (the sole producer on Boyz).

February 8, 2014 at 11:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

Micah Van Hove
director, producer, dp

Congrats on making a movie. Congrats on writing a coherent article.

However the trailer is boring and does not give a clue as to the real content of the movie if there is any. The trailer is just a collection of partial scenes. This slowness and lack of focus is I suspect what turns folks away from many Indies.

And please folks, everything is not awesome, super, or epic.

Take it EZ,
Robert A. Ober

February 18, 2014 at 7:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM


Hi Micah! Congrats on making a film. I know how much work goes into it and I appreciate the article. I'm not going to criticize any of the specific trailers shown because let's face it, no-budget films are more of a form of personal expression than a commodity. The filmmaker decides how to treat it.

When you can make a film with your disposable income then it doesn't need to make money. It just needs to be available. Trailers are to help people decide whether to spend their hard-earned money on this movie or that move because we can't and we don't want to watch all of them.

You as a filmmaker have to decide if you want to 'sell' the film through the trailer and try to get eyeballs on it. Telling what the film is generally about without giving away too much can be a strategy, or making an art-trailer that is basically a bunch of random shots is another strategy.

If you really do want people to watch your film you have to put down your chips and pray that you hit the right button. I personally am not attracted to the art-house type trailer. They feel a little pretentious. People can be lazy me included. When I watch an art-trailer I feel like "Just tell me what I want to know so I make a decision already!" LOL

Of the trailers shown in this article I liked the pumped-up one the most. I love the music. The images and colors in that trailer were more interesting as well. Characters were doing things instead of just talking. It really didn't give away anything about the story but it felt as though the filmmakers want the film to be watched. If the filmmaker doesn't think it's worth it then how they can expect a potential audience member to watch it?

I think it's possible there is a fear of 'selling' our films, of people actually watching our work. It's terrifying that people are going to judge it and say nasty things on the Internet where it will stay for all eternity. A trailer created by the filmmaker could reflect how they feel about their own film, or they may not be able to objectively look at it from a marketing perspective. I can see where a filmmaker might be afraid of people watching the film because they're afraid it isn't 'good enough'. I know this because I've done it. I didn't even make a proper trailer for my first film. My fears were unfounded though because it's up on YouTube now and most of the comments are actually positive. People really like it!

I've shed that fear now and am shooting my first feature narrative this summer. I've promised myself I would absolutely take pride in this work and do everything I can to get eyeballs on it when it's released. And that means 'pumping up' the trailer. Who cares what they think as long as they watch it!!! Good luck with your film. I would probably rent it if it were $3 but $7.49 is just too much. Without knowing more about the story I can't judge whether I might like it enough. If it were free I'd just press play and see where it goes but for money, no way.

The Men of Dodge City on the other hand is uploaded to vimeo and can be watched for free so I'm going to watch it even though I didn't like the trailer. If I don't like it I'll just...turn it off. https://vimeo.com/54470325

May 27, 2014 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM


Looks interesting. If I see it on Netflix in the future I'll check it out!

May 27, 2014 at 11:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM