June 7, 2015

What I Learned About the Art & Craft of Making a Film Trailer on My Feature Film 'CENTS'

After writing, directing and producing my first feature film, I know it better than anyone. And that might make me the worst person to cut the film's trailer.

As the writer/director of CENTS, I feel like I am way too close to the material to figure out how to distill it down to two minutes that will both captivate and intrigue audiences, making them want more. I even think our film's editor has worked too long with the footage to know what to include and what to leave out to make an effective trailer. So I decided that we needed to work with a trailer editor.

After researching several trailer houses, I reached out to Jump Cut Creative because of their consistently strong work on independent film trailers and their willingness to collaborate with low-budget filmmakers like myself. Our film landed in the extremely capable hands of Jump Cut Creative Senior Editor David Klagsbrun. After David completed the trailer, I asked if he could carve out a few minutes from his crazy schedule to answer some email interview questions about the art and craft of creating dynamic film trailers.

NFS: Whittling down a feature-length film to its essence in the form of a 2-minute trailer is an art. Where do you even begin?

David Klagsbrun: Typically I'll get myself comfortable and simply watch the film just like anyone else. Come to think of it, I'm probably watching it like no one else. We're in the unique position of watching a film without preconceptions since there's no trailer yet! Honestly, it's the best way to see a film. I know. A trailer editor shouldn't say that, but... There's no substitute for really being surprised by something. Maybe that's why I got into the business in the first place…?

NFS: How do you work with the filmmakers when you edit a trailer? Are you dealing with the distributor of the film for approval or do you work with the director of the film? Or both?

DK: At Jump Cut, we work with a variety of mid-size distributors and, occasionally, directly with independent filmmakers who are self-distributing their films. When we're working with a distributor, they'll usually clear anything we do with the directors and producers of the film we're working on. Sometimes it's for final approval and sometimes it's just as a courtesy. Usually it's the distributor who will have final cut.

I think there's an interesting tension inherent in the process of working with a filmmaker on his or her film. It's tough to trust someone with your baby and there's often a real reluctance to do so. Filmmakers can often shoot themselves in the foot by unwittingly subverting the creation of a trailer by pushing for the inclusion of more great moments from the film or by refusing to include a relevant plot point because they're afraid to reveal too much about their film. It's a tricky balance of soothing a nervous parent and serving the best interests of a potential audience.

NFS: Do trailers follow a certain narrative structure?

DK: The classic three act structure is pretty common. Although, the third act "resolution" is hopefully more of a question than an answer. There's nothing worse than when a trailer feels like a substitute for actually kicking back and watching the film. We'll usually stray from this model when we're cutting a "teaser" which is shorter than a trailer and usually leaves more to the imagination. Or when we get the go-ahead to spread our wings and try something unexpected.

NFS: When you are watching a film, are there particular moments or shots that jump out at you that you know have to be in the trailer?

DK: Absolutely! I think that as a general rule our job is to tell a compelling story and the moments of sound and picture that we select to include in the trailer should support that narrative. But what really makes a trailer sing are those visual bits that don't necessarily push the narrative. They're images that make you go, "wow" or "what the hell?"  

NFS: In trailers, dialogue gets separated from picture to underscore images from different scenes in the film. Do you have a strategy or technique for identifying key lines and images from separate scenes that you think will work well together in the trailer?

DK: After watching a film a couple of times, I'll try to come up with an underlying idea for what the selling points are for the film and then I'll dive in and start breaking the film down to discrete bits of sound and image with that idea in mind.

NFS: Are there parts of a film that you consider off-limits to include in a trailer because they may reveal too much?

DK: Probably less than some of the filmmakers we've worked with might say but more than you'd think! It's our job to leave the audience wanting more.

NFS: Music plays a key role in the tone and pacing of a trailer. How do you choose the music for the trailer? How many music cues do you tend to use in a trailer?

DK: The number of cues we use can really run the gamut. It's rare (although it happens occasionally) that we won't use any music in a trailer. But I'm cutting something now that will have five separate music cues and that's a lot. As for how I choose them -- in a job that requires a lot of going with your gut, selecting the right piece of music is almost all instinct.

NFS: Copy can be an effective storytelling shortcut in trailers. How do you decide when and what to include in copy for a trailer?

DK: Lately there's been a lot of knee-jerk antipathy to using copy in trailers but I'm most definitely a fan. I think folks are naturally distracted and I find that the occasional copy card can really help ground the viewer and punctuate an idea. I'll often try to do a first pass without them; just as an exercise to see how far the material alone can take me. Then I may drop a few in strategically to support a moment in the trailer that needs some clarity or resonance.

NFS: I was fortunate enough to work with you for the trailer of our film CENTS. Could you walk us through your process and describe how you approached our particular trailer?

DK: I think for us the real selling point for CENTS was the story of a young outcast with a special talent. There's so much more to the film as a whole but when we boiled it down to that one central idea, we lost some of the mother's story and the intricacies of the power struggle within the "mean girls" clique. It helped us to showcase something about the film that truly felt unique. Then we made sure we were using the best music to available in the film to keep things brisk and energetic. Streamlining the penny drive conceit was important to us since that drives the action of the film and dropping in a few copy cards felt like the right way to bolster the stakes for this young girl and keep the audience invested in her story.

NFS: A really good trailer takes time to edit. What is your typical timeline for cutting a trailer?

DK: That's a closely-guarded industry secret! Honestly, we're almost never working on one project at a time so it's hard to say how long it would take in a vacuum. Usually we'll need about two weeks to send a client a first cut and then depending on how well that goes over we can refine the cut for a month or so before it's ready to be delivered.

Many thanks to David for his time and insights into creating compelling film trailers. Be sure to check out the website of Jump Cut Creative to see more of their excellent trailer work. You can find more lessons learned from the making of CENTS from our complete series of NFS posts on the film.

What have you learned about making trailers for your own films?     

Your Comment


I love trailers! I'm really into the process of working diligently on a film and then kind of creating this short piece based on the heart of the film. I recently finished a sci-fi/horror short called XARA Yaocihuatl and I put a teaser online, but I was told that the official trailer reveals too much about the story. Thoughts?

Here's the trailer (just uploaded it for you all! <3):

And here's the 15 second teaser that we went with on Instagram:

... Aaaand the full short film if you're interested:

Thanks for the continually educational posts!

June 7, 2015 at 4:35PM, Edited June 7, 4:35PM

Donovan Vim Crony
Director, DP, Editor, VFX, Sci-Fi Lover

Most trailers are too long. They should be kept to a minute or less. We should get a taste of the story but not the whole plot, otherwise seeing the film becomes almost pointless.

The trailer should set up the tone, the main characters and the conflict and that's it. Let the movie do the rest.

June 7, 2015 at 7:41PM, Edited June 7, 7:43PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

Christopher, so three questions you left unanswered: (1) How much did it cost to get the trailer made by a specialist? (2) What did you think of the trailer? I mean, I'm assuming you liked it, since you had the opportunity to comment on a first draft, but was it different from what you expected? (3) On seeing the final version, did you think you could have done it yourself and saved the money?

June 8, 2015 at 2:26AM

Adrian Tan

Hey Adrian,

Good questions. For the first question, sadly I can't answer that on NFS because as part of the negotiation, I can't divulge or publish Jump Cut's rate for our project. What I will say is they want to work with independent filmmakers and they were willing to negotiate with me after seeing the finished film to stay within my budget constraints. We did have to stretch our remaining budget to meet their requirements, though. As I think we can all agree, quality work costs money and should be part of your film's budget. I would encourage filmmakers to inquire about trailer rates with trailer houses as they create their budgets before production.

As for your second question, I chose Jump Cut based on their previous work, so I knew they would create a trailer I really liked. As part of our agreement, I gave them extra time to put together the first cut of the trailer so they could really put their best foot forward. This really helped the process so we didn't have too much work to do with revisions because the first cut of the trailer was quite good (but we did make revisions). What was different than what I expected was the music. I anticipated that we would have to license additional music for the trailer, but we had the rights to use our original score in the trailer. The majority of our score, including the main theme, is contemplative in tone, not the typical energetic music you'll hear in most trailers, especially in the 3rd act of the trailer. David and his team listened carefully to all of our music cues and pulled out every cue that was uptempo, then weaved them together in a way that was fresh and new to my ears. All of the music you hear in the trailer is in our film. That was really unexpected, and I was thrilled because it still sounds like our film and they saved us some serious money in additional licensing fees.

For your third question, I know I couldn't have created a trailer of this quality that captured the essence of the story and characters so well in two minutes and really compels viewers to want to see the film. We are a low budget film with very limited resources for marketing and distribution, and I recognized that the trailer is going to be our main vehicle for attracting an audience to our film. The overwhelmingly positive feedback we have heard about the trailer and the excitement it has generated have definitely made this investment worthwhile. I feel very fortunate to have worked with David Klagsbrun and the Jump Cut Creative team because they truly understand the art and craft of trailers.

I realize that not all filmmakers have access to even the small budget we had for our film, so trailer houses may not be in the cards. That's why I wanted to interview David so we could share his expertise with the entire NFS community. David is extremely generous with his time and thoughts, both on my project and when I asked him for this interview. So, for those filmmakers who can't afford to work with a trailer house, I hope they can take some tips from what David has shared here and use them on their own trailers.

June 8, 2015 at 10:10AM

Christopher Boone

Congratulations Christopher - I've been following your progress through these posts since the beginning, and it's great to see how things have panned out. Cents looks great and I hope it'll be a springboard that gets you going on the next project.

June 9, 2015 at 5:37PM, Edited June 9, 5:37PM

Alex Richardson

Nice article. Since I never used to be directly involved in the post work, I've only done one trailer so far. With slight modifications, my thinking very much echoes that of the thoughts by you guys here. In my case music sets the tone and pacing and the trailer follows the music - rather than the other way around.

Instead of dividing into three acts I went with the following pieces: intro, establishing, 1st act, slow-down, crescendo, 2nd more intense act, slow down, outro.
I guess I should emphasis this is a docudrama, which of course may differ from a pure drama - or a pure documentary too for that matter.

June 17, 2015 at 5:45AM, Edited June 17, 5:45AM

No Film School
CEO at Yes Film School