True To Me Too: I always thought that movie trailers were made by one guy in an editing room throwing the best scenes together and then putting some music behind. So I was curious to find out what the role of a trailer producer entails?
Scott Mitsui: I’d say the closest thing would be a project manager. We work with the editors, the graphics people, the people who write copy, I look for music sometimes, other people look for music, a lot of times the music doesn’t come from the movie it comes from the editors, or people like us, or a music supervisor. We talk to the clients so we are sort of the voice box where we talk to the studio and understand what the studio wants then oversee the project both creatively and logistically to make sure it gets done on time and that it’s what the client wants. We also work with budgets so it’s kind of an overall project manager both creatively and logistically. It’s a bunch of people, from just the creative standpoint I would say usually, a copy writer, a graphics person, an editor, a producer. I’d say at least 4 or 5 or 6 people have worked on the trailer just from the creative standpoint, and that’s before getting it out to film or projection and getting it finished basically.
What are some of the different roles?
Here I would say there’s an editor, a producer, a copywriter, a graphics person, an assistant editor, sometimes two or three editors. A lot of times they will double or triple up so there will be three different shops working on the same trailer. Especially for very big movies. It becomes a competition, everyone is vying for their trailer to be the one that finishes. Sometimes what happens is they will take a part or this trailer and a part of that trailer and kind of Frankenstein it together to create one trailer. It’s kind of a grab as to who gets the credit because you want to be the one that quote unquote finishes the trailer and the trailer that goes online is “your thing” even though it’s Frankenstein. That’s who touches it on our end. The studio has a bunch of people on their end who work on the trailer, whether it’s the vice president of marketing, the managers, the coordinators, the finishing people. There’s probably a slew of 20 people on their end who work on it.
Who has kind of the creative say on a trailer? Is it you or the studio?
The other big creative force that I’d put in there is the filmmaker. I think a lot of the time the filmmaker can be the driving force and say “this is the trailer I want” a lot of times we’ll work on the trailer with the studio and eventually the studio, depending on who the filmmaker is, we will have to put it in front of this filmmaker and the filmmaker will have to give his or her stamp of approval or they’ll have their own set of notes. Ultimately I’d say the studio typically has the end creative say but it’s definitely a collaboration. But who is the person who is at the top of the heap? It’s usually the studio and sometimes the filmmaker, but it’s rarely ever us. We are paid by the studio so we are the ones who take directions.
So you kind of have to middle man between the director and the studio to make sure everyones happy.
A lot of times we are in the middle ground trying to please both people.
I noticed you have 3 degrees. Is that a requirement in your industry?
(laughs) not at all the guy who owns this company, Mark Woollen, doesn’t have a degree and I would say that in the film business in general nobody even cares where you went to school or if you went to school. I ended up studying because I thought I was going to be a cameraman for awhile, I was a cameraman for 7 or 8 years, and the last bit of schooling I did was at the American Film Institute (AFI). At AFI they ask you to go into a specific discipline and for me it was cinematography and I did that for about 7 or 8 years and that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I eventually fell into this because I was working with Mark on a documentary and I was helping to producer that so he asked me on to help work as a producer here 12 or 13 years ago.
We rarely ask people where they went to school, it really doesn’t matter. I know that a lot of times I go back to Notre Dame, where I did my undergrad, and people will ask what do they need to do to get into this business. You really just need to have a passion and a desire and you have to be persistent and survive. I think like anything just surviving the business and being persistent and working hard at it. All the other stuff and requirements kind of fall away as long as you’re willing to put in the work. It’s hard, it’s always hard when you’re starting out for the first X amount of years until you break through. It always seems like a long climb until you get there and then you realize it was a long but it was worth it. People do ask me how do you get into this business and it’s a small business, it’s big but small, there’s maybe 30-40 shops in the world who do this seriously. Maybe there are 500 people total in the world who are experts at this, and you really do need to be an expert, when we look for people we are looking for people who are already doing this, unless you’re trying to come up through the assistant level and you’re growing into it. It’s a really small business to get into but once you’re in it you become a hot commodity because it’s such a small group and when people need people they sort of just look within that industry in order to find talent.
What’s the difference between being a skilled editor who can cut a trailer together technically versus a producer who is able to make a trailer that connects with the audience?
You bring up a good point, it’s sort of art versus commerce. Ultimately these movies have huge budgets and they have to make money, so we’re always trying to find the clearest way to tell a story because people really really want to know story. One of the biggest complaints, I’m sure this is a question you were going to ask, is why do you tell so much of the story? I’ll tell you why. Typically when we test trailers the number one thing people say is “I don’t understand what this character is doing” so you put those moments in and you test the trailer again and suddenly the numbers go higher because they understand what’s going on. So they say “oh I’ll go see that movie now” so it’s a complaint but it’s also a double edged sword, people don’t want to know but then they do want to know. When you test something they always want to know. We probably at times go too far. I think for us we are also known as the place that does things that are more artistic, if you look at a Little Children trailer or even The Social Network, those are some that people responded to that weren’t really as obvious.
I was going to bring it up, your latest trailer for Only God Forgives gives pretty much nothing away but still looks amazing. How do you balance attracting people to the movie without going too far and scaring them off by giving away too much?
Only God Forgives is a teaser. Sometimes they’ll do a teaser then a trailer and teaser is always the minimal amount, I think it’s about a minute. Whereas a trailer will go into depth about the story, it will give you more character, more dialog, there will be an Only God Forgives trailer eventually. Part of it is our expectations of the movie, you can probably take more chances with smaller movies, on smaller titles the studio is willing to be a little bit more risky with the advertising. That’s something that’s important. If it’s a huge huge movie they are defiantly going to want to put in all the explosions and tell the story because they can’t take any chances and they have to make their 100 or 200 million dollars. If the movie was only made for 2 or 3 million dollars you can be a little more risky and know that it probably isn’t going to have the explosions or the stars or the traditional rom-com storyline that people will see and say “oh I’m going to go watch these two people fall in love” you have to market the movie in a way that’s appealing to the audience of people who will see that movie.
So there are teasers, trailers, redband trailers, tv spots, do you do all of those?
We do. Typically most houses will do all forms of trailers. It’s all under the theatrical advertising banner. Home video is it’s own thing, which we don’t do.
How do you choose what goes in the trailer versus what goes in the TV spot or the teaser?
If you broke down a typical campaign, let’s say it starts with a teaser, which is more of an announcement piece, you will find out who the cast is, it will be short, there will be maybe one or two bits of dialog. Sometimes it will happen a year before the movie even shoots, like with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, it might just be a logo or a graphic treatment with voices if they don’t have a lot of footage. I remember when the Dark Knight Rises came out there was just that one scene, which was a teaser of Gary Oldman in the hospital talking about Batman. So you can take that one scene and add a graphic or something. The first piece, the teaser, will always be an announcement piece. The trailer will then go more into depth about story and character and give the audience an understanding of that. With TV you’re trying to reach a specific audience, which is related to where you’re placing that ad. If you’re putting it on a specific show you could be trying to reach 14-55 year old males or you’re trying to reach females so you’ll make a different spot and you’re putting in moments that are typically going to reach that audience, which might be women over 45 or kids, with Super 8, we had to make a kids spot. Trailers are more of a general thing and then with TV because you’re targeting a a certain TV shows audience and time slot and you’re becoming more specific about who is going to watch it.
You mentioned that the movie might not even be made and sometimes you’ll see scenes in the trailer that aren’t even in the movie. Do you get the whole movie before you start the trailer? How many times do you watch the movie during the process?
Sometimes we start with just parts of the movie. Sometimes you’re working with dailies so we have to assemble the whole movie together from the dailies, so we’re almost making our own cut. It all depends. Sometimes we get the whole movie cut as is and we’re working with that, which is a lot of times the best. A lot of times things end up in the trailer that aren’t in the movie because in the earlier cuts those parts were in the movie and we started using them and those moments would get tested and they may test well or they may have taken out part of the story for the current cut of the feature. I do think that we’ve gotten better at only including things that are in the most recent cut of the feature. Sometimes the changes can happen after we put the trailer out, especially if we’re doing a teaser then a trailer because it’s so early.
How many times we watch the movie is hard to say because we end up breaking down the movie into selects. I’ll take a 2 hour movie and break it down into 20 minute selects. We’ll have dialog selects and visual selects. You might look at one moment 50 or 70 or 80 times, if you’re going from teaser to TV spots you could be looking at the same moment literally hundreds of times It’s not far fetched to say that you’ve seen it over a hundred times. You get to know it quite well.
Do people approach you or do you approach people? How do you get projects?
It’s a little bit of both. We approach studios or sometimes filmmakers will come to us. A lot of times studios will know, different shops get known for different things, so a lot of times we’ll get the Academy Award type movies. It goes both ways a lot of times we’ll call asking for projects, which we may or may not get, and then studios will bring us stuff. Sometimes filmmakers themselves will say “hey we want you to use these guys we have a really good relationship with them”. It comes from a variety of different ways.
So it’s important to build and establish those relationships.
Absolutely. People want to work with people they know and people they trust and they know that they’re going to end up getting that thing they need. It’s such a fast business. People want things so quickly and with nonlinear editing and how fast people can cut now and technology being as it is the expectation of moving things around and getting things to people has changed that timetable. It’s gotten really really short.
I’ve seen some really great trailers for some maybe not so great movies, obviously you guys do the best you can but how much responsibility is placed on you for the success or failure of a film?
I always think that we get too much credit when a movie is successful and too much blame when it’s not. I like to think that good movies always do well and not so great movies don’t but that’s not necessarily true. I think we are responsible for opening weekend but what it does beyond that is suddenly word of mouth getting out and the movie is what it is. But we probably have more responsibility for what happens opening week. Then again I feel like it’s a little bit too much credit and not all the blame but certainly some of it, we’re responsible for sure. We can definitely make things better and we all do try to make them as good as we can.
Trailers are now subject to instant review and feedback as soon as they’re released online. Do you take that into consideration? Does it change how you work?
I guess we do. It’s interesting how maybe 10 years ago there was a lot less of this but now you see all the comments under every trailer. It’s important to understand how people are reacting to your work. Just like any artists or filmmaker or musician, I think would want to know but at the same time you do have to turn it off and just trust yourself and your experience. I imagine it’s sort of like a filmmaker reading the trades or hearing a review. I choose to probably read less of that than some other people, I know other people in our industry will read a lot of it but I usually don’t. I will read certain places like Jo Blo or certain blogs that are specific to movie advertising where I respect their opinion a little bit more. I’ll read what they have to say because you want to know what your audience is thinking, it’s just part of knowing culturally what people are responding to these days. That’s important.
When you started out the technology wasn’t as readily available as it is now but now they teach basic editing in a lot of high schools, is that making the job market more competitive for people who are starting out? With more people having these skills how do you keep a competitive advantage?
I think you constantly have to find young talent. That’s a really important thing because young people or just people at different ages can bring a sort of energy and culturally they are at a different place in their lives. They are listening to different kinds of music, watching different kinds of movies, so there always has to be a part of our company that constantly stays young. We always try to be conscious of that, we always have to have a component of our company that is in touch with what is happening now. In any company, especially when you’re dealing with what I’ll call pop culture, you’re dealing with something that is culturally now, you really need to be current, you can’t just think that your old tricks or the thing you did 10 years ago you can still do today. You constantly have to reinvent yourself because somebody will chase you down.
You can make the analogy to professional sports that you constantly have to update your roster because you need to have those young guys to bring the energy and a new style of play if you will. Even for ourselves we have to be up to date on music and movies and culture. You understand what people are talking about, you don’t want to be known as “oh that guy he’s a dinosaur, I made this reference and he didn’t know who this person was or what this song was” that’s a big thing. Music is such a big thing in our industry, you really need to know it. Probably only two years ago there was no dubstep but there has probably been dubstep in 5 to 8 different things now and that’s sort of because the music is trending that way. Films that are targeted towards young people will have that kind of music, like Spring Breakers had some very current music from Skrillex.
I noticed some of those trends, back in the 80s and 90s every trailer had a voiceover narrator but you don’t really see that anymore.
It’s a lot faster. Cutting has been a lot faster recently just the editorial and pacing of things and it’s been very very music driven. Way more sound driven, sound effect driven, especially with all the action movies and superhero movies, you can hear how sound driven those trailers are. That’s a relatively recent thing where you really have to be on top of your game in sound to be competitive in this business nowadays.
Like with the sound effect from the Inception trailer that became such a big trend?
That particular sound, that horn, I’d go one step further and say if you look at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre trailer, if you haven’t seen it, watch it. To me that was the beginning, it was an editor named Bill Neil, who still works today and is a really good horror trailer editor, go look at that and that was the first time I think where this sound device became the sort of one little sound device that was repetitive and started this trend.
Are there any different genres that you don’t do that you might want to try? Like animation or comedy?
I think people always want to do the things that they don’t get to do. I would have loved to have worked on Les Misérables, I think we could have done a great job on that. It’s always a challenge, I just like working on good movies. I tend to like the more Academy or indie type movies but it doesn’t really matter to me what we work on because sometimes they’re easy and sometimes they’re hard but things are rarely the same. You’ll never say “oh this is like last week” this week is never like last week, it’s never the same because movies keep changing. It’s never boring. My job is never boring. The problems you face week to week are always different. I would love to work on a Dark Knight type of thing, it would be kind of fun to work on a superhero movie once and a while but I feel pretty happy about the kinds of movies we’ve got to work on.
Are there any particular trailers that you are especially proud of?
I would definitely say The Social Network because I think people really responded to that culturally. I really liked Beginners, it’s a smaller movie with Christopher Plummer. I also liked working on Milk. A Serious Man was an unusual trailer and it was a lot of fun working on that.
Do you remember any of your first projects coming in?
If I had to go back and point to one of the first movies that I worked on that I really liked it would be Lost in Translation. I really liked that movie and I loved everything about it. I like the trailer a lot. There’s a really great copy line in that I think says “sometimes you have to go around the world to come full circle” or something like that and if you get to the end of the trailer that copy line makes the trailer work for me. It’s sort of a feel good trailer in some way and Bill Murray is so funny in that movie. There are some movies where you never get tired of working on it and I never got tired of working on that one.
How long do you have between getting the footage and having to produce a trailer to air?
That varies. Usually it’s a couple of months, it could be two months, it could be six months. From when you get the movie to when they want to see version one of the cut, I’d say a decent timetable now is 2 weeks. Sometimes people need to see something in a week, or three or four days, which is really hard to do, it’s really hard to pull a trailer together in three or four days, you really would have to put a couple of editors on it and work around the clock just to get something that’s good.
What would be the day-to-day process for that?
It usually takes people 2 days to break the movie down, to pull visual selects, pull dialog selects, organize those things, so you’re already a day and a half or two days in and then you really just have a day or two to put the structure together and fill it out and find the music. It’s hard to do something really great in such a short timetable. It usually takes weeks or months to really perfect something and do something great.
What are some important positions within your industry that people might not know about?
Certainly the editor comes first but I would say a music supervisor is really important nowadays. Copywriters, the text cards you see in movies, there are people who all the do is write that stuff as well as what the narrator says in TV spots that describe the movie or break the movie down, there’s a writer who is writing that stuff. I would say that those are two positions that people don’t initially think about when they think about trailers. Copywriters and music supervisors.
Is there a path someone could take to get into trailer production?
I would say the most likely way to get into this business, well, you can go in through two sides. If you’re talking about actually working on the trailer and not the studio side, because the studio side is a whole different thing, you can go back and forth a little bit from trailer to studio but you probably want to start out on the studio side and work there. But for us if you’re not already in the business then you’re either trying to come in as a production assistant or a runner or work in the front office or intern. Some of our editors were assistant editors before that and before that they were interns. Like most businesses you get your foot in the door of the business you’re interested in and you try to work your way up. We like to promote from within so we look at our interns or the person at the front desk or the assistant editors as the next people to move up. We’re always looking for younger talent to drive us. I would say contacting those trailer places you’re interested in, calling them, trying to get an internship, try to be a runner or production assistant, just get your foot in the door. Once your foot is in the door you can get a sense of the business and segue into maybe being a producer or a writer or an editor or graphics person, it’s really easy to do that once you get your foot in the door. These places all need people, everyones always looking for people.
Do you judge that based on reels and portfolios?
Sometimes, for me I like to just talk to the people and get a sense of them, especially for the entry level positions. For me it’s always been more about the people rather than their experience. I always think you can teach people new skills or they can get experience but you can’t change the core of who they are. If you can get a good person in your company you can always teach them certain things but you can’t teach them creativity or determination or taste or all of those other good qualities that you want. They either are or they’re not. Having a 20 minute conversation about where they’ve been, what they want to do, what movies they like, or music they like, you can really get a sense of someone and their potential. For me that’s more important than what’s on a piece of paper or even a reel. A reel is helpful but for me it’s more about the person.
What is the most stressful part of your job?
I would say scheduling and keeping the project moving forward. Managing people is always tough. Expectations, the expectations of the studio and time, and like I said I think timetables are shrinking. I think filmmakers fight the same thing, to make something good you need time, money, I can’t remember what the third thing was, it’s that triangle, maybe resources. Time, money, and resources and when you shrink the time table you need a ton of people and a ton of money and just managing that is the hardest thing. Managing people is hard in this business because it takes so many different components to make something work and it’s hard enough to do the creative side of it and the logistic side of it but when you have to deal with the personalities, I guess it’s just like managing people anywhere at any job.
You mentioned you worked as a cameraman and you produced Jam, the roller derby documentary, what were some of your earlier jobs when you were getting into the industry?
Because I wanted to become a cameraman I worked in grip electric or I was an assistant cameraman. I worked on a lot of industrials and commercials as a cameraman or gaffer. A lot of low budget indies. The last project I worked on was probably 13 years ago. By working in production and then flipping into post-production, they are very different experiences because in production you are at the mercy of some many things that are out of your control. Whereas post production you’re in an office, you go to the same place everyday, you work with the footage in front of you, you’re still creating something that doesn’t exist but it’s a lot more manageable. In production it’s kind of a giant gorilla, like King Kong, and you might have one foot and someone else has another foot and you’re all trying to manage this thing and get it moving in the same direction, if you can get it to just walk forward you’re lucky. Production is a great experience for people, a learning experience, I think you have to use a lot more social skills because you constantly have to look for your next job, once your show is done then you’re on to the the next thing. Your networking has to be amazing, your people skills need to be really good. You’re always working with new people, this week you might be working with these 50 people and next week you might be working with a whole new set of people whereas now I pretty much work with the same people everyday.
What are some of the most important things you learned on the job or in school that you use today?
In school it’s not exactly the content you learn but I think you learn how to think critically and that’s important, critical thinking is when you get new problem and need to figure a new way of presenting it or how you’re going to fix it. It’s not about the facts that you learned or the books that you’ve read, it’s about how you’re going to tell the story. That’s one thing that’s always been driven hard into me in every place, especially AFI, what story are you trying to tell? In a trailer what story am I trying to tell? Constantly keeping that in mind. I would say first and foremost it would be that constant reminder of point of view and who is your audience.
I’ll go back to perseverance, the people who are still around after 10 or 15 years are the people who just persevered. I’m not sure I have any more or any less talent than the next guy but I was willing to stick it out and to fight for it. It’s hard, there are people who I can look at and say “that person has a tremendous amount of talent” but if you don’t have a tremendous amount of talent the way you can make up for it is by persevering and I think being good to people. People have to like you because whether you’re in production or post-production you spend 10-14 hours a day with these people and if people don’t like you you’re not going to last that long. It just doesn’t work that way. Unless you have a ton of money and you’re paying people to exist around you (laughs).
Do you have any final advice for someone looking to get into the movie trailer industry?
I would say truly don’t think that you’re going to segue into this industry, in other words if you really want to be in this industry go to the places who are doing this and take the best job that they’ll offer you. Especially when you’re starting out, take whatever you can because that will change quickly. This business is so mobile, there are so many opportunities to be upwardly mobile so your job and what you do will change in 6 months or 2 years. You’ll find yourself quickly moving up. Don’t worry too much about what your initial job is if this is what you’re really interested in. Just go and take whatever you can get and then work your way through to find out what you want to do. You’ll make your way, and you’ll swim upward pretty quickly.
To watch more of Scott’s work www.markwoollen.com/reels/?v=20130513154516