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.

Norget with von Trier.
Norget with von Trier.

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.