I see the sample as a short film with one very specific goal: to leave the potential funder wanting to see more so badly that they will write the filmmaker a check. In the last blog, I wrote about how to get started editing a sample reel. Once you’ve defined the best of the best of your footage, it’s time to come up with a plan or a script for editing your sample. Here are five tips for making the strongest sample reel possible.
Of course the main goal of the sample reel is to give the potential funder a clear idea of what your film is about: “the Who, What, When and Where” of your story. But every film is so different that there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all recipe for making a successful sample. However, there are a few guidelines I tend to follow.
1) Show excellent character development: Casting a charismatic main character is key to any film and establishing your film’s protagonist is essential to a successful sample reel. Your sample needs to show that your main character is strong and compelling enough to carry the film and interesting enough to watch for an hour or whatever the length of your film. You also need to show in the sample reel that the director clearly has great access to this character and a trusting enough relationship to be able to finish the film effectively.
But what if you aren’t making a character-driven documentary? Even in topic-driven films, like Marlene Booth’s Pidgin: The Voice of Hawai‘i, there are people who are interviewed who help convey the story, and in sample reels those characters can be featured saying the most compelling things about your topic to create an interesting chorus. In this particular film, I imposed a sort of 3-act structure onto this topic-driven documentary by making the language of Pidgin itself the main character, and treating it as if it were the protagonist driving the action and in peril.
2) The inciting incident: Then something big needs to happen to your character in the sample reel…something that raises the stakes and propels the action of the film forward in a big way. In our documentary Kū Kanaka/Stand Tall, main character Kanalu Young took a deep-water dive into four feet of water and broke his neck. In Finding Kukan, Robin Lung the filmmaker and the film’s “history detective,” discovers a long lost Oscar-winning film and a Chinese woman who claims to have been the film’s producer. In Kimberlee Bassford’s Winning Girl, a 12-year-old girl proclaims that she wants to become the world champion in wrestling. In each of these scenarios, the breaking of the neck, the discovery of the film, the proclamation, propel each character forward into their story, which becomes the narrative of the film. Your characters motives should be crystal clear: “This is what I want to do and this is why I must do it.” The inciting incident should be so compelling that your character has no choice but to move forward, and us the audience along with them.
3) Emotion. Emotion. Emotion. I can’t say it enough, but your sample should be evocative and create some emotion in the audience. It’s more important that I am moved by your story than I completely understand all the details and backstory and facts. The facts of your film can be effectively conveyed in your written synopsis and treatment. Your edited sample should move me on an emotional level with all the powers you have at your disposal as a filmmaker. If you’ve never read Walter Murch’s essential volume on editing In the Blink of an Eye, read it! First and foremost, edit for emotion.
4) Convey the film’s style. Your sample should reflect the mood and feeling and style of your film. When the funder watches your sample, they will likely assume that your film will be exactly like your sample, no matter what you write in your proposal. Do your best to evoke the style of your filmmaking in the sample. If the strength of your material lies in great cinema vérité footage, then show great cinema vérité scenes. If you are going to attempt to make something experimental or genre-bending, show as much as possible the style of the film as a proof-of-concept.
We were so challenged when we were fundraising for Finding Kukan because we planned to do historical recreations using shadow theater (like shadow puppets, only with live actors). We kept writing our vision for the film into the proposals, but because we had to raise a significant amount of money to film the recreations, we didn’t have them to show in any of our sample reels. Indeed, every grant that turned us down said that they wished they could have seen the shadow theater sequences in the sample, and that they didn’t fund us because they weren’t sure that we could pull them off. Eventually the wonderful National Endowment for the Arts funded a theater group we partnered with whom the NEA knew well and trusted to create the shadow recreations with us, and now they are the most beautiful part of the finished film. It’s really hard for potential funders to visualize what you have in your head. So as much as possible, incorporate elements of your film’s style into the sample. If you haven’t filmed it yet, show storyboards, a look book, or borrow images from the internet to incorporate into your sample that suggest your look and feel. With permission, we were able to borrow images from YouTube videos of the theater group’s previous productions to evoke the feeling of the shadow historical recreations in our sample reel.
5) Leave them wanting more. Create as big a cliffhanger as you can at the end of your reel that leaves the audience wanting more. Don’t resolve the story. I looked up the word “cliffhanger” in Wikipedia.com and it perfectly describes how the ending to a sample reel should work: “A cliffhanger is a plot device…which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.”
For all our early sample reels for Finding Kukan, we always ended the sample with Robin’s discovery of the KUKAN film print in dire need of restoration (can this film be saved?) and big questions about the intriguing Li Ling Ai. As Fernanda Rossi states in her terrific book Trailer Mechanics, the cliffhanger or “hook” becomes the “why” of your film. It is what we will learn by watching the finished film. To borrow from an old storytelling adage, drive your character up a tree, then push them far out onto a precariously dangerous limb. Then, end your sample reel with the address to which they should mail your check.
Ok, here is a bonus tip, based on a personal pet peeve:
6) Give them exactly the time they asked for and no more. This should go without saying, but do your best to meet the funder’s time requirement. If they want 5 minutes, give them 5 minutes. If they want 10 minutes, give them 10. Be on time. You are expected to be a skilled enough storyteller to be able to tell your story within whatever time limitation you are given. Do it. Don’t rationalize that they will watch more because they will be so interested. They probably won’t, since they usually have dozens of samples to watch. You will get to tell the longer version of your story after you get your check.
Got any additional tips? I would love to hear from you. Add to the conversation in the comments. And good luck with your sample reel!