Creating an effective theatre trailer in 4 simple steps
By Diep Tran
When you go to the movies, the first thing to appear on the screen are the trailers. Their function is to make you want to see another movie, for the price of another ticket, in a never-ending cycle of entertainment.
Trailers have long been the province of film, television and the high-budget (usually commercial) theatre, providing short, narrated snippets of work that's coming soon to a venue near you. "The trailer, as an idea, is embedded in our culture. Everybody knows what they are," says Thomas Weitz, digital assets director for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, who oversees that theatre's trailer-making process.
Video-sharing sites such as YouTube have made it possible for many theatres to post backstage antics, informational interviews and/or fully produced trailers on their channel. The phrase "Going Hollywood" is ever more appropriate. "There's so much we can do online," says Courtney Perez, director of marketing for Two River Theater Company in New Jersey. "Trailers are the easiest way for us to convey our vision to the audience, with all the design elements."
As yet, there is no template for constructing a theatre trailer, which is why looks vary so widely from company to company. Steppenwolf creates animated footage. Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company films limited scenes from the play just for the video. New York Theatre Workshop and Two River film entire productions and then edit highlights together. These companies have all integrated online trailers into their marketing schemes for new shows. And they also agree on the one thing that a good trailer needs to do: "It makes me want to see that production," says Seth Rozin, producing artistic director of InterAct.
Step 1: Plan the Budget
The money for a theatre trailer usually comes from the marketing budget. According to Perez, Two River's trailers cost about $1,000 each, "less than 5 percent of a budget for a given show, which is between $30,000 and 40,000."
InterAct pays around $500, at $50 an hour, a figure that even Rozin admits is "really cheap." That is because their videographer is a recent college graduate. "He knows he's doing it for cheap, but it's extra money for not much work."
At Steppenwolf, a bigger budget allows the trailers to be created in-house, a process that is no longer as cost-prohibitive as it used to be. "The last few years, the equipment has changed. You can now produce high-quality video with relatively cheap equip-ment," Weitz notes.
Steppenwolf videos are constructed using Motion, an animation software for Mac computers that retails for $49.99. The cost of trailers for Steppenwolf productions has ranged from $80 for E.L. Doctorow's The March, which used animated production shots, voice-overs and music; to nearly $4,000-the most expensive yet-for the teaser to Enda Walsh's Penelope, which relied on hiring a team of animators and illustrators.
Step 2: Have a Plan
The typical run of a show at a theatre is three weeks to a month, with a week of previews. Planning out a trailer to fit that time frame is not just the job of the marketing department. "There are a lot of conversations between our marketing and artistic divisions and our videographer Erik Pearson, so we're all on the same page," says Two River's Perez.
Once the concept is set, Pearson then films a show's final dress rehearsal. Video editing takes place during previews and the trailer is released on, or around, opening night. "We're running against time," Perez admits. "But if there are edits, we don't want to put something out that we're not happy with." Weitz says the goal next year at Steppenwolf is to get trailers released sooner. The only problem is the theatre does not start company readings for its shows until about two months before opening. "You run the risk of starting prematurely and having a trailer that's out of joint with the rest of the marketing campaign," he says.
Step 3: Find a Tone
New York Theatre Workshop ships out its online videos to Kornhaber Brown, a New York-based digital video company. The trailer for the musical Once, which transferred to Broadway, utilizes music and dialogue from the show intercut with filmed footage. Eric Brown--a Kornhaber Brown co-founder, producer and director-believes that trailers need to contain a story arc. "Good trailers set up an interest in the characters and intrigue about the story, and they give you just enough information to get you excited," he says.
Kornhaber Brown uses strategies found in film to make theatre footage pop on the computer screen, such as filming with multiple cameras (they use three). "One of the reason theatre usually feels flat in electronic media is that people shoot it as though the camera is the audience," surmises Andrew Kornhaber, the company's other founder, producer and director. "There's a difference between what looks good on YouTube and what looks good in a theatre. We approach it as filmmakers making movies, with close-ups, for example."
But how do you make sure the audience knows what the show is about in only a couple of minutes? At Two River, footage from the show, known as b-roll, is usually intercut with shots of artistic director John Dias explaining the themes of the play. "We want it to be informative, energetic and true to what people are going to see," Perez says. "And you can't do all that with b-roll alone."
Every play is different, and so is every trailer. At Interact, sometimes the trailers contain different scenes in quick succession; other times there are long, drawn-out shots. "For Sarah Treem's The How and the Why, we filmed one scene, so it was like a drama on television where the camera would hold on one person and then move to another," says Rozin. "If the show is episodic and bounces around in time and place, the video has to do the same."
Meanwhile, Steppenwolf takes a more evocative approach with its trailers. For Will Eno's Middletown, a monologue from the playa speech about dust and the universewas laid over animated images and tinkling musical notes in the background, emphasizing the play's whimsical tone and dreamy language. "You can't represent the experience of the show through the literal depiction of it," Weitz asserts. "We want our trailers to be evocative, not representational. We want something that feels like a stand-alone piece of artwork."
Step 4: Release It
Now that a filmed piece of theatre is available for distribution, it's time to let it loose. That is where the Internet comes in, where video-sharing is cheaper than running a commercial on television, and can reach a wider audience.
New York Theatre Workshop puts its trailers up on YouTube and also sends them to the websites Playbill and TheaterMania. As of press time, the trailer for Once has received more than 70,000 views on YouTube. In addition to that booming site, Two River sends its videos to the local press, and InterAct places its videos on the company's Facebook page.
The big question is: Are they effective? "We don't have any way of knowing how many people who watch our trailers end up coming to see our shows," Rozin admits.
Nevertheless, "The fact that people are watching, commenting and Tweeting about the trailers…that's valuable to us," Weitz says. "Our primary goal is ticket sales, but the secondary goal is to spur conversation, either about the piece itself or about Steppenwolf."