One of the great truths of media is that there is no such thing as bad press, but how to get even bad press can be a mysterious process for filmmakers without giant, studio publicity machines behind them. There are filmmakers who seem to produce very little work, but are constantly finding their way into articles, while other good works are passed over. These seemingly arbitrary decisions can be based on anything from a writer championing a film they love to a press release arriving on a slow news day.
The most significant and difficult-to-define reason a film gets written about is, of course, that it is a good film. What defines a good film, a relevant film or an interesting film shifts from publication to publication. For many national consumer magazines if a film does not feature a major box office star the only reason to cover it is if it is pulling in major box office numbers. But here at The Independent we often shy away from movies with big stars, big numbers, and big distributors, because our mission is to give independents the information and inspiration to stay independent.
Each publication uses its criteria when deciding what to cover. According to editor-in-chief of indieWIRE and IFC Rant Eugene Hernandez, “Balance is important to me, so we try to cover a wide range of movies, from higher-profile, bigger budgeted films from the studio specialty division, to smaller, more personal films with limited distribution.” But as a publication with a localized, general readership The Village Voice weighs different factors. Film editor Dennis Lim says, “[It’s] hard to quantify what makes a film of interest—some degree of competence, but mainly originality and ambition. In terms of what we cover, films with local or political subject matter tend to have an edge, though these are by no means requirements.”
Since each publication writes about independent film from its own angle, it is important to read the publications that you are asking to cover your film. Acquaint yourself with the type of articles they publish and do not publish. For example, do not contact The Independent asking to have your film reviewed, because we do not publish reviews. The message you are sending is that you do not know the publication and do not really care if we write about you or not. But other publications, such as The Village Voice, devote much of their independent film coverage to reviews.
Most publications tie their coverage to a project’s release date. But this does not mean that if you are seeking distribution you cannot get your film’s name in print. It just means that you need to be more strategic about how you go after coverage, and realistic. The fact that a film is in a festival or even has grabbed an award will probably not generate interest in extensive coverage. But festivals are an opportunity for journalists to see your film and write about it in the context of a festival report, and even earmark it as a film to keep an eye on. “The best place for [indieWIRE] to cover new films without distribution is in our festival reports. We do also publish one or two biz articles and festival lineup and winner stories each day as well. Short pitches or a notice that a film has won an award or will be featured at a particular festival can sometimes help secure a mention,” Hernandez says. “Filmmakers should drop us a short email alerting us to the fact that their movie will be at a particular festival. A short pitch and screening times can be helpful, although our editors or reporters probably won’t lock down their screening schedules until they are at the festival. A quick in-person hello is always a good way to remind a reporter about a screening. Typically a low-cost postcard with screening times and a brief synopsis is a good idea.”
Even basic press releases and press kits that may be sent out to dozens of publications need to be written with the knowledge that the people being addressed are journalists who have seen and written about hundreds of films. You need to let them know what is news worthy about your film. News is change. News is difference. A first time filmmaker finishing a coming-of-age-story for under a million dollars is not news. It is admirable, but it is also one of the most worn-out stories in independent film.
At most publications somebody will read your press release, but unless the publication decides to cover the film you probably will not get a response. There is simply not enough staff to answer all the emails, letters, and faxes.
If you are sending out screeners check with the publication before you spend the money on a tape and postage because different publications have different policies. Lim says, “always send a tape—no point writing an effusive press release (or worse, describing the film at length in a voicemail message), since I’d really rather judge for myself. It’s not always possible, but I try to watch at least part of every screener that comes in.” At The Independent and indieWIRE unsolicited tapes rarely make it into VCR’s. “Unless [a screener] is requested by one of our writers or editors, save your money. Unsolicited screening tapes are typically not viewed and end up in a pile of other such tapes in our office. Eventually they will be tossed out,” Hernandez explains.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a follow-up call or email, but be smart about it. “It is important to be persistent but not too aggressive,” Hernandez says. “While it wouldn’t be right for me to name names, we have had a number of filmmakers who feel that they are entitled to be covered in indieWIRE. Some have written insulting email messages to our editors as a way to convince us to write about their movies. Needless to say, that is not the best approach.”
In addition to not being a jerk, you need to be aware that publications of all types plan what will be covered in any given issue far in advance. Articles in this issue of The Independent, were assigned in May and we began planning the issue in March. That means that to even be considered for this issue you would have had to contact our office at least four months ago. Even daily and weekly publications schedule much of their coverage four to six weeks before the street date. “Where possible, I like to get materials a month or so ahead of time. If I get a tape the day before a film is screening (or even a week before), there’s really nothing I can do,” comments Lim.
When you meet a member of the press at a film festival or a screening this is an opportunity not only to attach a real person to your film, but also to get yourself into the journalist’s Palm Pilot. So, do not just ask for the journalist’s card but give them one of yours, preferably with the name of your film written on it.
The key to making friends with journalists is to be available when they call. Journalists may work far in advance, but they are always on tight deadlines. One sure way not to get covered is to not talk to the press. The people that you see quoted over and over again in print are not only the people who know the field, they are also people who return the call.
When you are being interviewed be yourself, but be your best self. This is the person who is representing you in print. Arguing with a journalist, talking down to a writer because they ask questions that seem simple to you, or relentlessly pushing certain topics is not in your own best interest. Be as informative and generous as you can and you will win the hearts of reporters.
Since it is human nature to want more, the next question is probably: how do I get on the cover? And the answer depends on the publication. Many magazines plan their cover six months or more in advance and hire a photographer to shoot them. These magazines decide covers based on a number of factors, including current buzz, celebrity, sex appeal, the quality of the final photographs, and, of course, availability. If a magazine asks you to do a photo shoot find the time to do it. While a shoot does not guarantee the cover, it certainly puts you in the running.
A number of trade and specialty magazines including The Independent use “supplied art” for many of their covers. Most of the time these are the photos that were taken on set for the press kit (see page 48). Each publication has editorial policies that help decide what qualifies for the cover. While a sexy blonde might be the perfect cover for some publications, it will not make the cut at others. But more often than not the picture on the cover will be from the film in the feature section that supplied the best image. The “best image” is not always the most dynamic, arresting photograph. Technical problems can knock a film off the cover. One of the most common is the lack of a strong vertical image. If you hire an on-set photographer make sure to request vertical photos be shot in addition to horizontals. Poor quality slides and prints also hurt the chances of an image making it on to the cover. If you are working on a tight budget make a couple of high quality prints to keep in reserve, just in case. It is, also, a good idea to have all your images available in high-resolution scans since many publications will use these for everything except the cover.
Ultimately, the writers who cover independent film and video care deeply about the work they write about. At most publications a good film will find a champion in somebody and eventually find its way into the publication. “It is important to know that everyone in the film business wants to discover new talent, so if a movie is good I strongly believe that it can get attention, but it takes a strategic approach,” Hernandez observes.