"Just Make Them Love It"

Holly Million June 8, 2009

A filmmaking friend of mine has a documentary film that made it past the first round of consideration at a film-loving foundation. They read her three-page letter of intent and invited her to submit a full proposal including a work sample. Now, she can submit either a 10-minute sample of a prior film she has successfully completed, OR she can submit a work-in-progress sample of the film now under consideration. My friend did the wise thing and called the program officer for advice. When my friend shared that advice with me, my heart froze. The program officer had said: "Yes, you should submit the work-in-progress if you can, but make them love it."

Make them love it. Make? Oh, words of dread! How do you make somebody love your film? One person may love Eraserhead (me) while another person may loathe it. The subjective nature of film is no more apparent than in the realm of funding. Many a filmmaker’s funding proposal has made it over the transom, past the foundation program officer, and into the panel review discussion only to die when somebody in the room utters these words: "I don’t like it."

Writing brilliant prose about your proposed film is a hard enough task. You’re taking the ideas that exist in your head and which will live through a visual medium and translating them into words. Flat. Two-dimensional. Words. It’s hard enough to make the ideas, the characters, the story come alive on paper in your proposal. But the writing is not as hard as cutting a work sample or trailer. Ultimately, it is the sample/trailer that causes a film project to be funded—or rejected.

Here are some of the common trailer snafus that can torpedo your funding chances as well as some tips for how you can create a trailer that can "make" them love it.

Problem: The trailer doesn’t match the proposal. It’s a Catch-22. The funder touts how they want to fund films that push the envelope, films that go where no other film has gone before. You know that’s you. You are thinking big. And you write a vivid description of your narrative/documentary/animated film shot in HD and distributed via Twitter. They love you and think you are a genius. Then they see your trailer, you know, the one for the film you haven’t raised any money for. You do your best to simulate your vision in the trailer. You don’t have the camera you want to use. You can’t pay for the animation. Of course the trailer is just a pale imitation of your unfunded vision. Sorry, they don’t get it.

Solution: Under-promise in the proposal and over-deliver in the trailer. Tone down your vision on paper so that it doesn’t sound like something completely unattainable. Then blow their socks off with the best trailer you can muster with limited funds.

Problem: The trailer tries to say too much. Who the hell are all these people? They are saying a lot of things. They’re doing random things. I’m being lectured by a voice-over narrator who is reading a long list of information. I’m watching a blow-by-blow five-minute condensed version of a 90-minute film. Blah. Blah. Blah. There is no meaning.

Solution: Less is more. You can’t tell the whole story of your film in five minutes. Don’t try. You will not succeed. Give them a tasty slice, not the whole freaking cake.

Problem: The trailer fails to hook them in the first 10 seconds. They say they want a 10-minute sample. But it’s the first few seconds to hit their eyeballs that will seal your fate. They’re bushed. They’ve watched umpteen trailers. You’re number 43. If they watch past 43 seconds, you’re doing well. Like a thoroughbred in a high-stakes race, how your project comes out of the gate determines whether you’ve won or lost.

Solution: Lead strong! Forget the wind-up and deliver the pitch. Have the viewer enter the action in progress. Slight disorientation is remarkably focusing.

Problem: The trailer lacks emotional punch. I was sitting on a grant panel a few years back. We’d read hundreds of proposals and watched dozens of samples. Then somebody popped another DVD in the player and BOOM!, we all sat up. The screen was filled with raucous crowds of women in a prison in Colombia. They were cheering on beauty pageant contestants strutting on a walkway. There was color everywhere! Ribbons! Balloons! Guards trying to hold back the screaming women. Everybody on the panel was screaming along with them. When the sample ended, we looked at each other as if to say, "What was that?!" We didn’t get any additional information from the trailer about what the film was about. But we knew we wanted to see the film just because of how the trailer made us FEEL. This was not the case with the majority of trailers we had seen.

Solution: Find the emotional intensity in your project. Collect it from the scattered corners of the film. Gather in a ball. Insert in trailer.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Amazon.com. Visit Million’s website at www.hollymillion.com and her fundraising blog at fearfreefilmfundraising.blogspot.com. She invites you to follow her on Twitter @HollyMillion. She’ll follow you back!

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