As indie theatre companies and creators, both UnSpun Theatre and Ahuri Theatre have made trailers for our own work in the past – whether for potential audiences or for potential producing partners. We also watch a lot of trailers, or scroll by them as they pop up on our social media feeds. We wondered: is there any magical formula that makes trailers effective? How much do audiences rely on trailers to determine what they’re going to see? What about potential partners?
We decided to watch a ton of trailers from different performance practices (theatre, live art, dance, performance art) to see if we could come up with ‘rules’ for what works and what doesn’t. We then chose a number of trailers that employed a variety of techniques and held a screening night at the Generator offices. We then put out an online survey to garner feedback on a few trailers that had sparked interesting conversations from our screening night. We also spoke to some producers and producing companies about what they look for in a trailer or short video. We compiled the responses and looked for patterns. We’ve included the emergent patterns below.
Media moves quickly and these responses reflect a moment in time, and particular dominant styles of making trailers. Many respondents noted that we need to keep up with filmmaking trends if we’re going to use film as a marketing tool, and not rely on aesthetics or approaches that have worked so far.
About our respondents:
- 100% of respondents attend live performance (generally at least 4x/year)
- 70% of respondents are art-practitioners
- 35% of respondents have made trailers in the past (mostly for the general public, some for potential partners)
Thoughts about making trailers:
“It’s our most effective marketing tool”
“It’s challenging to translate stage acting to film”
“The lack of resources is daunting”
A number of respondents noted that a show trailer they made helped secure a partner:
“Trailers raise the perceived value of a show and increase social media discussion”
Many respondents also noted the challenge in the timing of making a trailer: if you make a trailer early enough to share with potential audiences, you likely won’t have your design elements in place to film. But if you wait for the elements, you’ll miss the window of sharing the video with potential audiences.
68% of respondents watch trailers to determine if they will see a particular show (although, by the end of the survey, many later realized that they rely on trailers more than they had thought)
“I’m more influenced by graphic design and marketing”
“I’ll watch them if they happen to come up on social media”
“Trailers help me learn more about a company more than about a particular show”
67% of respondents said that a particular trailer had prompted them to see a show.
“If a trailer is everywhere I may get sucked in”
57% of respondents said that a particular trailer had made them avoid a show.
Respondents were turned off by: aesthetic, lack of diversity, preciousness, and quality of video
Creating for specific platforms:
- Respondents noted that they often watch trailers differently across different platforms. Many do not watch Facebook videos with sound, so using sound as a main source of information or mood is not always useful on Facebook or other social media.
- Respondents will usually seek out information about a company or show on their website or YouTube/Vimeo page. They expressed a willingness to watch longer videos on these sites, as opposed to social media sites.
- There is a real line between sharing a trailer enough to illicit ‘buzz’ and overexposure.
We divided the trailers into two categories: Representational Trailers and Essence Trailers.
Representational trailers usually use footage and/or audio from the show and give a sense of what the show might be about. The features of Representational Trailers that respondents liked were that they get a sense of what the performance will actually look like and a sense of the aesthetic of the piece. It was agreed that these trailers have more of a chance to be done with poor quality footage and audio and often don’t translate well to film.
Essence trailers might use footage that is completely separate from the show itself, and in some cases might be just a series of images and sound. They express a mood or try to pique curiosity. Respondents liked that these trailers don’t give too much away, communicate a feeling, and can be intriguing. These trailers can also alienate audience members or come off as dull, opaque or pretentious.
Audiences use these trailers in different ways: they go to representational trailers to get more details about a show, its style, the company, etc. They go to essence trailers to get excited about a show when they might have already heard about it.
We had just as much variety in the responses from presenters as we did from general audience viewers. Overall, it seems that presenters would really rather just watch your work live, but they mostly agreed that trailers can be a very good way for them to learn more about artists and companies whose work they don’t know well. They might also serve to get a presenter interested in work that they can then see live or learn more about from an archival video.
We spoke to presenters who produce touring work on large and small scales, as well as presenters who produce large national festivals.
Here is some of the range of responses we received:
One presenter said, “They’re useless.” They prefer to find new work “on the advice of a very trusted colleague who has seen the production and will vouch for it, by seeing the FULL live performance themselves, if not the full LIVE performance then a full length archival video.” They felt that “trailers are a possible marketing tool for public but they are not what presenters use at all.”
Another felt differently, responding “theatre trailers are very useful for presenters. When done well they provide compelling visuals, context and (hopefully) a few good reviews. (The) problem with trailers and all video is that if they aren't good, they could kill interest in the work (which may indeed be very good). Not all video production is created equal.”
One presenter and curator admitted that they hated having to watch trailers, but that it was a part of their work, and useful for learning about new companies to keep on their radar. They added that the trailer really has to accurately represent the piece if they aren’t able to see the actual show. The presenter said that they often use trailers when putting a season or festival together, as a way or presenting the work to the larger team and as a way of getting a sense of how different work might feel together.
One agent responded “I would say 120% you need a good 2-3 minute video, to sell your show to presenters (who then in turn use it to sell to their audiences) and to get pitch and showcase spots at conferences. I’m ALL for a good (and relatively short) sizzle reel!!”
The results – What to (maybe) do and what to (maybe) not do.
One caveat: there was no trailer that every respondent loved. Responses were extremely divergent. There was more of a consensus during the screening night and we suspect that the group dynamic and conversation helped shape responses. Some respondents loved trailers filled with artsy shots of fields and animals; others thought they were dull and hollow. As with anything, know your audience.
- Keep it short. Especially if you’re sharing it on social media. And especially if your content is at all repetitive – in this case, most people won’t watch past 20 seconds of material that features repetitive content.
- Tell a story (if you can). It doesn’t have to be a full narrative, and in fact, you’ll do best to focus on one or two elements of your show. It can also be an abstract narrative. But build to some sort of emotional peak.
- Interviews must have content. Audiences are leery of interview snippets that feature artists talking about how good or important a show is. They are interested in hearing an interview if there is an interesting story, process, concept about the show.
- Consider watching habits. Don’t rely on sound or music if you’re primarily sharing this content on Facebook. It needs to be compelling without sound. Consider subtitles.
- High quality footage and audio is everything. You can have a great trailer, but poor quality footage turns people off and it results in your audience assuming that the lack of expertise they’ve seen might translate to the stage. If the sound is bad, they often think the sound in the show will be bad. Consider using mics for an archival run-through to get better sound. If there’s an audience not audibly laughing at a joke, it seems like the jokes aren’t hitting. On the other hand, audiences are forgiving when they see a dull trailer with really high production values.
- The same goes for editing. Bad cuts can really stand out in a 45-second trailer.
- Give us something, but don’t give everything away. Most viewers like to get some information about a show: Is this a dance piece or a theatre piece? What is the company making this piece? If your trailer is more abstract, audiences don’t mind as long as they’re not left feeling completely confused by the material. Give them something to hold on to.
- Define yourself. Audiences responded to new, intriguing terms to define your work. Describing work as “a live film” or “an art party” piqued our respondents’ interests. Don’t be afraid to prominently feature your logo or a strong tagline.
- Be graphic. Really cool graphic design elements wowed audiences.
- Start strong. If your opening isn’t effective, much of your audience won’t keep watching.
- Use choice pull quotes if you have them. Most respondents liked pull quotes and were influenced by them, as long as they came from a variety of sources. Trailers using quotes that came only from Twitter, for example, were frowned upon. Many people noticed this and responded negatively to it. It seemed like it was better to not include quotes than to only include quotes from social media.
- Learn about film. Live performance generally doesn’t translate well to film, and the trailers that garnered the most positive feedback recognized this and used the features of film to their advantage. Some chose a representational style, but shot the performers at an interesting location or using close ups. Some were very clever about editing and sound, or using different camera angles.
“ Stage picture and screen picture are different – so just using stage blocking is not the best option.”
“Theatre is experienced live in one long “wide shot.” And I think what’s exciting to me about trailers is it’s a chance for us to get up close and intimate.”
- Don’t make me feel like I’m watching a commercial. Even though you’re using this trailer to sell an experience, allow the trailer to stand on its own as a creative storytelling tool.
- Do something different. Viewers were almost always interested in unusual approaches to sharing performance on film. Strange short films intrigued audiences and even though these films weren’t as connected to the performances themselves, respondents said they were interested in learning more about an artist or company based on the inventiveness of the material.
These are examples of trailers provided by UnSpun Theatre and Ahuri Theatre. Enjoy!