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FIRST PERSON | Jeremy Walker on Independent Film PR: “What I think publicity really is and also what

FIRST PERSON | Jeremy Walker on Independent Film PR: "What I think publicity really is and also what

Here’s some of what I know: in the next seventy-two hours I will attend a TriBeCa Film Festival screening of Dan Myrick‘s smart, scary new movie “The Objective” with Sara Vilkomerson of The New York Observer as my date; the next morning the movers will arrive and remove about forty cardboard boxes, a few pieces of beloved furniture and the huge French “Mommie Dearest” poster; and the morning after that my partner Judd, our cat and I will board a California-bound Delta Airlines flight out of JFK. I am much less sure of everything else swimming in my head: hard facts are elusive and everything else is tinted with every stripe of emotion.

But since Eugene asked me to write something that reflects on my career as an independent film publicist and how the game has changed, something that would, as he put it, “offer vital insights to those in the business, but also to younger folks just getting in,” I think I’ll stick with the other few things I know with certainty, one of which is also an uncertainty: I don’t yet know if I am pushing “pause” or “eject” on my life as a publicist. My only plan is to take the summer off as Judd and the cat and I settle into our new home in Malibu.

The other things I know with certainty have to do with the way I have come to practice publicity, in particular independent film publicity. Others who do what I do may disagree. But for me, what follows is what I think publicity really is and also what it should not be.

Publicity is an optimist’s game, but only to a point. You can’t really be a publicist for “risky” movies without liberally trafficking in benefit of doubt. It makes sense that a person who promotes movies will probably also be a person who loves movies, but what journalist should trust a publicist who loves every movie? I’ve found over the years that to love a movie is not enough reason to take it on; instead I have learned to only take on movies that I love and that I can actually do something with.

Publicity is really complicity. This is a simple concept that for whatever reason took me way too long to understand, but it first hit me on the set of “Monster’s Ball” when, after I asked Halle Berry to approve some stills, she looked over a stack of contact sheets and said something like “You know, they’re all fine to use however you want, but don’t show them to my publicist because she’ll just kill everything.” We are talking about photos that depicted Berry looking like hell, but that also showed her inhabiting a wholly unexpected character. At that moment I got the sense that Berry would be utterly complicit in the campaign, which she was, for which she was rewarded with an Oscar. You’d be surprised at how many actors (or, perhaps more accurately, their representatives) I’ve dealt with over the years who have not been able to grasp this.

Publicity is really diplomacy. I am not thinking here of the dance between a publicist and the press at any given time, a dance that has its own private choreography, but rather the diplomacy I’ve increasingly found myself having to create between deeply alienated factions that make up any one movie’s creative team, most often but not always on films that have been made for a drizzle of money and a bucket of sweat and that have just been accepted into a game-changing festival. This might be because technology has made it easier for more movies to get made for less money by more people with less experience. Once upon a time it was said of the movie business that “nobody knows anything”: today, a lot of people know a lot (thanks to indieWIRE) but this does not seem to prevent them from hating each other just as their film is about to navigate the harrowing intersection of private enterprise and public consumption.

Publicity is really about the choosing and distribution of still photography. If you have ever seen me speak on an IFP panel or at NYU or Yale or the New York Film Academy, you can skip this one because it’s the main thing I’ve ranted about for years: If you are a filmmaker, you must put the same care into your choice of stills photographer as you put into your choice of cinematographer.

Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You For Smoking”. Photo by Dale Robinette

Please consider these two images, taken on their respective sets by Dale Robinette (“Thank You For Smoking”) and Rafael Winer (“Transamerica“).

I am utterly convinced that these photographs played vital roles in the acquisition of the films they represented so well at the Toronto and TriBeCa Film Festivals.

I first became aware of Dale Robinette‘s great talent when Myriad Pictures hired me to work on Miguel Arteta‘s “The Good Girl” ahead of its Sundance premiere, and what a huge relief and pleasure it was to have hundreds of Dale’s great stills to choose from after the utter paucity of stills available from Miguel’s first two films.

When “Thank You For Smoking” took Toronto by storm, it was Dale Robinette’s shot of Aaron Eckhart in front of a bank of microphones that ran everywhere, I think because it not only represented dead-on the movie’s razor-sharp take on the “culture of spin,” but also because it showed that Eckhart – whom the indie egghead crowd remembered mainly from his acerbic performance for “In The Company of Men” – was actually able to be funny.

Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica.” Photo by Rafael Winer

Rafael Winer worked for only a few of days on “Transamerica,” filling in when the main unit photographer couldn’t be there, but thank goodness the producers at Belladonna were smart enough to make sure they had this day covered: Felicity Huffman‘s brilliant “deer in the headlights” moment, which somehow manages to simultaneously telegraph her character’s feelings of terror, determination, awkwardness and humor, ran in just about every publication in town and all over the Internet. And while Huffman also came to TriBeCa with a hit TV show to promote, it was this stunning photo that kept the agenda tuned into “Transamerica” for every talk show and interview she did while she was here.

Looking ahead, if we take to heart what we read every Monday in David Carr‘s New York Times column, I think it will be the choosing and manipulation of both still and video images that will transform the practice of movie publicity into something new that has less to do with newspapers and magazines and more to do with the Internet, something that may or may not still be called publicity. But before that transformation is complete here are a couple of things that publicity, in particular independent film publicity, should not be.

Publicity should not be acquisitive. Young people should know that there are as many kinds of publicists as there are doctors, and just as you don’t want a podiatrist prescribing your anti-depressants, you don’t want a “lifestyle” publicist trying to position your film ahead of, say, Sundance. Filmmakers should not think about what goodies a publicist can “get” for them; rather they should think about how a publicist can integrate their film into both the culture of news and the culture at large. If that last concept draws a blank stare you might want to take your film elsewhere.

Publicity should not try to obfuscate. It’s that “culture of spin” again: just because the term “public relations” applies to both what I have done for the last twenty-odd years and to what, say, Tony Snow did (or tried to do) for the Bush administration does not mean that movie publicists should as easily try to apply the proverbial lipstick to the proverbial pig. That is not to say that certain charms should not be mined from movies that are ultimately mediocre or even bad, nor do I mean to belittle the very important idea that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. What I am trying to say comes directly from the lips of my mentor, Cara White, who once said (of Richard Linklater) that “the independent filmmaker is the best marketer of his own work.” The second a publicist or a marketer of such films loses sight of that idea is the precise moment at which the film starts to become less independent and therefore less special.

Publicity should not be about credit-pigging. It takes too many people spending too much time, sweat and cash to make a film and too many people who can truly say “that movie couldn’t have been made without me” for any one producer or actor or agent to try to use the press to further their own careers, but movie people seem to have uniquely wired brains that link press recognition to survival instinct. Please: if you are involved in a film that is suddenly finding success, celebrate that blessed event with everyone who got it there, not by hiring your own press agent.

I recently worked on the set of a horror-thriller called “The House of the Devil,” written and directed by Ti West, where I watched a young actress named Jocelin Donahue scream bloody murder as she was pursued by the veteran cult star Mary Waronov and where I watched as gallons of blood oozed across a kitchen floor. And I felt so privileged to be there. I had the same feeling many years ago watching Mary Harron direct Christian Bale in “American Psycho,” as he prepared to sink a shiny ax into Jared Leto‘s pretty face; three years ago as I watched a smart young guy named Jason Reitman direct “Thank You For Smoking” and then again just last year on the set of “Juno“; and more recently as I watched Rod Lurie direct Kate Beckinsale as a Judith Miller-esque journalist opposite Vera Farmiga as a Valerie Plame-ian CIA operative in “Nothing But The Truth.”

One more thing I absolutely know for certain: I love being on a set, because it’s the closest a publicist can get to the pure optimism that has made the movies so attractive to so many of us.

So if this move to California turns out to be a “pause,” there’s a good chance I’ll be back to re-commune in that optimism as a unit publicist and perhaps in the annual promises of Sundance and Toronto.

If the move turns out to be an “eject,” then I can only wonder what the next twenty years of independent film will be like as a member of the ticket-buying and IFC on-demanding audience. It will be interesting to see how publicity works on me and, for the first time in a long time, not through me.

Have a great summer everyone.


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