“The time to start thinking about publicity is right now.”
The deeper you get into the film industry – pitching projects, crewing on professional productions, attending film festivals – the more you’ll hear about lesser-known but no less essential roles.
When first starting out, it can be difficult to grasp what each of these roles contributes to a film professional’s career. To help you climb the learning curve, we dove deep into the world of the filmmaker’s core behind-the-scenes “team”, comprising the agent, manager, and entertainment lawyer. Today, we’ll take a look at an auxiliary team member: the publicist.
What is a publicist? What do publicists do? We’ll explore these questions today through three lenses: the role a publicist plays in an actor’s career, a filmmaker’s career, and throughout the life of a film.
A General Definition
After earning a degree in screenwriting, I spent several years working as an assistant at a boutique talent management firm in Brooklyn, New York. There, I worked closely with several high-profile actors, several of whom had – you guessed it! – publicists.
Unlike a manager or agent, publicists tend to come and go. A publicist’s main job is to seek publicity – press – for their client. As Sokanu puts it, “Public relations is the art of influencing public perception by using strategic communication”, where “strategic” is the key word. A publicist communicates on an actor’s, filmmaker’s, or film’s behalf to achieve a specific outcome; for example, the elevation of one’s public image.
I. What Publicists Do for Actors and Other Celebrities
What does it mean logistically for a publicist to seek publicity for their client?
Well, at the most basic level, this could mean that the publicist reaches out to media outlets including newspapers, magazines, and television shows, pitching their client for coverage. “The main responsibility of a publicist is to get positive press coverage for his client,” Dave Roos details. “To do this, the publicist needs to create and maintain good relationships with journalists by sending them original, insightful, timely story ideas that involve the client in some way”:
“The most important skill for a publicist is the ability to think like a journalist. Journalists and editors need publicists as much as publicists need them. Editors need to fill the pages of their newspapers, magazines and websites. They need stories tailored to their readers’ interests. Celebrity and entertainment writers, in particular, rely on tips from publicists to keep their sections original and exciting.”
So for example, a publicist may reach out to a contact at, say, People, letting them know what their client is up to and why a story about them would be interesting. If People were to agree to a story, then the publicist would coordinate it. They would set up a time for an interview and photo shoot (if necessary), and likely speak with the editorial team about areas of interest the story could cover.
The same happens on a television show. Imagine the publicist reaches out to a late night program to get their client booked as a guest. In this scenario, the publicist schedules the appearance, arranges travel logistics (if the show tapes in New York City but their client is Los Angeles based, for example), and perhaps briefs the show’s producers on interesting talking points. Often, producers of late night shows conduct pre-interviews with their guests, so that when it comes time to do the show, the host already has some idea of what direction the conversation could go. It can be a lot of fun:
But why would you want a publicist to reach out to media outlets on your behalf?
As an actor, part of your job is being a public figure. Many people watch movies in part because they want to feel connected to their Actor Obsession, not only on the big screen but also through the material leading up to it; for example, a TV interview where an actor shares funny anecdotes about the production process. Consequently, many studios tie a movie’s potential profitability to the likability of its leads. A publicist can help an actor score gigs that build their likability, thereby building their bankability, which can open the door to future projects.
Of course, there are other reasons for a celebrity to hire a publicist, including damage control. If an actor’s reputation has been tarnished, their likability declines, pulling them down the image-profitability continuum. So a publicist may be hired to appeal to newspapers, magazines, and television shows to feature the client in a way that empowers them to revamp their image. Imagine an actor has been criticized for not caring about the environment – a magazine feature about their philanthropic work rehabilitating animals could help repair their image.
Speaking of philanthropic work, a publicist also may be hired to promote a cause or charitable organization the celebrity supports. In this scenario, the publicist highlights the work the celebrity is doing with the organization, spinning it into an interesting story for a major publication. This raises public awareness, encouraging others to give or otherwise support similar philanthropic work.
Other common reasons a publicist is brought onboard include:
- For help navigating a time during which the celebrity is highly sought-after. For example, an actor nominated for awards may lean on a publicist to manage associated press appearances, as well as the logistics of the various awards ceremonies.
- For help spreading the word about a project. If you’ve written a book, you could enlist a publicist to boost the book’s profile and coordinate press.
- For help writing speeches and landing speaking gigs, such as university commencements and keynote addresses. The publicist would weigh in on which events the celebrity accepts – do they stand for and support the same things the actor stands for and supports? Are their belief systems compatible? Will speaking for organization (x) raise the actor’s profile in a positive way? The publicist’s job is to evaluate how gigs will affect the actor’s visibility and public image.
II. What Publicists Do for Filmmakers
A filmmaker may hire a publicist for the same reasons as an actor or other celebrity: to boost their profile, rehabilitate their image, help navigate awards season, and spread the word about a project. Although it’s less common for, say, a film director to be booked on a late night show to publicize and thus sell a film, it’s not unheard of – household names like Steven Spielberg sometimes find themselves in this position.
A director also may want a publicist to represent them at a film festival. This is especially common when the filmmaker or their film has a fairly high profile at a festival and is generating a lot of buzz.
More specifically, at a film festival, a publicist may:
- Help coordinate interviews with the filmmaker.
- Help the filmmaker prepare for Q&A panels and choose which ones to do.
- Help coordinate which festival events the filmmaker will attend: parties, premieres, screenings, awards ceremonies, and the like.
III. What Publicists Do for a Film
It’s very common for a publicist to represent an entire film. In this context, the publicist’s job is similar to when they’re representing an individual, only instead of pitching stories about a person, they’re pitching stories about a project. The goal remains the same: to raise the profile of the film by making it seem interesting, which leads to more coverage, which leads to people hearing about it and wanting to check it out for themselves.
Here, a publicist will manage what’s called a “publicity campaign” – in other words, a specific, focused effort intended to boost the film’s profile. Again, this is very similar to when a publicist works with an actor or filmmaker, but it can be easier to wrap our minds around a publicist’s responsibility in context of a film project. We’re used to the idea of a movie being advertised to us but tend to be less aware of the fact that people are advertised to us, too.
A film publicist’s job can include:
- Creating a press kit, which is a collection of promotional/informational materials that’s sent to press outlets. Traditionally, this was (and in some cases still is) a physical packet of information, printed out. However, Electronic Press Kits (EPKs) are increasingly the norm. Be it physical or EPK, a press kit can include a film synopsis, stills, and blurbs about the production process. Press outlets can use these materials to write stories and as a springboard to launch more in-depth interviews with the filmmaker and actors.
- Managing a press tour, in which actors meet with press outlets in different cities. For example, imagine that the cast of Superhero Movie 3 travels to New York City for a day, where they take back-to-back meetings with newspapers, magazines, bloggers, and TV producers. This usually happens in a hotel. Actors sit in a room, and different interviewers come in and out to ask questions. The next day, the cast travels to London, where they’ll do the same thing but with the London press.
- Coordinating press screenings, in which the press and other notable people are invited for a premiere or advance screening of a film, with the understanding that those people will proceed to spread the word about it through coverage across multiple channels: articles, photos of actors walking the red carpet, and the like.
A publicist for an independent film does many of these things on a smaller scale, in addition to managing film festival submissions, which often involves sending a press kit. Regardless, the goal is the same: to raise the profile of the movie.
How Are Publicists Paid?
Unlike agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers, who are paid through commission – meaning that they receive a portion of whatever a celebrity gets paid for a particular job – publicists are hired fir a fixed fee. According to a report in The Hollywood Reporter that breaks down the pay of many different professions in the film industry:
“A unit publicist hired by a studio earns about $2,750 a week, or $41,000 per film. Personal publicists employed by stars earn much more, with some making $400,000 or more a year.”
It’s worth repeating that publicists, unlike agents and managers, come and go throughout a celebrity’s career. When a celebrity is very busy with press appearances or has a particular need for logistical help or image boosting, they may hire a publicist. When a celebrity is lying low or otherwise at home preparing for the next big thing, a publicist may not be a necessary piece of the overall team puzzle.
What Skills Must a Publicist Have?
Because the job involves making connections with the press and pitching stories as well as coordinating press-related activities, at its core, being a publicist requires you to be creative, outgoing, and super organized. Creative Skillset describes it like this:
“To do this role you will need to:
- Have a good knowledge of and understanding of the media – print, TV, radio and internet
- Have good contacts in the film and media industries
- Be able to thrive in changing situations and remain flexible and spontaneous
- Be good at problem solving and dealing with situations strategically
- Be able to multitask
- Be good at pitching and persuading
- Have good networking skills
- Have excellent communication skills and enjoy working with different people
- Be a good writer”
Personally I would add that having an affable personality is an asset. After all, the job is about making connections and wooing people into telling the stories that you want them to tell!
Where Can You Find a Publicist?
Although many publicists work on their own, others work for publicity firms alongside other publicists. If you want to find publicists who have worked with indie filmmakers, you could research filmmakers you admire and identify who their publicist is or was during a period of their career similar to yours. IMDbPro is arguably the best place to find up-to-date information about a film industry professional’s agent, manager, entertainment lawyer, or publicist.
Additionally, film festivals can be a fantastic resource when it comes to seeking out advice on who to connect with. Alia Quart Khan, who’s in charge of publicity for the LA Film Festival, elaborates:
“Once you get word that you’re in, the festival’s publicity department can be a great resource. Khan said the LA Film Festival keeps a list of recommended publicists that they share with filmmakers, and since the Festival works with agencies closely throughout the year, Khan and her staff are able to help filmmakers discern which one might be a fit for your film.
‘One thing that I would tell filmmakers when they’re asking me about publicists,’ said Khan, ‘is to ask them straight-up, ‘What other films are you covering and are they in my category?’ Because you don’t want someone who’s going to be pushing two things at the same time to an outlet.'”
You also don’t want to rush into hiring a publicist before the film has been made. Sylvia Desrochers, president of Big Time PR & Marketing, stresses that a publicist can’t really start working to bring attention to a film until it has been accepted to a major festival. Even so, “the time to start thinking about publicity is right now. “You’re storytellers and so are we,” she says. “We have to tell the story of your film. So it’s never too early to think about how you might present the story of your film to the public.”
Who Are Some Well-Known Publicists?
As a good editor tends to be invisible, so a good publicist pulls the strings behind-the-scenes, making it seem as if the results they help achieve naturally would have occurred in the life of their client. To call attention to themselves or their work would undermine it. Even so, there are some publicists whose work is admired.
Consider Business Insider’s list of the 20 Most Powerful Publicists, which highlights powerful publicists’ clients and some of their most memorable career moments. Here’s an example, from the work of Nicole Perez-Kruger:
Under Perez-Krueger’s guidance and tactical direction, Lauren Conrad remains the third highest-selling magazine cover despite the fact that she hasn’t been on a television series for years. Also, by orchestrating strategic press coverage and positioning, Perez-Krueger transformed the public (and professional) image of Matthew McConaughey from a romantic comedy heartthrob to a serious actor and awards contender.
That’s a really diverse list of accomplishments!
Have you ever worked with (or as) a publicist? What do you think? Or have you as a filmmaker done aspects of a publicist’s job on your own? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
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