Most rookie independent filmmakers would kill to have a large publicity firm handling their baby as it takes its first steps into the often overwhelming world of film festivals. However, a smaller, more hands-on “boutique” publicist may be a better choice for the first-timer.
Someone like Susan Norget, who runs a tight operation in New York and can be counted on to bring an eclectic, quality film slate to each festival. Some of her more prominent international clients are Lars von Trier and Olivier Assayas, who have been turning to her for their U.S. releases for years and whose films “Melancholia” and “Carlos” she represented at Cannes. She also handled Malik Bendjelloul’s critically acclaimed documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” this year and the Irish indie “Once,” which both won audience awards at Sundance and were picked up for North American distribution immediately after their world premieres. She's guided everything from "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "I Stand Alone" to "Hunger" and "Man on Wire" through Toronto, Sundance, New York, Tribeca and more.
A former press director of the Toronto film festival, Norget is all about detailed collaboration and says she only takes on films she genuinely likes, her key criteria being, simply, taste. She will also turn away clients if she feels their sensibilities don’t match hers and she can’t do the film or filmmaker justice. A simpatico relationship with a publicist in a festival scenario can mean the difference between missing a rare chance to get your work noticed and seizing it at just the right moment with just the right reviewers, journalists and potential buyers, so a smart filmmaker should be invested in the hire.
Here, Norget gives unseasoned filmmakers — not just directors, but producers, distributors and sales agents as well — sharp insights into picking and working with the right publicist throughout their first festival appearance.
Shop around, get references.
Do your homework, get references and recommendations. You’re a consumer! Look at other filmmakers who have made similar kinds of films, if not subject-wise at least on the same scale, and who have already gone through that festival experience. I strongly encourage first-timers to talk to other filmmakers that the publicists have worked with in the past, rather than just say, “Wow! This is a name [agency], this is a brand name I know.” Because it might not be the right fit. I think other filmmakers can be really helpful in terms of telling you about their experiences and the strengths and weaknesses of that publicist. And talk to sales agents, if you can. Getting a strong recommendation from a reputable sales agent is a plus.
Make sure the publicist truly understands the film.
It’s about matchmaking and personal relationships, so spend some time talking to publicists, because there may be any number of people you might eliminate from the get-go if they don’t understand your film. The publicist should have a real connection to your film, and not just say, “I like it” or “I love it.” That’s not good enough. Yes, being enthusiastic about it is reallyimportant, but they have to really “get” it, be able to express its strengths and appeal to other people. You’re not looking for your soul mate but there has to be a connection, and the publicist has to inspire some degree of confidence. They must make you feel that they can intelligently and competently position it to the press in a way you’re comfortable with.
Match the elements of your movie to the type of publicity firm.
Generally, at a smaller boutique firm, the person you’ve hired is going to be more directly involved with the film, and that’s important for a filmmaker who needs more care, attention and nurturing. Especially at festivals (as opposed to a theatrical release), where it’s much more about the filmmakers. I don’t want to trash talk, but with a larger agency you may be signing on to work with the head of the agency, because he or she’s the one with the excellent reputation, but very possibly you get passed on to a junior or the job is divided up, which in some ways might be a plus in terms of handling specific areas of the campaign but often it can mean that the filmmaker gets lost in the festival shuffle. That said, there are some really good larger agencies that could be appropriate for certain films in a way that a smaller agency wouldn’t be. For instance, if you have a large cast, if you’re handling a lot of actors at a film festival, you need to have that many more people on them. Any number of [actors] will be coming with personal publicists, managers, etc. so there are just that many more scheduling matters, more logistical things to cover. So I could certainly say that hiring a bigger company makes sense in that case; it’s practical.
Cultivate your images.
Often, going into festivals there’s so little time to put things together in as organized and considered a way as you’d like. But since images are incredibly important, filmmakers should have the foresight — whether it’s a narrative film or a documentary — to have good stills available. They should think about that when they make their film, not as an afterthought. It’s too crucial. I’d rather have a very small number of defining images, but if I’m choosing from ten bad images it’s going to be the lesser of a number of evils. Some people do frame-grabs later, but that can be expensive and time-consuming and often results in poorer image quality.
Write what you know.
Having basic written material, even just the beginnings of something, is also really helpful. I may change it substantially, but I’d much rather carefully edit something than have to write something from scratch. Because the time that I, or someone from my company, spends on the press kit, especially if we have to do it from scratch, is better spent talking to journalists and getting the film out there.
I sit down with them and we really have conversations about how they’re going to articulate their film, the ideas in the film. It’s to prepare them for the kinds of questions they’re going to get from the press, or from the audience at Q&As, so they’re more comfortable talking about it. I help anticipate the questions, the things that could come up for first-time, less experienced filmmakers. (I would never do that with Lars von Trier!) I’m helping prepare all of us for the experience. I like to spend as much time as possible doing that. Making them feel as comfortable and mentally prepared as possible before they even premiere their film is important to me, because at the end of the day, when they’re thrown to the lions at a festival, that’s the ultimate test.
Be open to advice.
I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a “mother-knows-best” scenario, but listening to the people you’re working closely with and being open to and flexible with suggestions is important. Be available, don’t book too many meetings and screenings, and be willing to get pulled in various directions on any given day.
Be open to changing your tack. A film’s first festival is in some ways a trial run — you don’t necessarily know what you have. You might come in with a certain idea of what your film is, how it’s going to be received, how to talk about it, but that might change. As the screenings pass, and we do more Q&As, maybe we want to change our tack somewhat mid-stream, so be open and flexible to the natural course a film takes at a festival. Resilience sometimes comes in handy!
I think a filmmaker should really look at it as a collaborative experience. I mean, they’re the king or queen, but we’re all generally there to help them. And if I really care about a film, I want the film and the filmmaker to be seen in the best possible light. So there’s no other agenda but them succeeding.