For DC area theatres, using movie-style trailers to promote upcoming productions is a fairly recent phenomenon. A few years ago, these promo videos consisted of still images with music underscoring. Not anymore. If we were handing out awards for most effective theatrical trailer, mine would go to Everyman Theatre for The Dresser which was released on Tuesday. A quick call to Everyman, and I was speaking to the trailer’s creator, Jonathan Waller, who stuffs many responsibilities into his title of Everyman’s Marketing Director.
This is the sixth trailer which Jonathan has created for Everyman. I was curious to know how these are made, and later, we talked about why.
Let’s start by watching Jonathan’s video trailer for The Dresser:
To begin, he shoots an early performance, positioning himself – in this case – 8 rows back from the stage, zooming in for closeups and out for wide pans with the intent of editing it later into the trailer, which will have a story arc and feature press quotes.
He uses the Canon 5D Mark II digital camera with an attached Rode microphone to take in the live audio and edits using FinalCutPro.
Jonathan Waller: “The Canon 5D Mark II is a very good digital camera for still photos and video. Some indie films have been shot on it so it’s very capable and can give the professional look and feel you can’t get with an iPhone or lower end Casio models. The microphone takes in audio live and we also have the feed we use for our accessibility feed so, if necessary, we can mix the (audios) together.”
These trailers are tricky for reasons you might not expect. “Theatre trailers are hard because a lot of time we film the first performance and we turn it around in a week. That leaves two and a half weeks for the trailer to do its job.” This tight time frame is true for The Dresser video which posted March 11; the play is scheduled to close March 23.
“The equipment is becoming intuitive enough for people from in-house marketing teams who can then distribute to YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter…. We couldn’t put our trailer on TV because union stipulations require payment of actors at minimum SAG rates. Those rules are not written yet for the Internet… We’re a nonprofit midsize theatre with a budget of $2.5 million and a marketing staff of 2 and a half people. We can’t afford to buy someone out of house to do it.
“When filming for archival purposes, the goal is to get the whole thing – a big wide pan to get the set and all the actors and their crosses. Film doesn’t work like that. It works in closeups. I might miss what someone stage right is doing. The person might be delivering an incredible speech but the theatrical moment might be watching the person who is watching. So I need to know that that person is about to about to cry, or smile, or be kissed.”
Editing is complicated, but, Jonathan says, not as daunting as it might seem. “I can go through and keyword and select a 3 second clip where Carl Shurr (who plays Sir) smiles, then in the next scene he does the same thing again and I tag it ‘smile’ so when I come a quote that says “It was funny!” I can go back to that smile keyword, choose one and communicate that this show is funny, heartwarming, or whatever.
I broke in to say that the last scene he created in the Dresser trailer was brilliantly done.
“That little speech that Norman gives then, you don’t experience it like that in the theatre. There are no modern drumbeats, no choir to communicate the story about a 1930’s/40’s Shakespearian company. In the trailer we are saying the story is relevant today and music helps underscore the emotion that is happening on the stage. The vocal is taken from a scene in Act 1 layered under the scene of Sir having barely made it through the performance. You see how frail he is and the looks on people’s faces as they admire him taking his final bow and add the emotional impact with the choir singing in the background.
“Ours is one style. I’m sure you’re familiar with what Steppenwolf is doing – almost custom shoots with actors not on set, on separate soundstages which require a major budget. That’s another way to go about creating your own content but that’s representing the show without the design team so it gets tricky on another level.
At this point, I asked Jonathan about his background in filmmaking. Was he trained as a filmmaker?
“I’m someone who enjoys watching trailers. When I get a ten minute break, I go to Apple’s movie trailers, so when I go to the movies, there isn’t a trailer I haven’t seen. I like the art of stirring a story into its essence to communicate universal themes. Like a mini film that makes you want to come see it.”
He studied Musical Theatre Composition at NYU. He wrote the music under Everyman’s The Glass Menagerie video and has written several plays including A Superhero, performed by McDonough School with 30 students and a 20 piece orchestra. He became interested in video when his daughter was born. “I have a video of her first Super Bowl, and I put the Super Bowl music to it and shot all the people there, and my experience of that night is just a deeper memory.”
The importance of the growing archive of theatrical video trailers
“To be honest with you, one of the reasons not to do trailers is if you look at number of views on our trailers– Red, a big hit for us, has maybe 1,000 or 1,500 views by the time the show closed. Along with everything else you’ve got to do to market the show, is it worth the time and expense?
“Having this archive that theatres are collecting creates an interesting window into theatre. It’s a service to theatre. Maybe the viewer won’t see this production, but 10 years from now will stumble on it and say ‘I really want to read that’ or ‘I want to look into that play.’
“The real reason we think it’s valuable, is it’s not just the memory, or a collective body of work that someone might find, it’s also an institutional snapshot that creates an impression of the institution and what they value with their productions. They might see the trailer for The Dresser, and might not be able to come, but might see us next season.’
At this point, I added “Or maybe someone who doesn’t go to theatre will say, ‘I understand this. This isn’t boring.’ When you produce something as effective as you have here, you’ve given them an experience just watching it. And I think they understand more about what live theatre is.”
“I think film has figured out that you get more people to come if you do a trailer that tells what kind of experience they will have. The challenge is that when you cross over into a new medium, [such as theatre], are you still capturing the live experience with it? [The Dresser] has the audience laughter and it feels live.
“At the very least you communicate that it’s a story with universal themes that we all can relate to.” In this case, the fact that many people have work they are committed to and do at great cost. And do with the support of people who believe in them.
“One of the hallmarks of Everyman is that when you come here you feel something genuine, something that is authentic. So that’s the big impetus for us to put together videos that make you feel something.
Finally, I wondered: with his passion and talent for filmmaking, will he remain content in his marketing position?
“I’m a writer, went to NYU for music theatre composition, drifted into marketing because it’s telling a grand story but also telling a larger story of the mission of a theatre. There’s a lot to believe in here at Everyman. And a lot of buy-in from management.
‘Being Marketing Director gives me freedom to do what I love which is to create and tell stories in as many mediums as possible. In this sandbox, I get to tell stories. And hopefully do it at the service of supporting a mission or a broader goal. So it does keep me excited. There are a million more videos and movies I’d like to make. Meanwhile, we’re still trying to ramp up to do a video for every show.”
Jonathan has created 6 trailer videos for Everyman which you can see here.