How Do You Make an Effective Short Film Trailer?

There are no hard and fast rules for short film trailers as there are in the world of feature films, though they should be treated similarly in my opinion. Within the first 30 seconds, it’s crucial to establish your inciting incident that sets your story in motion. From there, it comes down to creativity and effective narrative sales, and that’s what I’m going to be talking about in more detail here.

The Modern Movie Trailer

We’re at the point in time where a film’s trailer has no margin for error. Movie trailers in 2020 are generally stunning. They’re fast, fun, beautiful to look at, and generally effective at summarizing a story. Sure, sometimes they give too much of a plotline away, but for the most part, these days there is a set standard for how strong a film trailer needs to be. Though what about short film trailers? What makes a good short film trailer? What are some solid examples of such a concept? Well, as I quickly found out in creating the trailer for my short film “For The Good of The People,” we’re in the wild-wild-west for short film trailers. We’re in the defining stages, folks!

I started my research by simply searching up short film trailers on both YouTube and Vimeo, to see which ones had the most views, which ones looked the most impressive and what the average lengths were. Well, there were no averages to be found. Short film trailers completely vary in all aspects. From length, to content, to look, to goal, etc. There seem to be no standards set whatsoever. With that, I moved along to the much more strictly defined, feature film trailer world. After an immense amount of reading analytical information, industry standards, opinions and data, I came up with a few fundamentals to take from the most effective movie trailers of our time, to establish them into a perfect short film trailer.

Your Short Film is Still a Film

Before we get into it, I think it’s important to stop thinking of your short film as a separate entity. Duration is just duration. Your film is still a film, and so it’s crucial to focus on the elements that make it so. These short film trailer elements and ideas are adaptable to whatever the length of your film is. It’s about effectively showing an audience why they should be interested in what your film has to say, just remember that. Well, without further ado, let’s get into my fundamentals of an effective short film trailer!

The First Frame is Crucial

The first site to pop onto the screen (including potential studio headers) is the first impression your movie makes. Both to new viewers and old views alike. From the color grading, to the aspect ratio, to the steadiness of the shot, to the content of the frame. Every single thing is being judged whether people know it or not. Having a messy, unprofessional first frame immediately screams indie film. Having bad acting right off the bad, same thing. Go watch for yourself. Whether it’s a Blumhouse horror film, a Marvel superhero film, or a Netflix comedy, every first frame plays a huge part in viewers’ impression, interest and further engagement.

With For The Good of The People,  I utilized a bit of a 10 second cold open. Both shots are relatively still, so nothing too jarring. Though the two shots I went with are two incredibly visually striking, completely contrasting shots. They both play a significant part in what’s to come, but they’re interesting enough alone that it doesn’t matter what they actually mean to the story. The first shot is an extreme wide shot, with the backs of hooded figures filling a town common, and the second is an extreme closeup of the lead character’s bruised, traumatized face looking directly past the camera. They immediately give off a strong, dreading first impression, which is then delivered across the trailer.

Sound is Everything

This one might not come as a huge surprise, but sound plays just as large of a part as visuals, especially in the trailer! I mean, go watch any decent trailer, the amount of detail put into the transitions between scenes, shots and even moments within individual shots. It’s crucial for holding attention and for very quickly cutting large amounts of things together. Just as well, I found it to be crucial to establish your tone.

In For The Good of The People, the tone is clearly eerie with horror elements, so unsettling, tense and contrastingly aggressive sound transitioning across the trailer was important. Though in the past, I’ve edited comedy and sci-fi short film trailers too, and I found those to be the same thing, only different. The sounds play the same in terms of intensity and tempo, but the tone and meaning are specific to your films genre and overall atmosphere. 

Two Minutes is The General Golden Length

Now, a lot of research has been conducted on this aspect before my time, so I’m going to share what I’ve found. It seems that two minutes has been the Hollywood standard for a long time, though in recent years that span has been much looser, especially with more pre-established stories (i.e. Marvel movies, James Bond, Star Wars, etc.) Below, I’ll attach a diagram from StephenFollows, with a detailed average trailer length between 2000-2016. 

From what I’ve found, it comes down to what your story is about and who you’re trying to show. A lot of my favorite trailers from my own genre (again, that being Thriller-Horror) are closer to the two minute and thirty second mark. That being said, my story had a lot of tonality and story to establish to make the sale, so I took the liberty of going for a longer option. Plus, I’m fortunate to have a lot of people behind the project, who were excited to finally see the first trailer: So I figured more was better in this case, but of course, that tends to rarely be true. 

Overall, look at recent film trailers from your genre. What are the lengths? What are the views? I checked films like Us, The Purge, Midsommer, and found that two and a half minutes was definitely my golden length. 

The Catalyst Moment Comes in The First 30 Seconds

No matter what your genre or niche is, take no more than 30 seconds to establish your story. At the 30 second mark, the audience must know what they’re watching. That doesn’t mean they need to understand the in’s and out’s of the plot, it just means they can at least give a basic logline to what your film is about. This is a good portion for brief action, most prominent elements of visual storytelling, and especially, narrative-establishing dialogue. The traditional move here is to layer visuals from the story on top of dialogue, monologues, or voiceover, to quickly get through your establishment.

Don’t make the mistake of just telling the audience here. Be sure to use your visuals to show as much as possible, but like I said, the layering of story-based dialogue helps tremendously in this span. In a sense, this first 30 seconds is your act one, if your story follows a three act structure. But for the average short film, just focus on interestingly showing the audience your logline, or at least, your inciting incident to make the rest of the trailer clear. 

The Rest of The Time is Focused on The Fun

Now, if you’ve heard of the “fun and games” section of a traditional screenplay, this is where that section of the story thrives: in your trailer! If not, no worries. Basically, this is the part where you want to show off to your audience. How crazy, how scary, how hilarious, how eerie your story is (of course, depending on your genre.) We’re talking about the most standalone moments, visual awes, jump scares, comedic bangers, etc.

It’s important to include elements of storytelling (whether visual, communicative, or both) at least every 30 seconds. The trailer may start to turn into a sizzle reel if not. Focus on the fun, but don’t forget your story. Speed is crucial here too. Don’t focus on any one scene too long, or it can appear lazy in a trailer. Fast tempo, with smooth (or intentionally unsmooth) transitions between a lot of compelling moments is the secret sauce here. 

In my case specifically, I found that progressively building upon the tempo of the trailer was immensely effective. Through volume, intensity, cutting frequency and content itself, my short film trailer built upon itself. Everything leading to a tonally-accurate, compelling ender shot, and finally, a slow, finalizing title screen to end everything off.

Final Thoughts – How Do You Make an Effective Short Film Trailer

A good movie trailer is often the make-or-break for a film’s success, so why should short films be any different? If you haven’t prioritized your short film’s trailer in the past, hopefully this article changes your mind. Don’t think of your short film trailer as some sort of lesser, miniaturized version of a movie trailer. It still serves the exact same purpose: Trying to express your story in the most compelling way possible. Depending on your film’s length, I would recommend adapting your trailer length accordingly. (i.e. don’t make a two minute trailer for a five minute short film) but the fundamentals are the same.

So how do you make an effective short film trailer? Follow these ideas when cutting together your trailer, and I I have no doubt that your trailer will be powerful. Be sure to comment here, or email us with your trailers if you end up implementing my advice! I would really love to see some of your work.