Since the introduction of the term fundraising demo circa 2000, much has changed – from what they are called to how long they should be. Samples abound online, yet viewing many trailers may not render a single rule that applies to other projects or filmmakers. Check out Therese Shechter’s two crowdfunding demos for her How To Lose Your Virginity, and you’ll discover two very different strategies for a single film. Rules, formulas and recipes for demos are slippery and ever-changing. Yet there are some common principles that help the filmmaker think strategically about his or her choices. Here are my tips (extracted from my book Trailer Mechanics: How to Make Your Documentary Fundraising Demo):
1. What’s in a name?
No matter what you or other people in the film business call it—whether demo, sample, trailer, taster or sizzler—the function is more important than the name: think of it as an audiovisual pitch for fundraising, and throw away the dictionary.
2. Making sense
Make sure the demo is consistent in content and style with the rest of your proposal, meaning the written materials and pitch. Whatever the proposal says, the demo must demonstrate—fully.
3. Marketing vs. fundraising
Marketing trailers needs to convince lots of people to spend 90 minutes and $15. That’s why they look more like music videos than movie previews. A fundraising demo needs to persuade very few people to spend several years with you and many thousands on your project. That’s why it looks more like a short film without an ending. And crowdfunding demos merge the two.
4. Ticking clock
A demo or work-in-progress can range from 1 minute to 20 minutes in length. Shorter versions are mandated by pitch forums, ideal for first meetings and online crowdfunding. Longer versions are suitable for follow-up meetings and requested for some grants. The circumstances will determine the length of your sample.
5. How to open it
The opening of a fundraising demo conveys premise, who and what. It’s not the opening of the actual documentary—no long credits or slow, moody panoramic shots. Get to the point, right away.
6. What to put in it
A fundraising sample has complete scenes as opposed to a fast-cut assortment of provocative sound bites and images. The purpose of a demo is to convey the essential points of your story and that you’re a good storyteller, not to prove that you have a great editor and tons of fancy software to do effects.
7. What to avoid
Montages or scenes cut to music, as well as beginning-to-end music and narration, are often used when a story doesn’t work well on its own. Don’t let any element overpower the demo.
8. To write or not to write
Slates with long and frequent explanatory text and fades to black are not as necessary as you might think. They make a demo look like a public service announcement. Delay including them until there is no other option. Then use sparingly and, if possible, integrate text with image. Plus, catch those typos!
9. How to end without ending
A demo has an open ending, called a cliffhanger, which hints that there is more to the story. If the trailer offers proper closure to the prospective doc, then it’s a short film. You’ll be told it’s fine as it is, no need to make a longer film.
10. How not to end
A cliffhanger can create great expectations. Do not kill that emotional high by adding final credits or contact info or begging for money. That’s what your other materials are for. Let the viewer be moved and motivated to call you.
10.5. Do something
If you are the type to sit on your demo, do something. If you’re the type to send your sample to every living soul, scale back. A demo is part of an overall strategy. Have a plan!