If nobody hears about your bold little play breaking new ground in a storefront theatre, if society drags itself from day to day without heeding the siren song of buzz on your independent film, then it's entirely likely that the stage and screen will come to life before a house devoid of patrons. Rather than face so grim a prospect, my friends, it's time to bite the bullet and spend the bucks on a publicist. There's more to selling a product than good intentions and a press release.
There being no central clearing house for the profession, word of mouth is the best way to find a publicist. Not everyone has the good fortune of being a personal friend of a critic or entertainment reporter, but those who are realize what a valuable resource such a creature can be in hiring a publicist. Journalists will generally have a number of relationships within the trade and be able to provide information both professional and personal. If you notice the publicity on a certain project and find it effective, read it closely. There's a very good chance a smart publicist has put his or her name on it somewhere. And, of course, there is always the Back Stage West annual Theatre Guide, last published in the Dec. 30, 2004, issue, which lists theatre publicists.
As to evaluating a publicist, suggests Leigh Fortier—director, producer, and founder of Plays 411—find one who shares your interest in the project. On a purely quantitative basis, you can check on items they have publicized; but a shared passion and a willingness to spend sufficient time with you is paramount.
Winship Cook, of Shadwell Productions, discovered this when she became a first-time theatrical producer last year for a piece called The Awful Grace of God, a remarkable one-man show about Robert F. Kennedy with a limited run of six shows at the Court Theatre, in Hollywood. It opened in July. She started looking for a publicist in June. This is not, by the way, the recommended timetable, but we'll get to that later. Fortunately she found a publicist who, upon reading the play, set to work to try to sell, as she puts it, "something with an unknown actor and an unknown play in a town where nobody goes to theatre." The publicist came to share Cook's passion for the piece and, using his enviable network of connections, managed to create the kind of awareness that got the show four reviews, one a rave in Variety, and an extension beyond its initial six performances. Cook is now in negotiation with an Off-Broadway house to open the play in the fall. Having a publicist made it possible for Cook to focus on her position as a producer and let someone capable handle what might have been an overwhelming and unnecessary burden.
Of course the month before opening isn't the optimum time to be booking a publicist. In the world of Los Angeles theatre, the time to get a publicist, according to David Elzer of Demand P.R., is the moment after you get the notion of producing a show. "I've had people come up to me two weeks after the show has opened saying, '[I] have three weeks left; what can I do?'" Elzer says. "I can't even begin to take on a client like that, because it takes at least a week to put together a proper press release, and then by the time you get it to the press you're lucky if you even get listed."
Janis Hashe, who along with Cathy Carlton constitutes Betty P.R., would optimally like three months' warning, but more is better. A recent client came to her six months in advance of a June opening. Having the luxury of time, Betty P.R. was able to get part of a feature in Los Angeles magazine. "But the only reason that that could happen was because we had the show so far in advance," Hashe points out.
When you hire a publicist, what you're getting in addition to the publicist is the publicist's connections to a remarkable number of resources. A good publicist is able to pick up the phone and speak to someone at the many Southern California publications and will likely have established relationships with many of them. This is particularly important if you have a production that has definite niche market appeal. Last year Betty P.R. repped four shows with Russian themes. Hashe made it her business to know that, "There's actually a rather big Russian media conglomerate here in town that has several publications and also owns a radio station, plus there's a really good website. So, if you can get your client into those outlets, it's targeting directly. This is the kind of thing that, if you're just a theatre producer, how are you going to even know that any of this stuff even exists? That's kind of our job: to know that that stuff exists."
Certain things are incumbent on the producer who needs a publicist. Fortier says, "Know what you think is unique or good about your project." But the word that came up the most in speaking to publicists was "passion." Be passionate about your project and know what's expected of you. Be willing to discuss with a publicist exactly what it is you're selling. Be available to your publicist in a timely manner. Have your bios for the creative team ready, along with all the necessary information for assembling a press release: theatre address, phone number, ticket service, and the run of the show, for starters.
One can expect to spend anywhere from $400 to a few thousand, depending on the size of your production and the demands made on the publicist. It's important that you understand just what can and cannot be done, too. Elzer says, "I never promise that they're going to get reviewed. I never promise anything but trying to create as much awareness as possible for their shows so, in the unfortunate circumstance that they're not reviewed, we've done what we need to do to sell tickets. Elzer prefers to do business on a handshake and spell things out without a written agreement, upfront. Betty P.R., is a big believer in contracts. Says Hashe, "Literally everything that we will be doing, we put into the letter of agreement. It lists the releases that are going to go out, whether or not we're contracted to do their extension release if they extend, are we going to do meet-and-greet, are we preparing their press kits?" Regardless of the publicist's approach, it's imperative that the client ask as many questions as necessary to avoid ever having to say, "But I thought you were going to…."
The cunning little film looking for a chance to make it also relies a great deal on passion, says L.A.–based publicist Mickey Cottrell—both the passion of the filmmaker for the movie and the passion of the publicist for the entire package. Cottrell recently found himself in a singular situation in which, upon seeing a film he liked, he took the creator out to lunch, only to find that, "The guy was completely inarticulate. The guy did not know how to talk about his movie, he didn't know where the movie came from, he had never really thought much about it. So I did not take him on." Even a good publicist can't sell you if you can't sell yourself.
Film is a lengthier process, and Cottrell breaks down his approach into four areas of publicity: production, festivals, release, and awards, each of which has different components. During production, there are certain things a filmmaker should attend to so as to make effective publicity possible later—primarily, making sure there is a still photographer on the set. Pulling press images off a digitized screen-capture results in poor-quality photos, which is the last thing one wants to convey about a labor of love. James Lewis of the publicity firm of MPRM also advises that, "If you go to the trouble of finding an A-list actor who believes in you and is willing to be in your movie for no money, make sure that you get some broadcast interviews done during production, because you'll probably not get the support of that actor again. Whether your budget is $10,000 or $10 million, you have to make sure that your print- and photo-publicity materials, as well as your broadcast materials, are set to represent the context of the production, so that story can be told through the film's life. Because of all the various trade publications, behind-the-scenes photos and B-roll of production are just as important as film stills that represent the film itself."
The festival level is where something such as Cottrell's 25 years in the business is worth its weight in gold. "I have relationships with lots of festival directors and program directors at festivals," he says. "I have a pretty good sense of, certainly, all of the major festivals in the world, what sort of films they're looking for, what may work, what is more likely to work than something else. And I also have a sense of what the most important festivals are." A knowledgeable publicist will also keep the new filmmaker from going with the first festival that takes an interest in the movie, thus disqualifying the project for other, more prestigious festivals that demand the film be either an American or world premiere. Cottrell goes to work as soon as he sees the film: "I sit down and I start writing out all the names of the people that I'm going to call that I know are going to respond to this film. I have a shorthand with these people. I know how to speak with this one as opposed to anyone, and I know the language of one and the language of the other, and they're not the same. I know how to approach. I know what this guy's back door is and what this woman's soft spot is."
Once the film is on the festival circuit, it's time to go hunting for a publicist in earnest to sell the release of the film. Although Lewis believes that the best candidate for securing a publicist is a feature-length film that has clearly not been made simply as a steppingstone to one's next project, his experience has taught him that, "All films are unique, and some filmmakers can have absolutely no stars and not a ton of production value and still come across as something that screams, 'Talent!'" This is when a publicist looks for the selling points. Is it original? Is it sexy? Is it somehow controversial? Whatever approach the publicist takes, the smaller film almost requires a custom approach. Cottrell points out, "Every film is different. You have a different approach. I'm not like a big publicity machine that, because of the size of the company and because of all the projects that are part of the company, they have to take more of a cookie-cutter approach." For this the filmmaker can expect to part with $3,500 a month for a three-month minimum with Cottrell, this standard rate fluctuating according to the size of the project and the circumstances.
And the publicists' influence at the award phase? Says Cottrell: "There was a movie a couple of years ago called The Quiet American, with Michael Caine. The director of that is a client of mine for 18 years, Phillip Noyce. Phillip had a horrible time with that movie because one of the principal characters in it was an American—he was the quiet American—but he was basically a terrorist. The film was first screened for a test audience right before 9/11—I think it was the night before—and they had a very good response. And then about a month later they screened it and the audiences freaked out and said, 'You can't portray an American as a terrorist.' So [Miramax Films'] Harvey Weinstein got very cold feet, and he was going to go straight to video. I saw the film, and I said, 'Phillip, this is your masterpiece, this is not going straight to video, this has to go to the Toronto Film Festival.' We screened it for them, and they agreed it was a fantastic film. I went out to all the press, and I said, 'Harvey wants to send this straight to video. If you believe this film should have a theatrical life, you have to say in the first paragraph of your review that it should, and to tell Harvey that he has to release it.' So the critics did. And then the day after Toronto it's on the front page of Variety, 'Best Buzz Gives Quiet Release.' Michael Caine wound up getting nominated for Best Actor."
And that's why you get yourself a publicist. BSW