Insider Trading: Five Things Every Feature Doc-Maker Should Know

How to cut a trailer
January 1, 2005

How to cut a trailer
Charlie Sadoff, president, Mighty Pictures

Whether you’re making a trailer of your feature doc in order to raise money, get distribution or put butts in seats, you’ve got to tell a story. The best trailers tell a simple story that reflects the core emotions and themes of the movie itself. After watching the trailer, it’s not enough to simply know what the movie is about, viewers should also have a sense of what the experience of watching the film will be like.

Picking the right story to tell is a unique challenge for every trailer. The following are some guidelines that are useful no matter what film you’re working on:

Length: Two minutes max. If you can’t tell the story in under two minutes, you’re either not telling the right story, or you’re telling too much of it.

Music: Good music is vital to a good trailer and a good documentary director will have put a great deal of effort into finding music that underscores the important themes and emotions in the film. The trailer should reflect those themes. If possible, use music from the film.

To vo or not to vo: You don’t need a narrator, especially with documentary trailers. Let sound from the film take the story forward and use title cards if necessary to help with structure.

IMDB, Apple Quicktime, Rotten Tomatoes, etc. are great resources for viewing existing trailers. There’s no shame in learning from work you admire.

Charlie Sadoff is the founder of New York-based Mighty Pictures. A producer, writer and editor, he has cut trailers for Miramax, Paramount, Film Movement and The Shooting Gallery.

Get paid to play the fests
Mark Stolaroff, principal, Antic Pictures

Screening fees are one of those dirty little secrets that festivals don’t want you to know about. If you’ve got a hot doc and they want it, they’re probably willing to pay for it. How much to ask for and how much you’ll get is based on how badly a festival wants your film, and how ‘rich’ the festival is. Most of the high-profile festivals, such as Sundance, Toronto and Berlin, don’t pay screening fees. But some fests expect to pay for films and have lots of money to spend.

To maximize potential fees, be proactive. If two festivals want your film, let them know – they may try to out-bid each other. Saying, ‘I only have two prints that are already spoken for, I’ll need money to strike a third,’ is also a legitimate argument.

Identify festivals that might want your film and then get on the phone. This is easier if the doc appeals to a niche audience. I was involved with a Jewish documentary a few years ago that did very well with screening fees. After premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won the audience award for best documentary, and then playing tiff, we were able to secure screening fees from a number of domestic Jewish film fests, including Miami, Boston, Palm Beach and Washington, D.C. We averaged about US$400 per festival and garnered as much as $1,100 from one. We were able to ask a little more from the international Jewish festivals such as Barcelona, Stockholm, Montreal and Berlin, receiving $350 to $900 per festival.

All in all, a diligent filmmaker with a sought-after film can expect to make a handy little sum. Coupled with potential prize money, you just might be able to pay back your investors, or pay down some of those credit cards.

Mark Stolaroff is an L.A.-based producer and former principal of Next Wave Films. He has been involved with several award-winning docs, including Sound & Fury, Southern Comfort and Blue Vinyl.

How to nab a buyer
Eric d’Arbeloff, co-president, Roadside Attractions

Rights: Know your rights before you screen. Distributors might help clear clip and music rights on films they want, but they may also back off if they anticipate problems. Consider how you’ll finish the film, even with a low distribution advance.

Representation: Hiring a producers’ representative and/or lawyer usually pays. A rep can strategize a worldwide plan for selling the film and explain the long-term ramifications of each proposed deal.

Screening: Good content shines through, but presentation is important. Prestigious film festivals can raise the perception of your film and get decision-makers in the room. It might be better, however, to be the top film at a second-tier festival. No matter where you premiere, get a good time slot and test the projection.

The Sell: Don’t screen the film until you are ready to sell it. At major film festivals, distributors are on a mission to buy movies. If you delay or are not prepared, their enthusiasm can cool. But trust your instincts – while a big advance is great, you want a distributor who will be enthusiastic and innovative through the release.

Eric d’Arbeloff is co-president of Roadside Attractions, a theatrical releasing company in L.A. In 2004, the company released Super Size Me in partnership with Goldwyn Films.

Don’t put subtitles in your negative
Jan Rofekamp, CEO, Films Transit

If you foresee foreign theatrical distribution for your film, you need to make 35mm film prints that have space for subtitles. Too often, filmmakers spend the $30,000 necessary to make a 35mm negative (and trailer) without thinking about this issue. Consequently, they produce a negative using their domestic-language master that includes onscreen text, captions (lower thirds) and sometimes subtitles. As a result, everything on their domestic version is also on the 35mm negative and subsequent prints. The foreign buyer will scream: ‘There’s no space for subtitles, send the textless negative right away!’ Oops.

Avoid this problem by creating a final version with no titles or onscreen text on the lower space of the frame. And if a film has subtitles, filmmakers need to create a textless negative.

The Corporation has a scene from Bolivia with English subtitles, so a special textless 35mm inter-negative part had to be created to make subtitle-less prints for foreign language territories.

Jan Rofekamp is the founder of Films Transit, a Montreal-based company that specializes in the worldwide release and marketing of theatrical docs. He is currently distributing Shape of the Moon, Shake Hands with the Devil and many more.

How to generate that blessed buzz
Mickey Cottrell, president, MC Film PR

Before I get into the dos and don’ts of making your film buzz like a swarm of locusts, let me say this: Be sure to make a film that people want to see. If you don’t have fascinating matters to traverse, any bid for publicity won’t add up to a hill of empty film cans. That said… The length of a PR campaign varies, but I break it down to a general timeline: production, festivals, release, awards. Budget for a publicist, even if it’s $100 for a generous flack to come on set for a couple hours and see what you’re up to. Also budget for a photographer; you’ll scream and then weep if you have go to the expense of pulling shots from the print or video. And before you forget the best stories, have someone interview the filmmaking team; you’ll need the production notes or history for your press kit.

I have always insisted on being paid in advance, except in the case of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation. They had no money for a publicist, so I charged them the standard fee and said, ‘Pay me when you get a distributor, and be sure I am paid out of the first monies that come in.’ When Wellspring picked it up one month after Sundance, that’s exactly what happened.

In 2005, Mickey Cottrell celebrates 25 years as a film publicist. Prior to Tarnation, he handled Tom Peosay’s doc Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion, which grossed over $600,000 in the U.S. and Canada. He also designed the PR campaign for the producer’s Oscar-winning film Broken Rainbow.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.