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Film At the Vancouver film fest, even the trailers are art

A scene from The Warden.

In a world (continue in deep, breathy big-screen voice-over) where trailers are more than introductions to movies, where intelligent, engaged filmgoers demand more from their pre-film cinema experience than your average 60-second promotional spot, one festival stands alone.

This year's Vancouver International Film Festival promises innovation not just in the features, documentaries and shorts it will screen, but in its trailers.

Rather than run the same three or four trailers before each screening, creative agency TBWA is producing 16 separate trailers - one for each day of the festival - that together tell one story, creating, in essence, a short film.

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"We've had some tremendous success over the last few years and thought, 'What can we do to change it up this year?' " says Paul Little, TBWA's creative director in Vancouver. "And we started thinking, 'What if we actually created a film ourselves? It's for a film festival, so what if we created a film and we asked people to try to figure out what they're watching?' "

TBWA has been producing VIFF's trailers for 12 years to great acclaim. Last year's comedic An Open Mind is Advised campaign, which played off the obscurity and quirkiness of festival-friendly independent films, won a Bronze Lion at Cannes this past summer.

"They like pushing the envelope, and there's been a few times in the past when we've said, 'Can't you do something a little simpler?' " festival director Alan Franey says. "But they seem to really get a lot of recognition both from our audience and from their peers in the advertising community; they've won a lot of awards for their work with us over the years, so we're loath to neutralize their creativity and shackle them with doing something too conventional."

Neither Franey nor Little has heard of this being done elsewhere.

Little and his team crafted a story about a prison warden and divided it into 16 scenes. The first, available online, shows a man leaving a motel room, slowly walking to his pickup truck, getting in, slumping over the steering wheel, distraught, and finally exploding into a scream.

It offers no real clue to the story, other than a clear indication that this is no comedy. To make matters more interesting/confusing/exciting, TBWA has decided to release the scenes non-linearly: That first scene, as it turns out, is actually the last scene in the trailer-film.

Little says contemporary television has served as a model for the project. "With HBO and shows like 24, a lot of people are watching series over time. You'll watch a TV show and the characters aren't explained and you have to figure it out as you go and it doesn't get wrapped up in one episode; it runs over a whole period of time. We thought that's kind of interesting; we have a captive audience over the 16 days of the film festival and they're obviously a savvy, film-loving group and we thought maybe we could film something that doesn't wrap up into a self-contained little segment. And when we thought of that, we thought, well, that's really interesting - to almost confuse people in a way."

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The Internet is a key to making this less confusing. The hope is that curious audience members will go online to watch the scenes that have already been released (at thewardensixteen.com). Each trailer/scene will be available online a day after it plays in theatres.

Little says the campaign may even have a positive impact at the box office. "In the best-case scenario, these are little ads for the festival, so ideally people will get so intrigued, they'll go see more films."

Franey isn't sure if that will happen, but he clearly has faith in the company; he hasn't seen the completed film and doesn't even know the plot.

"It's a bit of a risk," he says. "The saving grace is that they're brief and it's rather elliptical when you're sitting down and you're preparing for a film anyway. The curtain opens up, it's all new for everyone, people don't really have very concrete expectations of what they're seeing because the films are all new. So it's kind of the spirit of the festival: exploration and experimentation."

The Vancouver International Film Festival runs Sept. 30 to Oct. 15 ( www.viff.org).

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