Behind the Spin

There is a mystique to filmmaking—the silvery light that reflects off the screen, the way the story shapes a character’s whole life in two hours and how that life can then resonate so deeply with an audience. The myth of filmmaking is what makes it such a powerful medium. But more and more, art and independent film have dovetailed with the contemporary commercial demands of the medium.

Except for ad buys, it is woefully difficult to guarantee that an independent film will receive any attention in the press, not to mention from the general public, because independent films have few of the resources—or overtly commercial instincts—that studios use to track and shape their product. The result on the festival circuit, where most of these films are seen for the first time, is often perceived as a complex web of press agents serving as promotion consultants to neophyte filmmakers and producers, which may explain why the world of publicity is so shrouded in stereotype. Or maybe it is due to a serious misunderstanding over what a publicist, like myself, does and why.

Even with all its recent expansion, the Austin-based SXSW Film Festival still represents an authentic taste of the independent film world. There is a large community presence and a real support from local Austinites, bolstered by a small industry attendance that doesn’t create a suffocating environment to new filmmakers trying to get some feedback on their projects. There is great opportunity at this festival to access all types of information to further their understanding of the art and market of the medium. I had hoped when I attended SXSW earlier this year that one of its panel offerings, “Meet the Film Press,” would provide filmmakers with some real information about how to get your film noticed by journalists. And for my part, it only makes sense for a publicist to attend a panel of film reporters discussing what they do to help better understand what drives the people we need to access.

In the Austin Convention Center where the festival was headquartered, the panels were held in divided rooms with your typical rows of chairs and a long dais at the front. The room for this particular panel was significantly full and when polled, the audience was about three quarters filmmakers. The six media panelists (which included Rebecca Carroll, the editor of this magazine) represented a fair cross section of mainstream, independent, and industry media, and the conversation very quickly turned its focus to press materials and the demerits of glossy packages versus phone calls and email pitches. It became apparent to me that the panel wasn’t going to be an opportunity for filmmakers to hear about how important it is to know the outlet they are approaching, what the difference is between a review and a feature, and what realistically they can expect in terms of any kind of coverage at all.

What could have been an informative dialogue about how to navigate the broad and mysterious world of film marketing and promotion turned into somewhat of a bash session—only one journalist on the entire panel suggested that a publicist might actually be helpful for a filmmaker looking to get their film noticed. Panelists seemed to largely agree that it is unnecessary to have a publicist at all if you are a first-time filmmaker, because you can do all the outreach yourself. Which to be fair is not impossible, but does require a certain amount of research in order to learn who and how to pitch, what elements of film an outlet covers, and the skills and virtues of persistent follow-up. Had this been suggested during the panel, I would have felt better about the whole thing, but sadly, what came across more than anything else was that journalists don’t like to be called by publicists at 7:30 a.m. How does this help a filmmaker better understand the film media world? A 7:30 a.m. call may be annoying and unprofessional, but that really boils down to a topic more suited for discussion around a water cooler. Why not discuss what to look for in a press agent—why some are bad and others have succeeded? In retrospect, it may have been beneficial to raise my hand and pose this question to the panel, but it wasn’t the time or place to air grievances or attempt to re-educate. Although, I have often thought that the myth of publicity would make a good panel all on its own.

Film pros on panels like this one rarely realize that their audience is mostly made up of rookies—people seeking the most basic information, not film game insider gripes. For better or worse, at some point these filmmakers will need a professional to guide them through the treacherous waters of the festival world, and they could have come away from this SXSW panel armed with some knowledge in determining who that professional—agency or rep—might be. Instead, I fear that most came away with the notion that press agents are unnecessary, which only furthers the stereotype and continues the trend that there is no separation within agent vocation. In other words, all press agents are just annoying, overzealous spin-doctors—not an integral part of the indie film landscape.

Ultimately, I left the panel feeling that there needs to be a reevaluation of the role of publicist, because right now it is still a misconstrued function in the film business clouded with Lizzie Grubman-esque stereotypes that are perpetuated by highly coiffed door girls in Manolo Blahnik’s. For someone like myself, with a real passion for the medium, fighting this stereotype is often an uphill battle. Maybe if there were to be an explanation of what it means to be a press agent and how that role is integrated into the larger machine of film marketing the stereotype could be altered.

First, distinguishing the difference between independent project-based publicity and the personal publicist is crucial. When big movie stars get hounded about their personal lives, one can argue the necessity and virtues of hiring a representative to fend off the press. But in the world of independent film, this isn’t really the case. So few independent films get any consideration at all—niche nor mainstream—never mind the actors in the film, that by default an independent publicist becomes the film’s advocate and a conduit to the media. Essentially, it’s the role of an informer: “Here is this film. You may like it because of these reasons. Maybe your readers/viewers/listeners would be interested in it because of these other reasons. Would you consider checking it out?” And then it’s up to the journalist to make a connection to the film.

An independent publicist can be especially helpful at a film festival, where there are upwards of 200 films for the attending media to consider. And a good publicist is someone who connects with a project, seeks out the film’s strong identifiers, and hones that message so that the film’s back-story is an understated part of the film viewing experience. And yes, the day-to-day calling and emailing and pitching and inviting and confirming may be annoying to a journalist who is hearing from several different people about several different films on any given day, but there is also a remedy to this. If a journalist is not interested in the project being pitched, they can always say no. Any publicist with an ounce of self-respect will back off and try a different section of the publication or a different writer who may better connect with the project. There is a certain art to pitching, and knowing the outlet and subtle tastes of individual writers and critics is a good portion of the job. This requires research and dedication.

The current festival landscape is a hard one to navigate and can very easily be overwhelming for a first-time filmmaker. A publicist can help by steering the film towards the media and acting as its escort and champion. Amid all the conflicting ideas and perceptions about publicists, it is still important to remember that they are your first line of offense to the media and are a crucial resource in gaining the largest possible audience for your film.

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