Film Fund-amentals: It’s All Publicity

In the old days, publicists were often ex-reporters who mainly switched jobs so they could deduct the booze as a business expense. This was back in the mythic heydays when promoting a movie was viewed as an art rather than a science, and a well-oiled, glib tongue was the job’s primary requirement.

Like everything else, the business has changed. Instead of retired reporters, publicity is now handled by the brightest and best graduates from various prestigious Communication Departments around the country. In these schools, the new breed have learned all the fine points of utilizing modern information technology for maximum impact in distributing ideas and shaping public perception. PR is less an art and now operates with the fine precision of a finely tuned sport car.

Of course the results are pretty much the same, as the promoters win some and loose some, often with no clue as to what works or not. Despite all of the audience surveys, pre-release audience screenings and numerous commercial tie-ins, there is still no guarantee that anything will attract a fickle audience. Heck, film history is littered with the bodies of flicks that successfully snatched defeat from the apparent jaws of victory. A major negative milestone was achieved in 1985 when the movie Perfect had an elaborate magazine-related promotional campaign that lasted several months longer than the movie’s short run (its release was such a disaster that it was, at the time, viewed as the final nail in the coffin of John Travolta’s early career).

The largely unpredictable nature of promotion is a key factor in the increasingly uncontrollable state of its cost. Currently, the average big-budget Hollywood movie is spending anywhere from 100 to 200 percent more on promotion than on the production of the film. Arguably, this spiraling cost is fueled more by desperation than need, and despite the rise in a technology designed to reduce the cost, all signs indicate that Hollywood will continue with its cash-mad approach to PR.

Indie movies are both cursed and blessed by a lack of such money to spend. Unlike the Hollywood blockbusters, the average indie film has virtually no money for promotion and has found increasingly unique ways to do PR in the virtual realm. In 1999, The Blair Witch Project broke new ground as it virtually created the viral ad campaign. The technique has been co-opted by everyone from Burger King to The Dark Knight, but it’s still one of the most budget-friendly approaches available to the indie filmmaker. Relatively cheap, viral marketing mostly requires footage and access to YouTube and the social media sites. Add in some old-fashioned blarney (there are still some people out there who think The Blair Witch Project was real) and you are almost in business.

I say almost because you still have to find a hook. To put it bluntly, is there any reason why anyone in their right mind is going want to look at your movie? Take a long honest look and figure out what might be of any major interest in the film. Now, write it down. Make it the shortest sentence possible. If the sentence is too long, then you haven’t found the hook. This may sound like a gimmick, and to be honest, it is. But you cannot promote an elaborate idea. You need to promote a single effective concept. Remember, you are not trying to conduct a seminar. You are attempting to promote your movie.

It’s a little bit like pitching your movie to a producer, except the audience is actually smarter than many producers (and by the way, never underestimate your audience — sure, they often get played for saps, but they really do resent it). Admittedly, this is a problem for many indie movies because they have narratives that are more complicated than the typical blockbuster, and moods, visions and attitudes (the indie main staple) that are harder to define. A Hollywood film will rely mostly on its stars, its high concept, or the biggest advertising gag in the universe, sex. The average indie can only offer the promise of “art.” This leaves many indie filmmakers feeling kind of weak and naked out there.

Prestige is one hook for an indie film. We’ve all seen the ads that are mostly a long resume of every award won by the movie at every major festival. Half the time, we don’t even know what the film is, but by golly, it sure cleaned up at Sundance. Unfortunately, only a couple of titles a year will have the prestige angle, and the rest have to make do with other pitches.

Most indie movies will not have any ability to attract a “star,” which is OK because the drawing power of movie stars is really a myth. But some indie-friendly actors like John C. Reilly have a distinct recognition factor that has a comfortable air of familiarity for the audience. On their own, these actors cannot sell a movie. But they are known just enough to provide the audience with an invitation to the show.

Shock is a high-risk though occasionally successful hook. This is the approach taken by The Human Centipede, a film so allegedly disgusting that Roger Ebert has refused to rate it. Once in a blue moon, shock pays big at the box office, but the effect is rare and often doesn’t last. Exercise extreme caution (and don’t drive heavy machinery while using it).

But whatever you do in planning a promotional strategy, you need to follow the advice of Jack Palance and find just one thing. Sure, any good movie is going to have a lot to offer, but you’ve got to narrow it down to something that will attract the audience in a quick space of time (a general estimate used to be 30 seconds; now it is probably more like 5 seconds).

Once you find your one thing, you build from there.