Shame, Fame and the Publicity Game

Clint Howard in Ice Cream Man due for release in March.

Publicists, along with distributors,
are the link between a film’s completion and a successful run in
theaters. MovieMaker gathered three publicists from
Los Angeles to participate in a Q&A.

THE PANEL: DOUG LINDEMANN, COTTRELL/LINDEMANN,
Years of experience: 7, Films publicized: Gas Food, Lodging, My
Own Private Idaho
, One False Move, (as producer) Bar
Girls

LENNY SHER, PRA, Years of experience: 27,
Films recently publicized: Ice Cream Man

DEBORAH SIMMRIN, ROSEN AND CO., Years of experience:
10, Films publicized: Love & A 45, Benefit of the
Doubt
, Separate Lives

Keith Bearden (MM): What does a publicist
do?

Lenny: The basic job is to translate
what is interesting and newsworthy on behalf of a film or client
and communicate it to various audiences. It’s to keep that name
out there, to keep what they call “top of mind visibility.”

MM: When a good film doesn’t get
seen, is it strictly a matter of ineffective marketing and
publicity?

Deborah: It can be, but we live in
such an information glutted time, that small films with unknown
actors and directors have a really hard time competing for space
with higher profile projects. A good publicist can beat the trees
till kingdom come, and still not get people interested. And then
it’s up to the enthusiasm of critics and film festivals to really
propel you outwards.

Lenny: When a film doesn’t do well,
it’s because the film is either no good or wasn’t promoted properly.
Simple as that. I think people can basically tell a good or bad
film when they see it.

MM: What percentage of a successful
releaseis dependent on publicity?

Lenny: It varies from case to case.
It’s part of a mix—advertising in newspapers and TV, interviews
in small and big magazines, critical response and just plain
old word of mouth. We haven’t found a substitute for people just
telling their friends or people at work that they saw a good
movie last night. I think word of mouth is ultimately the most
important factor. That’s what made a film like sex, lies and
videotape, which cost a couple hundred thousand, gross 20 or
30 million dollars.

Clint Howard stars in Norman Epstein’s Ice Cream Man.

Deborah: I don’t think sex, lies
and videotape
was marketed especially well, it just happened
to address something that a lot of people thought was provocative
at that time. A lot of it is luck. You can make a film with
current subject matter, but by the time it gets released it’s
not current anymore. If that happens, the audience just won’t
be there.

MM: The recent list of successful
independent features have all had a strong publicity “hook.”
El
Mariachi was shot silent for $7, 000 by a guy who earned
the money being a guinea pig for drug testing.
Clerks was
made by a convenience store clerk in the store where he worked.
Go
Fish was the first movie by and about 20-something lesbians.
Does an independent film need that press angle to succeed?

Deborah: Yeah, it’s up to the publicist
to come up with each film’s special aspect. There are some great
films out there that don’t have that hook, and it makes my job
really difficult. Love and a .45 got lumped into all these “killer” movies
like Killing Zoe, Natural Born Killers and Pulp
Fiction
. It was my job to try to differentiate it from them.

Doug: Yes. You have to provide the
antithesis of the standard “Sharon Stone being paid five million
dollars to show her what?” stories. But really, you can’t treat
those films you mentioned as homemade movies anymore because
they’ve been picked up by distributors with multi-million dollar
publicity machines propelling them. Miramax, which released Clerks,
is part of Disney. Also, El Mariachi isn’t a $7,000 movie
when it goes to a 35mm blow-up for $50,000, and a title shoot
which cost $200,000 dollars. These distributors hide behind the
humble integrity of these little films, yet all the while clutching
a bag of gold coins.

MM: What are the challenges of dealing
with an independent film?

Lenny: The challenge is money—you
have less money to spend on doing what you do. You have to be
extra careful to find the target audience on that film. With Ice
Cream Man
, we are targeting the audience of horror and B-movie
fans. We’ve got a lot of really good pictures with special effects,
and we have kind of a campy cast that movie fans will get a kick
out of. Magazines like Fangoria reach a quarter of a million
people. That’s very effective advertising for almost no money.

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho.

Doug: You have to find the edge. You
have to make it stand apart from the pack. What you have going
against you is you’re running in the face of some very powerful
media conglomerates that own the TV stations and magazines, and
have their own major studio product to promote and protect. [Fox
owner] Rupert Murdoch owns Premiere and Time/Warner owns
People, Entertainment Weekly, HBO and MTV—they’re
trying to own the opportunities for exposure and criticism of
their film and music product. Fortunately, journalists can’t
be bought, and they have a healthy disrespect for studio product.
The advantage independents have is that you’re giving journalists
and editors unmined territory to explore. Those people are dying
to cover something new and exclusive, so you have to play to
those people.

In a way independent cinema is still very pure.
If it’s no good, it won’t get publicized. It has to deliver. A
big studio film is like McDonald’s or Campbell’s soup. It may not
be great but people know what they’re getting when they buy it.
That’s their angle to get people in the theater. A small film has
got to have a reason for its existence and some angle to captivate
the imagination of the public and pull it away from seeing the
John Grisham film down the street. A lot of indie films don’t make
it because there is nothing extraordinary about them; many just
don’t need to be made. A lot of;really crappy films- get made.
Only about 300 films a;year get theatrical distribution out of
about 2000 English language films made every year. Maybe 1 in 10
get into the theater; 9 out of 10 go nowhere. And they can’t even
get onto;video these days.

MM: Should independent filmmakers
think about publicity before, during or after making their
film?

Doug: Because film;an econimically motivated
art form, and because there are certain fiscal responsibilities
a filmmaker must face up to, they better have a grasp of the
publicity value of the film from the outset. If you’re going
to make some morose, self-obsessed, experimental angst-ridden
piece of independent cinema, don’t bother! Yeah, there may be
some artistic value to it, but you are probably throwing your
money into the wind. A lot of films are unnecessary. I hate to
say it. You may think you’re an unrecognized genius, but film
is not a medium that you can afford to go unrecognized in. A
little film costs as much as a big house. Filmmakers should ask
themselves, “why does my film need to exist? What void does it
fill? Has someone else done exactly what I’m trying to do?” If
so, save your money and tell people to go watch that other person’s
film.

MM: What gets people into the theater?

Deborah: People go to movies that they can
relate to on some level. It’s our job to help convey a film’s universal
theme. General audiences go into theaters and say, “Speak to us,” and
that’s why demographics exist so we can decide who a film is speaking
to…

Doug: What gets people to go seeindependent
film is that it has something new to say and it says it in an
effective way. Something important, something of interest, something
appealing—and it’s our job to get that message out, we
and the critics. One False Move had a second life after
it quickly faded from theaters solely on the basis of support
from Siskel & Ebert and the other critics who followed their
lead, saying what an overlooked gem it was. It began playing
theaters a second time, with much better results.

MM: What should you look for in
choosing a publicist?

Doug: Someone who understands the film,
and is not afraid to work hard. They may have never done publicity
before, but with the right understanding and a lot of energy
they could still be very effective.

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