Writers & Publicity: Advice from an Expert


Foreword

Part One: A Publicity Timeline

Part Two: The Publicist's Job Skills, Motivation, Special Cases

The Last Word


Foreword

When the movies were young, publicity in the motion picture industry was a very different game than it is today.

The one job a producer could give a "friend"--and feel certain no harm would be done--was the job of publicist. The legitimate publicists were tucked away in a corner of the lot, pounding out fabricated "items" on their typewriters.

And if writers think they are at the bottom of the food chain in the motion picture and television industries, they should glance way down at the billing given a film's publicist.

Even today when the industry recognizes the importance of publicity to its success, this worker's credit usually falls somewhere between craft service and honeywagon driver.

But entertainment has now become a major industry in America. For instance, in the area of film, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that domestic ticket sales totaled $5.91 billion in 1996 and $3.78 billion a decade earlier. An equal amount comes back to the U.S. from the international distribution of American entertainment products. The LA Times has also reported that "Hollywood may be providing as many jobs in Southern California as aerospace-defense ever did."

Q: How do you know it's time for lunch on a film location?

A: The publicist shows up.
With the advent of diverse cutting-edge technologies, new products range from low-budget, digital desktop video productions to high-cost, interactive special effects bonanzas; new avenues of distribution include everything from PCs and TV set-top boxes to new types of entertainment centers. Already, motion picture production has stepped up (the number of feature films has more than doubled the total in 1991) to fill the expanding distribution outlets of theater complexes, networks, cable channels and new international markets.

Brad Radnitz, past president of the Writers Guild of America, west, has said that "in the entertainment industry of the next millennium, a writer's success will be determined by their knowledge of the industry--from deal-making to marketing." He emphasizes that today writers must master not only their craft but also the complexities of the entertainment business.

One of the most important complexities is publicity.

While publicity for a film helps sell tickets, on a personal basis publicity helps build a public profile that moves forward a career. It increases the ability to make better deals and have more control with each script a writer pens.

In fact, among all the creative talent on a film or television project, writers are best equipped to actively lay the groundwork for their own publicity. Like a script which begins with the word, a publicity campaign also begins with the written word, in the form of pitch letters, production notes, bios, etc.

However, there are additional aspects of public relations and promotions that are vital to the success of your efforts.

The material that follows describes the elements of a successful publicity campaign so you can understand how the process works and make that process work better for you.

If you are already collaborating with publicists, this handbook hopefully can also increase your understanding of their profession. Armed with insight into their work, you can offer suggestions that are truly helpful. Then they can do their best to help you.


Harry Clein
WGAw Public Relations Consultant

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Part One

A Publicity Timeline

Publicity comes in many guises. It is variously known as public relations, media relations, even public affairs. Yet what the work entails is routinely misunderstood.

One common misconception is that publicity kicks in at the eleventh hour. Not so. If you start publicizing a project the week before it is released or aired, you are too late; deadlines have come and gone days, even months, earlier.

Instead, publicity begins before and during production. At the very least, the publicity campaign begins three to four months prior to a film's release date; for a television project, the campaign starts at least two months to six weeks prior to the air date, if the network has set one.

This time frame gives publicists a chance to do their work, allowing them enough time to pitch stories to long-lead magazines and to create a buzz with the short-lead daily and weekly journalists as well as with television and radio show producers, talent coordinators and on-air talent.

It also gives them time to view the film. They need to know the project in order to position it, find angles to pitch to the press and, in general, speak about it with understanding, imagination and authority.

There are specific and ongoing tasks to do throughout the publicity campaign.

1. Announce that you have been hired to write a screenplay or that your screenplay has been bought.

In the past, it has been the prerogative of the buyer to make the announcement. However, in recent years, talent agents and managers have become involved.

The announcement usually takes the form of a printed press release sent to appropriate media, but it can also be verbally leaked to a journalist.

The release should be written so that the news is in the headline and the first paragraph, along with a "hook" to gain attention. The hook might be that your script sold for a great deal of money or that the plot concerns a topic that is particularly hot or unusual.

Bear in mind that the media love insightful quotes and colorful anecdotes that give the news an interesting slant. You can help your publicist develop such material by offering to brainstorm together. In the process you also might come up with new perceptions about the project.

There are a couple of options you should consider when discussing an announcement with your publicist, agent or the producer who has bought your script. One is to go to both entertainment trades (Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) simultaneously, and the other is to give one of them an exclusive.

 

"My film opens next week and nothing is happening. Help!"
T he advantage of giving one trade an exclusive is that you can barter for better placement by asking the reporter to hold the story a few days until good space is available. You can also suggest several dates when the story might run, perhaps timing its appearance to coincide with another important event in your career and thus reinforcing your career's momentum.

Anyone connected with the project who has a relationship with a journalist at one of the trades would be helpful. You may even want to use this as a deciding factor when choosing which trade to select.

Provide head-shot photos, if at all possible. Useable photos--definitely not "arty" ones--can increase your chances of getting prominent placement for your story. To make it easy, and to prepare for last-minute requests, always keep head shots of yourself on hand.

Over time, when you have more announcements to make, you can take turns giving exclusives to Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. If you give a story to both trades and one runs it first, thereby scooping the other trade, the second will either give the story lesser space or will not run it because it is old news.

If your script has a particularly interesting or unusual slant, sometimes the Los Angeles Times or New York Times will be interested in doing a story about its purchase.

A word of caution: Do not "double-plant" an announcement, or, for that matter, any story. If you promise an exclusive to a journalist, do not be tempted to also give it to a competing journalist, thinking you will get more play. The trick might work once, but you will be a pariah to both journalists in the future.

Double-planting can occur unintentionally when several people have volunteered independently to make calls for you. If they call the same outlets, the media pros will be annoyed.

The number of people making calls for you should, therefore, be limited to one. This ensures that your pitching stays focused.

2. Get to know the unit publicist on the set when the project is in production so that you become a part of the creative team utilized in publicity. Be as helpful as possible. Any angles on the script will be welcome.

In other words, make yourself available to the publicists so they can turn to you for help and guidance.

If you do not visit the set, unfortunately that separates you from the most visible work being done on your project. So try to at least stay in touch by phone.

And be sure to be available when the Electronic Press Kit (EPK) crew is on the set. Rearrange other appointments, if necessary--it is that important.

EPK interviews are especially good opportunities for you to become integral to the publicity campaign because EPK transcripts are often utilized in the writing of the production notes for the press kit--and media attention develops out of what is in the kit. If the publicity team does not get your input on the set, then you might not be included in the press kit later on during the rush to get material for release.

3. Offer your ideas to the studio's publicity department or public relations agency. Don't be reluctant or shy. Fresh angles, new ideas and your own enthusiasm help publicists do a good job.

The press picks up on it, too. Journalists can tell when they are hearing canned information and when the approach to a story is truly unique.

4. Take on special publicity writing projects. When a studio or network publicist offers you the chance to keep a shooting journal or write a magazine article about what motivated your script, recognize that this is a great chance for you. It should not be put on the back burner even if you are juggling several other projects at the same time. Yes, it is a nuisance, but it is important because this piece either will be about you or will be written from your point of view.

Every magazine or newspaper has its own style and its own set of rules. Whatever special writing is requested of you should be tailored to that publication. To get specifics, you can ask for writers' guidelines and talk with the editor handling your story. Also be aware that deadlines at monthly magazines fall two to four months before actual publication, so if you can be ahead of schedule, so much the better.

Filmmakers and other talent who have been involved with a magazine assignment often find that it is more constricting than the work they do for a studio. The studio usually does not dictate personal style, but a newspaper or magazine will insist on its own style, leaving little or no room for negotiation.

Nevertheless, the effort is worth it. Publicity like this in a high-profile publication gives you greater visibility, credibility and clout.

5. Just because you have written the script does not necessarily mean that the media will be interested in you. You need to present yourself as an informative source, providing publicists with an angle to use in their publicity strategy.

Write your biography as a way to position yourself within the context of this particular project and to show how it fits into the overall thematic aspects of your work.

The bio should be concise yet include more about yourself than just a chronological summary of your achievements, because no matter how important an accurate, comprehensive list of your accomplishments seems to you, it can be boring to a journalist.

The first one or two paragraphs should address what is significant about you, what is unique and/or well-regarded about your writing and what experience brought you to write this particular story. What you want to convey is how this project could only have been conceived and written by you.

Writing a really good bio will help publicists pull together the material they need to pitch you on the project. A publicist can then funnel this information into the production notes for the press kit, highlighting where your original idea came from and what special qualities you have brought to the project.

Again, because the media use material found in press kits, you want to be featured prominently there.

6. For the same reason, you should write a positioning statement on the project. It should include insights only you can give because you wrote it. This material can be incorporated into the positioning of the project in the production notes.

7. In post-production, there is not much to do in the way of publicity.

Things start to happen about four months before the release of a film, whereas in television the post-production schedule can be much tighter. For a television project, airdate publicity might start very soon after completion of production.

By post-production the unit publicist has moved on to another project, so you need to be in touch with the people now responsible, including the publicity writer, project coordinator and the head(s) of the studio or distributing company's marketing and publicity departments.

Make sure they have up-to-date copies of your bio. And have your positioning spin on the project ready to pitch for inclusion in the notes.

Do everything you can to make sure the publicity liaisons on the project cannot live without the information, creativity, help and, yes, friendship you offer them.

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Part Two

The Publicist's Job

Publicity entails a lot more than just letting the media know about your project. It requires careful positioning, strategic planning, the cultivation of an extensive professional network, consistent and repeated media contact-- an entire set of special skills that take time to put into action.

Do friends really want all that tedious, repetitive work dumped on them?

Skills

First, good publicists know the media. They can pinpoint which outlets will be most effective for your project--which newspapers, consumer and trade magazines, television shows, etc.--and who will be most interested-- particular columnists, reporters, editors, segment producers, talent coordinators, etc.

Just as you have expertise in the craft of writing, a publicist has expertise in media relations and how they relate to a certain project or personality.

A publicist can help you define your immediate goals and needs. Time, energy and money are wasted when you take a scattershot approach. It is far more effective to strategize about what is important.

Of course, box office and ratings are important to the project, but for you, a good publicist will concentrate on the media outlets that can make a difference in your career: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, Time, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, The Today Show, The Charlie Rose Show, etc., as well as those prestigious magazines that everyone in the industry reads but which are more difficult to get in because they are not entertainment-based--for instance, Vanity Fair.

All of these are not about clippings to send home to Mom.

They are about reaching the power structure of the industry and the people who will hire you.

 

"I don't need a publicist--a friend's going to make some calls for me."
This is exactly what a professional publicist knows best.

It is not crucial--and might even be counterproductive--to worry about junkets to minor markets around the country. On the other hand, if Late Show with David Letterman would be ideal for you but you can't get on, you might consider doing a spot on a lesser show with lower ratings. You can then utilize your interview for an "audition" tape and send it off to targeted programs. If your segment on the other show was funny enough, Letterman might just book you after all.

Finally, as in most professions strategic thinking in publicity is complemented by lots of hard work and a dose of good luck. Contact must be made with many different people, with no guarantee that press coverage will come of it.

It could be the fifth or the ninth call over a period of weeks that finally gets through to the best person on exactly the right day when there is space in the ideal section of the perfect publication.

Obviously, a good publicist is known for tenacity. A little chutzpah never hurt either.

Motivation

To work best with publicists, first remember that since they aim to stir up excitement in the media, their job is much more effective when you, too, are excited about the project and can add good ideas.

Second, it is helpful to understand that the publicist becomes excited for two reasons: because of the quality of the project itself and/or because of the publicist's affection and dedication to the people who created the project.

The key here is understanding that publicity is not just about getting the word out on a project. It is about the vital, intangible extra ingredient that a publicist can bring to a project: enthusiasm.

It is enthusiasm that separates competent publicists from the inspired--the ones who make the extra call and take additional time to polish a pitch letter. They fall in love with the project, the person masterminding the project, or both. As a result, they want to do their best to make sure it succeeds.

In other words, inspired publicists work for more than the money. No matter how important publicists are to the project's success, their efforts will not help their careers in the same way yours will be helped. They might get a small raise or a bonus for doing a good job, but they will not get 10% of your future success.

By bringing in heightened media attention, their good job benefits you. Since better industry perception leads to better deals and more power, at the very least you should show your appreciation for the publicist's hard work and enthusiasm.

Sincere appreciation is a publicist's lifeline. Conscientious publicists will invariably work even harder on your behalf if and when they know you understand how much they are extending themselves for you.

Consider it another way. You already know--too well, most likely--that many people in the entertainment industry see writers as a kind of unwelcome necessity. The same sentiment--only moreso--goes for publicists. In this sense you are kindred spirits, so try to treat publicists as writers would like to be treated.

Also, because publicity departments are generally overworked and understaffed, your positive and helpful disposition will inspire them to find ways to make things happen for you. In the end, it is not that hard to get a good publicist on your side and tap their best intentions, energy and imagination.

Special Cases

However, if you find the project's publicity department is not going to include you in the publicity of the film, which you will usually hear about a few months before release, you may want to hire an independent publicity agency.

In the long run, this could be a significant decision.

You might believe that a friend can make some calls and get things moving. But a friend cannot invest the kind of time, energy, tactical thinking and persistence that a professional publicist can. It might take nine calls over several weeks to land you the national interview you need, or it might require the personal connections a pro has developed over years. Friends may know you well, but as a rule they are not prepared to put in the long hours required to get the job done appropriately, especially since they are not being paid.

Good publicists, on the other hand, will more than pay for themselves in the exposure they get you and the boost they can give your career.

When shopping around for a publicist, there are a few questions you want to ask:

What do you think is possible to achieve? This is especially pertinent if time is of the essence.

What do you think is important? That is, do the publicist's aims match yours and/or add to them?

How long do you think you need to work together?

If the project's production has generated controversy, how can the two of you be creative without putting down others connected to the project? You want to avoid any negative spin on the fact that you were left out of the publicity campaign--or on any other disagreements between you and the studio.

(Don't get me started on what these services might be worth in terms of compensation. I am always having disagreements with potential clients about that particular topic!)

 

Q: How will I know if the publicity is working for me?

A: You'll hear from people who haven't called you in ages. And if the publicity is especially good, these friends might say "too bad" about your photo or one of your quotes. What they really mean is, "I wish it were about me."
If controversy arises over whether the publicity department wants to include you, your own publicist becomes a crucial ally and the two of you need to consider several factors.

First, when controversy of any kind is involved, there is the question of whether you should even try to be part of the story. Negative publicity is not necessarily better than no publicity. Negative publicity will only bring into question the quality of the project as a whole. In the end, that reflects poorly on you, the one who wrote it in the first place.

If you do choose to become involved in the controversy, try to find out, in the most subtle of ways, which journalists or publications are writing stories. Then through your publicist try to become a part of the story while focusing your comments on the project's viability and success.

Contact the writer and/or editor and offer your perspective, your creative input. Although journalists thrive on sour-grapes tales, try to take the high road and be as positive as possible.

It will not be as good a story for the journalist, but it will be better for you in the long run.

Finally, it is important to understand that you always have a right to negotiate with the media. When controversy arises and media people ask for your comments, you have a right to give a flat "no." But if you and your publicist decide that you ought to be part of a certain story, or the reporter contacts you and you decide, with your publicist, that this is a good opportunity, then you can manage your participation in several ways.

You can speak to the reporter off the record, which means that what you say cannot be printed or aired unless the reporter gets the same information from another source.

You can give the reporter information that you specify is not for attribution, which means they can use it but cannot identify you as the source.

You can do an interview on the record with one condition: the reporter agrees not to use any of the comments that you specifically say are off the record, not for attribution, etc.

On very controversial issues, it is advisable to ask that your on-the-record quotes be read back to you to ensure accuracy. If the journalist does not agree to this condition, it is okay to decline to be quoted. If there is such a thing as freedom of the press, then there has to be freedom not to talk to the press.

Always keep in mind that in Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general, the people you might vent your frustrations on in print are often the ones you will be pitching or working with in the future. Publicity should not be regarded as a medium for revenge or one-upsmanship.

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The Last Word

Publicity is not about getting better tables at restaurants, although it certainly won't hurt.

A good public relations campaign pays off in more creative opportunities, more freedom, the ability to do new things and better compensation. It will help you realize your ambitions and goals.

Finally, do not look to publicity to fill any existential voids or heal your inner child. That's what therapists are for.

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