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Breaking into Trailers

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Some advice about how to become a movie-trailer editor.

by David Malki !

Please note: I am now retired from working in trailers. This information was current when I wrote it in 2009, but I have no way of knowing how much, if at all, things have changed since then. As much as I would like to be able to, I cannot help you get a job nor can I offer advice about the current state of the industry. I am too busy writing ridiculous comic strips. Good luck!

I've worked on motion picture advertising campaigns for every major studio. My editorial reel is online here, and I'm the reasonably-gregarious creator of a comic strip, here, so I tend to get a lot of inquiries from people looking to break into the film industry, or become editors, or trailer editors specifically.

This article is not meant to be any sort of comprehensive guide -- rather, it's a very loose collection of bits of advice that I've given to people over the years, and now it's all in one convenient place. Hopefully it's of some use to you.

If I've pointed you to this article because you've asked me for help, I apologize for not crafting a more personal response. I think there's probably more info here than I'd be able to tell you in an email anyway.

Also, please check out this thread on my old messageboard, where I answered some of the most common questions about trailers themselves -- such as "Do you get to watch the entire film?" and "Why are there shots in the trailer that aren't in the movie?" Unfortunately I'm not answering new questions; I just don't have the time anymore.

On to it, then:

Who makes movie trailers?

Depending on the studio and the project, the marketing work is often split between the studio's in-house marketing department and one or more outside agencies. These agencies are known colloquially as "trailer houses." Here's a list of the main ones.

From that list, you can check out their websites, if you like, to see what sort of work they do. 80-90% of trailer houses are located in L.A., and the rest are in New York (these are usually subsidiary divisions of larger ad agencies). Some trailer houses do exclusively movie marketing (incl. home video commercials, posters, billboards, etc.) and others do all sorts of film and design work (product commercials, main title sequences, network branding, etc.).

Trailer houses have staffs of writers, producers, editors and animators, and in addition, they may hire freelancers for particular projects. I've worked as a staff editor (working on whatever project I was assigned, often on several different campaigns at once) before, but I am currently a freelancer. Which means that I might come into an agency for a month to fill in for an editor on vacation (picking up whatever they were working on, then handing it over to someone else when I leave), or I might be hired on a per-project basis. I've also worked for clients directly using my own system at home (largely for independent projects that can't afford to go to an agency).

The most common way to become a trailer editor is to start at an agency in an entry-level position, and work your way up from inside the company. Then you've got a job, or, once you have a reel of work, you can move to another agency or strike out on your own if you like.

What's a typical day at the job like?

My job involves translating scripts generated by copywriters or marketing exectives into edited trailers, tv spots, or radio spots. Unlike many jobs, trailer editing is usually project-specific, so over the course of a year I may work on many different types of campaigns for many different movies, and the content and hours of my job are widely variable.

On a typical morning, I will power up my editing console and work on the day's cuts. A 30-second TV spot may take me a day or two to cut from scratch, and I usually work alone for a while until the spot is refined enough to show my producer. When it's ready, or if I've hit a trouble patch and can't seem to make it quite work right, I'll call in the producer and show it to him/her and get notes. We'll work together for a bit to make the spot make more sense or be funnier or scarier or whatever's necessary, or if the producer asks for a lot of changes I will work alone for a while and then call them back in later.

Often we can show video to the client, in their office, directly from our edit bay by using a fiber optic connection. Other times we will make DV tapes of the spots and have them delivered to the client via messenger, or make QuickTimes to email them. Once a spot goes to a client, we will usually have notes and revisions from them. The changes requested may be content-related ("I didn't get this joke, make it more clear") or marketing-related ("show more of the baby, moms like the baby") or logistical ("we can't license that music, find another song to use"). Depending on the deadlines, a typical day may be 8 hours or it may be 16 hours.

Repeat for months at a time.

Do you have to live in L.A. to be a trailer editor?

There are some trailer editors around who don't live in L.A., but typically they are people who started in L.A., developed a reputation, and then had the freedom to move away and set up shop over the Internet. I've never heard of anyone starting to work in the central aspects of the business without being here in town, largely because being in-house at the major agencies, where you can sit in on meetings, talk to clients on speakerphone, etc. is so much more efficient a process than working from home. (Of course, there is a certain amount of promo work available in any city with television stations, cable network offices, and/or an indie film community).

If you have the capacity to work over the Internet (posting QuickTimes online and such) you can watch the L.A. Craigslist for small jobs. To land those you will likely have to have an online reel people can review. You can also advertise your services on the L.A. Craigslist; there are plenty of indie filmmakers in this town who have more tolerance for inconvenience than they do money, so if you don't charge much you will likely find some takers. I don't recommend the following practice, but people do it -- they spam any listing for actors, crew, locations etc. with a message advertising their rental house or insurance company or cinematographer's reel or whatever. I always hate getting that spam, but I have to admit that occasionally when I'm in a crunch I have given those people a call.

Anyway, that might not get you a trailer gig, but it'll help you build your reel.

Will having a great editorial reel get me a job in trailers?

A big reason why it's difficult to break into trailers from a peripheral part of the industry is because most of the job involves knowing the specifics of the studio marketing process -- stuff you pick up from experience. Even someone with great editorial skills can't walk in the door knowing how to anticipate the direction of a campaign or knowing the million shortcuts that you develop working with certain clients on certain types of movies. That's why the typical route to trailer editing involves working up from within an agency as an assistant editor, where you can get used to the quirks of this business in particular.

But if you want to get a head start, I would recommend developing a reel of trailer and promo work. You can cut your own spec trailers for movies that you like (although I would recommend choosing ones that didn't have particularly memorable advertising, so you can show off your creativity without your work being compared to a great trailer that people still remember), and once you're comfortable with the format you can offer your services to independent films in your area. Students from a local film school would love to have you cut trailers for them, if you just want to build up a reel and don't charge them much, or at all.

Once you have a reel of marketing/promo work, you can send DVDs to trailer houses. Even if they don't have a position right away, they usually keep that kind of stuff on file. Most of the big houses spend about a third of their time working on cheesy corporate reels for big studio presentations, and often they hate wasting their trailer editors on that stuff. If you can do that kind of work, you might get lucky if your DVD lands on the right desk at the right time. It could be a good way in the door despite your lack of agency experience.

If you're willing to step down to assistant editor for a while you can probably use a reel (and a resumé highlighting your technical expertise) to get in that way too. Agencies fill those jobs with people they can groom into editors. More and more agencies, especially the newer ones, are using Final Cut Pro, but truthfully everyone nowadays is a Final Cut Pro editor -- having Avid experience as well sets you ahead of the pack.

How did you become a trailer editor?

I never set out looking to be a trailer editor specifically, although the thought was in the back of my mind. I wanted to be a director, like practically every film school graduate. But a friend got a job (through a temp agency) as a receptionist at a trailer house, so I seized the opportunity, had her submit a resumé for me, and started as an entry-level runner. From there, it was a matter of being smart, attentive, learning the environment and the technology, keeping my eyes and ears open, being a fun, easygoing person to work with, and making sure that everyone knew that I was looking for opportunities to prove myself.

Sure enough, I became known around the office as the go-to guy for creative solutions to weird problems (mostly administrative or technical, remember I was still working as a gofer type) and so when various weird projects came through that they didn't want to pay an editor to do (favors for the boss's friends and such) they called me in and I showed them that I was good to go. From there it was just a matter of paying my dues and being reliable. I was an assistant editor for a while (on a gnarly night shift) and then, again, continued to take on more and more challenging projects and prove myself capable (as well as being friendly, funny and easygoing, which is more than half of the trick).

How should I try to get that first job at a trailer house?

There are a million ways and 999,995 of them are totally random and happenstance, so it does me no good to outline them here. Some people have had luck getting placed in an entry-level position by a temp agency or recommendation from a friend.

Here's what I'd recommend. Look at this list of trailer houses again. You can see from the area codes basically where they are located. Most are in L.A. (Hollywood, Burbank, and Santa Monica, mostly) but some are in New York. You can Google the agencies' names to find out more about them and the specific type of work that they do -- some of them have more of a web presence than others.

The people in this business are human, too, and they are polite and friendly for the most part. So, my advice to you is to start calling those numbers on that page. You will talk to an assistant or receptionist. Ask for the person listed (in most cases those are the P.R. people), and say you are interested in a summer internship. Be polite and friendly; address the assistant or receptionist by name if they mention it; they will probably take down your name and someone may or may not get back to you. Don't feel bad if they don't. DO NOT KEEP BUGGING THEM IF THEY DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO YOU! DO NOT PESTER THEM WITH RANDOM QUESTIONS ABOUT THE INDUSTRY!

If it's a place you're interested in following up with, call back in a few days (things get busy), remind the receptionist who you are and when you called before (use their name! be friendly!), and ask if you think So-And-So would be able to talk to you, or if there's another person who would be better to talk to, or when would be a good time to call back. Be genial yet deferential. They may simply not have the time to talk to you, or may not have a position to offer you, or whatever. But I think of all the agencies on that list you will be able to at least talk to a handful of people, and if nothing else, that will give you a better sense of what you should do.

Another thing you can do is ask the assistant or receptionist, "Who can I talk to about applying for an entry-level position?" They will probably give you to H.R. or Production (the department that takes care of all the deliveries and stuff). If you get someone that way, again, be genial, friendly, ask if there are any openings or if you can submit your resumé. Mail is better than fax because faxes are always smeary and ugly. If you can get a job instead of an internship that's better for you, for sure.

While I'm on the subject, here are some resumé tips: Don't include everything in the world, only relevant experience. Find a way to phrase your previous experience in ways that relate to the job you're applying for (for example, "managed multiple projects on tight deadlines" instead of "sales"). Don't misspell anything -- have three other people read it for typos, if you have to. Don't use a bunch of crazy fonts or micro-type -- make it easy to read. The easier, the better. Include all your contact info right at the top. And for God's sake, KEEP IT UNDER ONE PAGE.

I got a job as an assistant editor but I'm not sure what I'll need to know! Help!

First, congrats on the job! Depending on whether or not you have any background in a production environment, say in film school, you may have a little catching up to do. If you've never been in a machine room before (it's the room with all the different tape-decks all wired together) it might be a little intimidating. But don't panic -- they will certainly teach you everything you need to know; there will probably be a more senior AE who shows you the ropes.

Every place is wired slightly differently and every place has different procedures. You can try to familiarize yourself with the terminology though. "Patching" refers to assigning video inputs/outputs so that you can record to a certain place, from a certain place. For example you might need to go from an edit bay to a tape deck (recorder), so you would "patch", say, Edit Room 4 to DV Deck 7. Or you might need to patch from one tape deck to another to make a copy of a tape -- a "dub." Check out:

Post Production Glossary
Digital Video Glossary

or Google "post production terminology" for more. Don't worry if you can't remember everything, but if you've at least heard the words before, you might have an easier time.

The roles for an AE are different at different places as well. You will probably have to log and capture video from tapes, and put the footage on a server so that editors can access it. You will probably have to import music, graphics and voice-over files and make them available to editors. You may be asked to listen to lots of music to find pieces that might work for a specific project. ("music search"). You may be asked to do rough edits of certain pieces, or to make minor changes to pieces that have already been edited (swapping out new graphics, music, VO, etc.). You may have to make tape outputs, QuickTimes and DVDs of spots for clients to view. This is important because you are the last stop for a spot before it hits the client's desk, so you should always be vigilant that the mix sounds right, that there are no obvious errors like big chunks of black in the middle of the spot, that the identifying text ("slate") preceding the spot is accurate, etc. People have been fired for sending the wrong spot to the client. No pressure! (It is not as scary as it sounds, just always be watchful.)

And in general, if you are looking to move up to becoming an editor, definitely keep your eyes and ears open, try your best to pick up the terminology, and ask producers (once you've been there a little while and have your feet under you) if they have any scripts you can cut after hours on your own time, just for practice. Positioning yourself as an editor-in-training, who also happens to be a great AE, is important.

There's usually a pretty low tolerance for mistakes, but I don't agree with advice you may have heard that says "only ask any particular question once." Everyone that I've ever worked with would rather be asked for clarification than have a mistake occur. And there will often be other assistants and technical staff that you can ask questions of -- you don't have to bother the producers. Most of the editors I know would be happy to answer questions and give advice as well. We all started out the same way.

I don't know, maybe you will end up working with a bunch of jerks. It's hard to say. But really everyone I've seen that has a brain in their head, and equal amounts of common sense and good attitude, does just fine in this business. There are so many idiots out there that anyone who's really pleasant, and easygoing, and halfway intelligent is a welcome relief. Seriously, a good attitude will go 90% of the way in making sure people are patient with you, if you're worried about that.

In summation, try not to freak out. It'll be fine.

How do I get a job as a narrative (film or television) editor? Will a reel help me?

It's always really tough to get a sense of narrative cutting from a reel. (With trailers and advertising it's easier, because they're so short and, often, so stylized). That's why very, very little narrative work is hired based on a reel -- more likely the work is given to a personal contact, someone that the director or producer is comfortable working with. So if your ultimate goal is to cut TV or features, the reel won't really get you very far -- you need to get into the professional environment in any way that you can. That work is very competitive because there isn't a lot of turnover. People don't really retire from being film editors.

To work in narrative editing you have to start as an assistant editor. Open up Variety or Hollywood Reporter and look at the production charts that they publish twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday, maybe? I don't really know). Find a movie or TV show that's in pre-production (in other words, still crewing up), see if there's a number listed for the post-production coordinator (if not, call the production office and ask), and then call them and ask to apply for an entry-level job (or volunteer to intern) in the post-production office. Say you're an editor who's worked on mainly student films and independent projects, and would like to get more experience. You're willing to help out just to learn the ropes. Ask if they have any entry-level assistant or runner jobs available, and don't be afraid to work for free if necessary. You are likely to be successful if you volunteer to work for free, because what do they have to lose? Some offices may have rules about no interns unless they're getting class credit, so maybe you can find a community college class for $33 or something.

The most important first step is getting your foot in the door. Then, when that show wraps, if you've been helpful and intelligent and valuable, the coordinator may want to bring you onto his or her next job, or you may have met someone that knows of another gig, or you may have made it known that you are an editor and so in a crunch they asked you to help hack together some scenes. All this stuff happens when you're in the middle of the situation. And if nothing else, you have references that you can offer up when you apply for another job in the same way.

It's rough to have to work for free, especially if you have rent to pay. You may never have to work for free. But other people will always be willing to, so if you're not, you'll be at a disadvantage. Sucks!

Will becoming a trailer editor help me become a narrative editor down the road?

Inasmuch as it'll refine your technical skills, sure, but as much as trailer editing seems like part of the film business, it's really part of the advertising industry. It would be very hard for a trailer editor to transition laterally to being a television or movie editor -- those industries have their own ladder that trailers aren't a part of.

A trailer editor could probably become a commercial editor (working for a product advertising agency) more easily than she could become a television editor.

As a freelance editor, how are you paid? How do you set a rate?

It depends on whether you work for an agency or directly with the filmmaker. If you surf Craigslist and take on smaller indie jobs yourself as an individual, you can set whatever price the filmmaker is willing to pay. I don't really recommend making a career of this because indie filmmakers usually have more demands than money to spend. But it could be a good way to build a reel.

If you're working on a big feature, then you're working for an agency that has been contracted by the studio, and you're paid an hourly rate by them, whatever you've negotiated. You're basically a regular employee. Although when you quote your rate you always give a weekly number, I don't know how that started. So if your rate is 45/hr and someone asks your rate, you'll say "1800 a week" (45 x 40 hrs). But you get OT on top of that too.

When you work for an agency you may be hired for a particular project but you will often be shuffled around onto different things as per their needs -- again it's usually like being a regular employee, you do whatever they need at the time.

Is it important to go to film school if I want to become a trailer editor?

Film school (I went to Chapman) provided me with the basic skills I'd need to make my way in the business -- I was already a decent editor when I started the job, and I was pretty thoroughly familiar with the tape machines and video formats and all the technical stuff, so I could pick it up without breaking stride. And once I got my first entry-level job, I stayed late and educated myself on the specific systems they had at that agency so when they called on me, I could go to work immediately.

The moral of the story is, nobody checked my academic credentials, but the fact that I had gone through film school meant that I had a good working knowledge of the environment and the technology that otherwise I wouldn't have had. But the main thing is, do you know your way around the industry terminology and the equipment? Even if you don't, if you're smart and attentive you can pick it up pretty quickly.

Another important benefit to film school is the friends that you make. I've hired and been hired by my friends many times since we've all graduated and started moving up in the industry together. It's important to form as many friendships as you can, because you'll need a network to draw upon as you make your way through your career. It's possible to form this network cold on the ground, but the real, live industry is much more cutthroat and hostile than the first year of film school. (Maybe not if you go to NYU or something.) Anyway, I've found it eminently valuable to have met and worked with and, really, grown up with a certain group of people who likewise got to know me and what I was capable of. Having lived together for a few years made those friendships take on a tenor that purely professional relationships don't always match.

There's also apparently a UCLA Extension class specifically in film marketing. If nothing else, taking that class will introduce you to the basics of the industry and you'll cut your first trailer for your reel.

I'm in film school. What courses and experiences should I be looking for to help me decide if this is a career path I want to pursue?

First, take classes in post-production -- primarily editing and sound design. That's what trailer editors do all day long, so if you decide that you like that process, or even if you don't particularly LOVE it but you do pretty well at it, that might give you an idea of how you might feel about doing it for a career. Marketing classes would help too, if your school offers them.

Secondly, do your best to get up to speed on the technical side of post-production -- I'm talking here about Avid troubleshooting, working the machine room, tape decks, patchbays etc. If you end up working for any sort of post-production company you'll almost certainly start as a production assistant or assistant editor in which those skills will be useful, so having a basic knowledge of that environment is really helpful. If you find that's an area that you can wrap your head around relatively easily, that might give you another sense of how easy or hard it'll be for you in this corner of the industry.

All jobs in which you start out in an entry-level position are "will-train," so you don't have to worry about walking in the door already knowing everything -- but having experience in both of these areas will really help. If you're interested, you can also look for an internship at a trailer house to get in the door and see first-hand what goes on day-to-day.

Final bits of advice for someone eager to break in?

Be eager to work for cheap or free, or to stay extra hours, to learn the trade and to make friends. Don't forget your contacts. Stay on good terms with everybody. Exceed people's expectations. Send holiday cards. Keep your phone list up to date. Whenever you take any gig, get to know everybody and be nice and smart and funny and memorable. Don't be a dick, but be shrewd. Remember to have fun, otherwise what's the point. Be honest with yourself as to whether it's worth it, because sometimes it's not. Everybody is looking out for themselves, so watch your back.

Don't not do something just because it's hard. But just because something's hard doesn't necessarily mean it's worth doing.

Can I write you for further, personalized advice?

I'm very sorry, but my workload is such that I can't really respond to individual questions. I'm bad at writing back because I hate dashing off quick responses to thoughtful questions...so I end up leaving the emails sitting in my inbox for months until I can find the time to write an appropriately-thoughtful reply. I hate that too.

Are we best friends now? Can I friend you on Facebook/pester you for a job/subscribe you to my email newsletter?

Nothing personal, but I'd really rather you didn't. And never, ever subscribe someone to a newsletter, even your very best friend, without their explicit, ironclad request. It's like the most annoying thing you can possibly do.

Can I grouse to you about all the problems with movie trailers? I saw this one trailer, and boy, let me tell you...

Again, nothing personal, but if you want to complain to me, forgive me if I don't bother to respond. There's not really anything I can say. I already know about and acknowledge all the problems with the trailer industry, but this article isn't about that.

How can I repay you for all this wonderful free advice?

Read my comics and/or buy something from me, such as one of the following t-shirts:





Or, don't. That's fine too!


this article ©2009 david malki !
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