Dear Doc Doctor: What’s the best way I can start my demo to make a strong impression—especially when submitting to a very competitive grant?
Doc Doctor: Far from offering a formula that can cripple your creativity, let’s discuss some principles that can help you put your efforts in the right place. For starters, you’re on the right path when acknowledging the need for a strong beginning for a fundraising trailer, especially when having to stand out among many at a grant evaluation.
The most common misconception is thinking that a demo should start the same way a finished documentary would start, i.e., credits, some establishing long shot that creates the mood and gets those last few in the audience settled with their popcorn.
No time for popcorn when viewing a trailer, let alone when viewing a trailer in a grant evaluation situation. Trailers start with a bang, at the core of the issue. Title of the film, yes; credits, no. The opening should capture unequivocally the main conflicting issue if any, or the main topic to be discussed if topic-driven. If this can also be done symbolically, all the better. Such symbolism is well executed in the opening of the fundraising trailer of Free Swim by Jennifer Galvin, where a group of Bahamians ponder off camera why islanders don’t swim even if surrounded by water, while a kid holds a flask with a fish trapped inside. You can see it yourself at reelblue.net.
To achieve an enticing opening, ask yourself what’s the main message of your documentary? What is the burning question everybody will want to have answered by the end of your documentary? Why do we care about this topic or person? Is anybody presenting an opposing view? What’s the universal aspect of this story? What’s unique about this story? These and many more questions like them can guide you in what should be your opening scenes.
In terms of type of footage to make a lasting impression, high on the list is verité footage—or "actuality," as they call it in England; that is, an event or situation unfolding in real time in front of our eyes. If that option isn’t available because it’s not the style of your film or the main issue doesn’t come across clearly in a verité scene, a statement from a character or interviewee would be second best. It has to be a statement worthy of tabloid headlines, unlike the overused "ID" type—"My name is X, I’m this many years old, and this is my story." Those openings, more often than not, get everybody running for the remote. Go instead for humor, shock, an irreverent statement or provocative question that defines the issue.
Another option is to start with two contradictory statements from two different people. That will definitely pique viewer’s interests.
If possible avoid montages (collages of images) that do nothing to prove you’re a storyteller, but rather show what a great editor you have. Equally misleading can be long, didactic narration or long text that tells us all we’re going to see.
Once past that opening scene, the rest of the trailer has to sustain its premise. So be careful not to overdo it. Because first impressions matter—but nobody wants to be disappointed when the shock and awe of that resounding entrance wears out.
Note: The Doc is coming to San Francisco in October with workshops on story structure and fundraising trailers. For details check documentarydoctor.com.
International known author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book _Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at documentarydoctor.com
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