This is a challenge that all film-makers are familiar with, and most of us find hard: write a promotional blurb for your film or series in 100 words or less.

(I’m long in the tooth, so I call this the “billing”.)

By the time we get round to this, our heads are full of detail. It’s hard to concentrate on the big picture. It feels like we’re reducing a lovingly crafted work of art to a shabby sketch. So, we do it – but reluctantly. We dash it off to keep the promotional folk off our backs, then go back to working on the Good Stuff.

That’s a shame. Because summing up your film in 100 words or less forces you to focus on the bare bones of your Story. It tells you what underpins your film, what holds all that fabulous content together. It tells you lots of stuff you really do need to know:

  • Your film’s mission
  • Why the audience should care
  • How your film starts and finishes
  • Your film’s primary ‘story beats’
  • What to do about links
  • Your film’s theme
  • And a whole load more besides.

It sounds like a lot of work for 100 words to do. But that’s exactly why it works. It forces you to organise the detail into a handful of big ideas. It tells you what it is you’re really trying to say to your audience. It underpins everything.

The billing / promo / blurb is your Story Engine.

One easy way to create a billing is to split it into four:

Idea 1: Introduce the subject, why it’s interesting, what we usually think about it.

Idea 2: Introduce the film’s ‘angle’ – your approach to the subject and why it’s new. Present the new way of seeing that will make us revise our opinion.

(This section will often begin with “but”.)

Idea 3: Tell us why / how this will change our view of the subject.

Idea 4: Tell us what we will learn, and why it matters. (This is a measure of how far we have come since Sentence 1.)

Taken together, these 4 ideas give you the backbone of your film. They provide the all-important beginning, middle and end. They tell how to write your script.

For example, a zillion years ago I made “Electric Skies”, a documentary about the science of lightning for Channel Four’s “Equinox”. It was the first of its kind, and spawned countless weather films. The brief was:

Lightning is spectacular. There’s some science-stuff to say about it. So, go make a film.

That’s pretty much all the proposal actually said. Interesting content, but not a hint of a Story. Until you write a billing:

IDEA 1: Introduce the subject, why it’s interesting, what we usually think about it. Lightning fascinates us. It is embedded in our psyche. It shows us nature at its most mythic and powerful.
IDEA 2: Introduce the film’s ‘angle’ – your approach to the subject and why it’s new. Present the way of seeing that will make us to revise our opinion. But science tells a richer story. Today, we can study lightning as never before.
IDEA 3: Tell us why this will change our view of the subject. We can examine the anatomy of electrical storms, right down to every fork of a lightning bolt…
IDEA 4: Tell us what we will learn, and why it matters. (This is a measure of how far we have come since Sentence 1.) …and we have learned that lightning is bound up with our lives in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined.

It works for emotional stories too.4 ideas, 72 words; and suddenly it feels like a Story.

Here, the film’s structure (the sequence of events) is usually more obvious, because you are likely to be following real events as they unfold. So, what’s important is to nail the emotional arc – the way our feelings develop, and twist and turn as the film goes on.

IDEA 1: Introduce the subject, why it’s interesting, what we usually think about it.

Edith has just 3 months to live, and is in constant pain. She’s 87. It is time to make peace with herself and her family, and hope for a comfortable end.

IDEA 2: Introduce the film’s ‘angle’ – your approach to the subject and why it’s new. Present the way of seeing that will make us to revise our opinion.

But Edith is having none of it. She’s determined to live dangerously. She’s going to die anyway, so why not take risks?

IDEA 3: Tell us why this will change our view of the subject.

Despite her disabilities, she rides in gliders, a bobsleigh, and a white-water raft.

IDEA 4: Tell us what we will learn, and why it matters. (This is a measure of how far we have come since Sentence 1.)

Finally she prepares to return home to her family. But first she wants to take one last ride…

…and it promises to be the ride of her life.

The billing / promo / blurb… A vital tool to help you find your story.94 words this time. But once again you have turned “She does this, and then this, and then this…” into something that feels like a Story. You have distilled what the film is about. In this case, it’s about the emotional journey, not the physical one.