At our recent Publicizing Your Film at Festivals event, publicist Sylvia Desrochers, President of Big Time PR & Marketing, said there are two questions she is asked by filmmakers more than any others.
One is is how much filmmakers should expect to pay for a publicist. Desrochers’ answer: between $5,000 and $15,000 per festival, depending on the size of the fest, the number of cast and crew representing the film and how much travel is involved.
The other question she’s most often asked is when filmmakers should start looking to hire a publicist. While Desrochers stressed that a publicist can’t start working to bring attention to a film until it has been accepted to a major festival, she emphasized that the time to start thinking about publicity is right now.
“You’re storytellers and so are we,” she said. “We have to tell the story of your film. So it’s never too early to think about how you might present the story of your film to the public.”
Desrochers was joined on the panel by Film Independent’s Director of Publicity Alia Quart Khan, who is in charge of publicity for the LA Film Festival, and documentary producer Annie O’Neil, who became an expert on DIY publicity while on the festival circuit with her recent doc “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago.”
Together, the three of them answered several other questions filmmakers encounter when thinking about publicity for their film.
What can I expect a publicist to do for my film?
Desrochers offered a simple timeline of what she and publicists like her provide for clients. One of the first things she does is work with the filmmakers to hone the film’s message. “It’s a super exciting time for us because it’s the first time people are seeing your film and we get to help you craft that language,”she said. “It’s always fun for me to see words I wrote still being used to describe a film two years later.”
As soon as the festival announces its lineup, Desrochers and her team send out a press announcement, introducing the film and its publicity team to media members. Then they target a few outlets to screen the film in advance of the festival, hoping to find a few people in the press who “can become champions of the film.” From there she sets up interviews for clients (either at the festival or in advance), and works with press to find relevant feature stories and get them to review the film.
Desrochers said another part of her job that people don’t always think about is helping filmmakers find their way around the festival. “It can be very overwhelming to walk into a festival and it’s nice to have someone by your side saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get you through this.'”
How do I choose which publicist is the right fit for my film?
Since the window between when you find out you’re in a festival and when the festival announces is very narrow, Desrochers recommends doing some research about publicists in advance. See which firms cover the festivals you’re applying to and talk to other filmmakers about the experience they had with their publicists.
Once you get word that you’re in, the festival’s publicity department can be a great resource. Khan said the LA Film Festival keeps a list of recommended publicists that they share with filmmakers, and since the Festival works with agencies closely throughout the year, Khan and her staff are able to help filmmakers discern which one might be a fit for your film.
“One thing that I would tell filmmakers when they’re asking me about publicists,” said Khan, “is to ask them straight-up, ‘What other films are you covering and are they in my category?’ Because you don’t want someone who’s going to be pushing two things at the same time to an outlet.”
Desrochers warned to be wary of anyone who’s promising too much. “I would never promise you trade reviews,” she said, “because they’re really, really hard to get.”
Khan said the choice often comes down to a gut instinct, and that’s okay. “The gut reaction that you have to the publicist is very important because that’s the person who is out talking about your baby. So if you don’t like the way they’re talking to you about your baby, consider that.”
What if I can’t afford a publicist?
While Khan said that about 80 percent of filmmakers at the LA Film Festival hire publicists, a number of them do decide to handle their publicity on their own.
O’Neil said that for “Walking the Camino,” a documentary following six people on a 500-mile pilgrimage across El Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, she and her team were very strategic about when they brought a publicist on board and usually only did when they were playing a major market.
The rest of the time she and the film’s director, Lydia B. Smith, got the word out on their own. Every time the two of them went to a screening at their festival, they made sure they were the first ones at the door to hand out postcards to all of the people exiting. They also handed them out in Starbucks and in line at the supermarket. Every conversation was an opportunity to spread the word about their film.
O’Neil also recommended filmmakers developing partnerships with organizations—in their case American pilgrims on the Camino—that are sympathetic to their film’s cause. “There’s something for your film too,” she said. “There’s some theme in your film that has a national network set up that you’ll find.”
And you don’t need a publicist at every festival. Desrochers said there are only about 10 festivals that can generate the kind of attention for your film that make a publicist necessary.
“I won’t let you pay me to do your film in Peoria,” she said. “Because there’s someone like Alia there who knows that market way better than I and is going to take care of your film.”
How do I make the most of a festival’s publicity team?
Khan offered some tips for making the best use of a given festival’s publicity team. Chief among them: get the festival your materials early. “It’s always about approaching people super early and giving them as many of the tools that you can for them to publicize your film,” she said.
She also urged filmmakers to offer up any ideas they have about what makes their film unique and to give ideas of comparable films that have played the same festival in recent years.
And when you get to the festival, go and introduce yourself to the publicity team in person. “We’re working in a vacuum of emails and no faces, so coming in and introducing yourself at the press office is key,” said Khan.
Once I hire a publicist, my work is done, right?
Nope. It’s not that simple.
“Even if you hire a publicist, you still have to do all of [what Annie did], said Desrochers. “Because what she’s really talking about is marketing.”
Desrochers reiterated that her job is to generate a foundation of press coverage for the film that will hopefully lead to distribution. She said that the films that have the most success excel at both publicity and marketing and encouraged filmmakers to enlist as many people as they can to be on the ground with them at festivals, handing out postcards and spreading the word.
In addition to all of the chatting and handing out fliers that O’Neil did, her team also set up hikes in the area that they invited filmmakers to attend and handed out stickers and patches.
Desrochers said that Sundance is an especially good festival to spread the word with giveaways. She used the example, Kinyarwanda, a film she worked on whose team handed out tremendously popular beanies. At the end of the week, the film won the Audience Award.
What can I do now to make my publicist’s job easier?
The key word: communicate. Desrochers expressed frustration over filmmakers who don’t tell her before they post a trailer on their website or upload an album of photos to Facebook.
“The trailer is a wonderful opportunity to get—for example—a nice article on Indiewire.” But if you post the trailer before the publicist can make that call, you blow that opportunity.
Desrochers also said filmmakers should be strategic with their photos. “The photo you choose as your main photo is insanely important,” she said. “I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been on the phone with filmmakers for like three days trying to choose the one image that goes in the Sundance catalog.” She recommends only releasing one to four photos initially, so that you retain exclusives to give to media outlets later.
Khan and Desrochers both encouraged director’s statements. As publicity materials, yes, but also as practice talking about your film and thinking about what you might say in interviews.
And Desrochers was adamant that filmmakers go on all the interviews their publicist sets up. “You don’t get to start choosing which interviews you do or don’t do until you win an Oscar. Until then, you have to do everything I tell you to do. And it might just be because you need to practice.”
“My favorite thing at the end of working with someone is when they say: ‘I know how to talk about myself better,'” said Desrochers. “That’s so gratifying to me because that’s a hugely important thing. Very few things are more important than that, not just for your film, but in life.”