Publicity for independent films: tips from the experts

I attended the “No publicity really is bad publicity” seminar at the Palm Springs International Short film Festival and this is a concise write-up of some of the main points made by the publicists who participated. The panel was moderated by Kathleen McInnis, who was unit publicist on the movie “Surveillance”, among others. In accordance with Kathleen’s request, no statements or opinions will be directly attributed to any of the publicists who composed the panel.

1. The publicity campaign for a movie is vital to its success and must be carefully planned before the movie is shot. The publicity aspects are directed by the unit publicist, in consultation with the film’s director and other stakeholders.

2. It is absolutely essential to gather as many assets as possible during the film’s production. That means thousands of production photographs, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, B-roll, production notes, and so on. Many independent filmmakers only remember about this after the movie is shot, by which time it is obviously too late to do anything about it (except perhaps for interviews and production notes).

3. Gathering many high-quality assets can make the publicity campaign absolutely fabulous, even though the movie ultimately underperforms at the box office. One of the publicists told the story of how a single, absolutely brilliant photograph taken during the production of a movie he represented became iconic, and was reprinted by dozens of newspapers and trade publications. This made for a truly spectacular publicity campaign, even though the film ultimately turned out to be a financial disappointment.

4. The publicist brings a fresh perspective to the movie and has the vital role of linking the film to its audience in a commercially meaningful way. Many filmmakers dream of their movie having worldwide appeal across all demographics, but the truth is that almost all movies made (and definitely independent movies) speak to a very specific audience, and it is absolutely vital to reach it with effectiveness and specificity. That is the unit publicist’s role.

5. This also means that the way the publicist describes the movie to the public and the press may not be fully consistent with how the director sees the movie, but it is absolutely essential to trust the publicist. The film’s financial success it at stake!

6. What often happens when a new independent movie is on the market is that a distribution company — perhaps even a really famous one — calls the filmmakers and asks to see a screener. When they receive this call, filmmakers naturally feel excited and eager to comply, thinking that their movie is getting hot. The panel of publicists warned that this is in fact a huge mistake. Instead, the filmmakers should politely but firmly tell them that they cannot see the movie in advance, and that they will have to attend the film festival or film market screening along with everyone else. The reason for this is that if a distribution company is given a sneak peek and doesn’t like it, the movie is at that point pretty much dead, and you will not be able to sell it, if not for a handful of pennies. It is absolutely essential that all potential buyers see the movie simultaneously.

The recurring themes of the 90-minute seminar were that you should take the publicity aspect of filmmaking very seriously, that you should retain the services of a talented unit publicist before the movie a shot, and that sufficient resources should be allocated to gathering assets of the best possible quality. As with every other profession in the filmmaking business, some publicists are willing to reduce their fees substantially or work out any number of special arrangements for independent movies or filmmakers that they find particularly interesting.

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