Jason Hoffman has been a copywriter for Wheelhouse Creative going on four years and is one of our core members of the team that we go to for all kinds of projects. His talent and ingenuity help us take our trailers to another level. We sat down with him to talk about everything that goes into the copywriting process along with some of his favorite trailers he’s worked on.
Click the link below to read the full interview!
What does a copywriter do? How do you come up with ideas? What’s your process?
A copywriter is the guy who comes up with all those wonderful or incredibly cheesy lines of heartbreaking genius that you either see or hear during a movie trailer – as in, he’s either writing the words that appear on the screen as a graphic image, or he’s writing the script for the voice-over artist who’s narrating the trailer. Sometimes you’ll have voice-over in a trailer, sometimes there’s just words flashing on the screen, sometimes there’s a little of both or none at all. This is the stuff that gets used sort of a guide-line for a new audience through a trailer, that sort of steers it through showing you what that upcoming movie is going to be about or how it’s going to make you feel, or both.
When I write copy I’m working from the suggestions and notes from a client as well as from those of Wheelhouse staff – it can be very specific about what they want me to focus on or emphasize, whether it’s certain characters or story elements, tone, visuals, action, whatever. It’s about finding the stuff you want an audience to zero in on and then advertising it in the most exciting way possible.
When I watch the film I’m often taking notes as I go – scribbling down ideas for lines of copy, a sentence, half a sentence, a single good word, whatever. You can sometimes find things in the film – lines, moments, whatever that might key into your copy, so long as they’re not too obscure. By the time the film is over I already have a bunch of potential lines of copy or even parts of a few scripts already completed. Then it becomes almost “word salad” – you’ve got a bunch of disconnected ideas and you’re trying to make them all fit together properly, almost a mental jigsaw puzzle.
How did you get started? What made you want to be a copywriter?
In my case it was just dumb luck. When I went to film school I thought I had it all figured out. I was focused on screenwriting but I wanted to pay my bills. I decided I was going to get a day job, preferably something related to writing or the industry if possible, and I’d just pursue my passion on the side. Unfortunately, I moved to New York right before the big crash, and I was barely working. My big plan, which I thought was so practical, was out the window.
It really was luck of the draw – I answered the right ad, said the right thing, tried to do my part and met wonderful, kind people. But since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by trailers – the idea of telling a sort of minimalist version of a film’s larger story, selling people on two hours of characters and narrative in two minutes or less, bringing all of that across. I used to work in post a lot in school, and I was always thinking in terms of the trailer, in terms of the short way to tell the story, beat to beat, like music. Editing was literally the only technical skill I picked up in school, because to me editing, especially cutting for a trailer, was just writing in a different way. Trailers have always been an art form to me.
What was your favorite Wheelhouse job to work on and why?
Off the top of my head right now, I’ll say “The Conquest” was awesome – this hilarious film about the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, all about him and his wife. That was something where everything just clicked immediately – the film was fantastic, the copy came easy, and I was just riffing on these endless variations of scripts about politics, about romance, about the people and the humor, melding all of that together – I could’ve done twenty or thirty scripts on that in one pass because the material was so fertile and the film was so rich. Movies like that are so good they make you better.
And in terms of really being able to stretch the boundaries, a lot of the mumblecore indies we get are really good for that – I remember working on “Uncle Kent,” a Joe Swanberg movie, where I was really able to go a little nuts and experiment with copy and how we present it onscreen, what it looks like and how it appears to the audience. It’s always fun when I get to really push the limits of what is the usual rules of the road.
Also, I have to say that recently, I was incredibly proud to contribute and work on Claude Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” – his sort of follow-up to “Shoah”, where we’re talking about the story of this Jewish model ghetto, this secret story a lot of people don’t know about the Holocaust. My father’s family were Russian Jews, and there’s a limb of our family tree that was still in Europe where we really don’t know what happened to them – did they live on, did they die during the war, we have no idea. So for me to be able to go to my father and tell him I’d been able to help in bringing “Last of the Unjust” to audiences, in even such a small way, meant a lot to me and to him. I love all the fun, crazy genre films I do for Wheelhouse, the horror, the raunchy comedies and all that, but when something like that comes along it really makes you stop and take a breath.
What was the most challenging job you’ve ever worked on?
“Like Someone In Love” was tough, but worth it. It was this beautiful Abbas Kiarostami film and it was so specifically tuned, its mood and tone, and you had to really burrow into it to get it right. The parameters on what was needed from the copy were very specific.
We had to sort of find a middle ground between two extremes, either explaining too much or not explaining enough. It was a very delicate film and a really dicey process. We must have come up with eighteen different ways to describe the female lead, the young woman who was a prostitute – eventually we’d exhausted all the flowery language you would associate with this really classy film, and it became, “just call her a hooker!” That’s my job in a nutshell. Just call me a hooker!
What do you like about working with Wheelhouse?
The people. We work in the film industry, and in that sort of scene you’re going to run into a lot of jerks, or people who aren’t necessarily on the level with you. Wheelhouse doesn’t have that problem – it’s just an office full of really cool, funny, easygoing, straight-up people who are, honestly, a family. I do a great deal of my work from home, but I’ve never not felt like part of the family.
Also, they’re not cynics – they love movies, they love the work, they genuinely care about what they do. It’s not a meat grinder; individual attention is paid to each and every film, whether we’re working on a found footage horror movie or a Holocaust documentary, or a French action movie, or Joe Swanberg or Abbas Kiarostami. There’s a shorthand with the core staff – we know each other, we know how they work, we know what they need and we can read each other pretty well, I think. And we work together, and we work to get it right. We’re not jaded and we’re not over it. We have a lot of fun. And as a writer, I’m just constantly exercising those muscles – over and over, I’m finding new ways to get films out there, and tell that story in two minutes or four or six lines.
What advice would you give an aspiring copywriter?
Less is more. You may think you’re writing the greatest, most colorful copy out there but only a fraction of it will get onscreen in two minutes or ninety seconds. Condense, and then condense some more. Also, avoid editorializing. It doesn’t matter so much what you felt while watching the film, or how closely bonded you feel to it – it matters what the client feels and what they feel a new audience will need to be sold on the film sight unseen. Don’t become one with the movie, don’t let your head get totally inside it (or vice versa) – otherwise you can’t objectively market it to a mass audience. Writing copy and then revising copy is improvisation, it’s like boxing – you stick and move and you don’t stop to talk about it. Make your creativity come out of the work you do within the rules being placed on you.
Finally, don’t look down on the work. We have a lot of fun with all sorts of stuff at Wheelhouse – zombies and cannibals, ghost stories and action movies, sex comedies, everything under the sun. We also get a lot of really stunning foreign and arthouse films and documentaries, But it doesn’t matter, really, whether it’s a very important documentary or a horror movie, or a small, personal indie film – you’re there to present that work for the absolute best it can be. I have done absolutely every kind of movie at Wheelhouse – I’ve done the Holocaust, I’ve done queer cinema and Iranian film, I’ve done undead cheerleaders, I’ve done a movie about an evil Santa Claus. Every color of the rainbow. Every one of them is a gift.
Also, never use “in a world…” in trailer copy. Ever. That’s the first lesson I learned. There are, however, any number of viable synonymous phrases for “in a world…”