Before a major Hollywood drama like American Sniper can rile up the movie critics and charm the members of the Academy, it usually crosses the desk of Nick Temple. The small teams at Wild Card, his Culver City, California-based company, typically need about a week once they've seen a film--or enough of it to piece together its arc and plot. Their job: Boil down the two hours of footage into an intense, two-minute trailer that will become a crucial piece--maybe the crucial piece--of a studio's overall movie marketing strategy.
When a trailer really sings, its impact can be huge. As of mid-February, American Sniper has grossed more than $307 million in U.S. box offices. It's also become the second-highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. A lot, obviously, goes into marketing a movie, but Wild Card gets the credit for producing this haunting and heart-stopping trailer:
Temple's Wild Card, an independent shop that specializes in film advertising, is also behind the trailers for Unbroken, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Maleficent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Lincoln, The Great Gatsby, and many others. Not bad for a guy who has no formal video-editing training.
A graduate of Vermont's Middlebury College, Temple arrived in Hollywood in 2001 the way most transplants do: with a heart set on finding a way into the movie business and fast falling in love with the sun-bleached state. After working some low-level studio jobs, he gravitated toward film editing. Specifically, the seemingly arcane art of trailer cutting.
"I fell in love with the idea of taking material and trying to create a message with it," he says. Some persistent nagging of colleagues hunched over in the edit bays helped him learn the basics. His first big break came when he was working at Trailer Park Inc. and cut the Super Bowl spot for Steven Spielberg's 2005 movie, War of the Worlds. Spielberg loved it, Temple says, and one thing led to another: "You start one relationship and they just kind of build."
Temple took a small step toward venturing out on his own in 2007 by partnering with Hollywood marketing company Cimarron Group. The firm, which has since closed, gave him office space and back-office support while his team of four editors cut trailers for a handful of clients. But three years in, he decided he needed his own shop. He began approaching investors and his search eventually took him to the bank for good old-fashioned loans. "It allowed me to build the company thoughtfully," Temple says. "I just wanted to make sure the vision wasn't predicated on paying partners back and financial deadlines."
It was a smart bet. Wild Card has been growing ever since its founding and remains one of the few indie editor-owned film advertising shops in L.A. The company has nearly 50 employees, and cuts trailers for more than 30 films a year.
Reflecting on Wild Card's success and his path as an entrepreneur, Temple says it's crucial to continually try new things. For example, he specializes in dramas, action flicks, and summer blockbusters, but once tried to cut a trailer for a romantic comedy. It was a disaster. "Put me back on Diehard!" he remembers thinking. "You don't need another set of hands on How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days." A failed experiment, sure, but it helped him find his focus.
It's easy for the uninitiated to think of these trailers as simply very short movie summaries. But talk to Temple about his editing process and you quickly learn there's a complicated art to crafting a feature film pitch in 120 seconds. "The best trailers create an immediate impact that raises questions and intrigues the audience but doesn't give away so much that they feel like they can connect all the dots," he says. It requires sharp storytelling skills and a keen sense for what gets an audience to snap to attention. Check out how Temple does it.
Think like your audience.
"At first it sounds like an indulgence, but we built this really beautiful theater" in the Wild Card offices, he says. Before the editors can think like editors, they must first watch the film the way an audience would. So this is where they go to escape from their desks and experience the movie as spectators. It also allows them to hear how each other reacts to moments in the film, which can help them isolate key clips later on.
Set the tone.
Typically when Temple and his team receive a film or "dailies" from shooting, the footage arrives unaccompanied by music. So the first step is to search for the right soundtrack to set against the story and evoke the appropriate mood. (Note how both music and silence are used in the American Sniper trailer to create suspense.) This is also when Wild Card's team is careful not to use conventions that give the impression the audience is being marketed to. For example, voiceovers are a largely a thing of the past. Moviegoers today are "more astute and they know conventions," he says, and that means "you can be more restrained."
Linear isn't always better.
"You've got to get people to stop eating their Twizzlers. You have about 30 to 40 seconds to hook them," Temple says. Don't assume that you need to use that time to start at the beginning of the story so that listeners know where you're going. Temple instead looks for unexpected moments. "Let them land and breathe," he says. You can let the audience fill in some blanks, but be sure that your message and intentions are clear.
The most damning first impression is mediocrity.
"Being ordinary" is quite possibly the easiest way to sink a trailer, Temple says. "You have to say hey, look over here, really loudly and boldly." That applies to how much you release to audiences beforehand as well. Therefore: Be bold, but be bold judiciously. Pushing too many clips out to an audience before a movie launches will cost you in lost momentum and anticipation.
Temple is also adding another dimension to the business. In fact, he's teamed up with director Ridley Scott and his production company RSA Films to launch a venture called 3am to experiment with social media marketing campaigns and brand extensions for movies. Temple's wife and business partner, Alison (she previously oversaw Fox's creative content division), will manage day-to-day operations.
Meanwhile, he wants to keep Wild Card at a size that doesn't compromise the quality of the work. Plus, he wants to keep his own hands in some of the editing, which he couldn't do if he ran a 300-person shop. "Managing creative people is next to impossible," he says. "What makes them great is that they're part crazy," says the guy who owns his business, manages a team, does his own editing, and is launching a second venture.
Temple pauses. "I get it," he adds. "I'm one, too."