The emerging skills needed by film publicists

May 3, 2012
posted by sheric

Now that there is some form of distribution available to every project made, whether it is working with a service company to theatrically release or uploading the project online for free and enabling perpetual viewing, it is time to acknowledge that new mindsets and skills are needed not just for filmmakers, but also for film promotion. Traditionally, a publicist’s role  was to leverage the relationships she had formed with editors and journalists (the media) to ensure story placement in publications and she strived to convey a cohesive message about a film. She endeavored to control the message and those who were allowed to carry it. The prominence of social channels has torn this process apart. Now, the media aren’t the only ones talking about a film and it is getting increasingly difficult to control the message. It is becoming more prevalent to create the dialog instead.

Whether you choose to take on the promotional role yourself as a microbudget filmmaker or you are looking to start working in film promotion, the skills now needed go well beyond writing a good press release and having a good database of personal contacts ( but you still need those too). Here is a look at some emerging skills with the knowledge that it is nearly impossible to find strong abilities for all of these in one person.

-Storytelling and curation. Writing skills still play a vital role in film publicity, but there’s more writing now than ever. As social tools enable a production to reach an audience directly and wherever they congregate online, something besides a “message” must be written. Stories that are memorable, relatable and “sticky” will pull people to you and keep them coming back and the stories aren’t only written by a journalist; not when one has a blog, a newsletter, a Tumblr page, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, Pinterest boards and possibly participating in forums. We’re now talking to the audience, not through third party media. Many more tools, many more skills needed to understand how each one works and how to get the most from them. A visual sense of storytelling is needed as well because many of the social posts that get the most interactions and shared are photos/videos/infographics. In order to develop stories that resonate, one must spend much more time getting to know the audience as people with definite tastes and interests, not as faceless, broad demographics. Also, time must be spent finding great information and sharing it which is just as important (perhaps MORE important) as creating it. Tools that help aggregate useful information and inspire self published content will need to be found and this has become a standard duty in the work day.

-Technical skills. The ability to code, photo and video edit and format, graphic design, link building and SEO,  as well as keeping up with every little trick Facebook settings can throw at you will become increasingly useful. In order to use the new tools effectively and keep to a modest budget, personal training should be undertaken to develop a good understanding and at least a basic level of performance.

-Observation and monitoring. Learning to listen first is without a doubt a very useful skill in the online world. Too many times we are pushed to “sell” “convert” “promote” with no real understanding of who we are talking to and what they care about. Indeed, previously it was difficult to know what “they” care about because “we” didn’t really talk to “them”, but this isn’t the case anymore. Sharing opinions, recommendations, emotions, interests, locations, and personal details abound on the internet and there is no longer an excuse to guess about the needs and wishes of the audience. They are talking online every day, so listen. Monitoring conversations, picking out trending topics, predicting what is likely to spark interest, and THEN actively participating in those communities in an authentic way is how to get the information and interest flowing.

-Measurement. This is now the world of big data and making sense of everything that can be tracked (because lots can be accurately tracked) is increasingly needed. Analytical skills to evaluate trends, outcomes,  and correctly interpret and apply data are skills that enable communicators to turn data into actionable work and measure return on investment. Also, turning data into visual interpretations for management (charts, graphs, statistics) helps show the impact of your work or where things need to be adjusted.

-Fundraising and organizational outreach. Not a week passes that I am not asked about advice on a crowdfunding initiative. Crowdfunding is not only about raising money, but also raising a profile, creating attention, building mutually beneficial partnerships and gathering an audience for a project that may just be starting. Understanding the needs and motivations of a particular group of people sounds quite psychological and it is. Communicators have always needed to be aware of psychological triggers that cause people to care about the message, but in the online space where one isn’t face to face and many decisions hinge on long earned trust, it takes a different mindset and skillset than writing out a good prospectus or pitch letter.   Continual research and outreach to influencers and organizations helps to build up the long term trust that can enable one to call on help when it is needed, whether it is financial help, spreading the word on a project or collaborating together by submitting material (crowdsourcing) in order to give the project a richer life than one the production could create on their own.

-Constant adaptation. Most of the above skills are a catalog of communication demands that didn’t exist 5-10 years ago. Nothing is constant in life but change, right? You can be sure that as new technology and platforms emerge and information gets even thicker and faster, the ability to learn something that wasn’t around even last year will serve you well. Spend time every day learning, reading, and practicing for improvement. A Google search engine is a wonderful thing and nearly everything can be researched and learned for nearly free online. Failing to understand when the shiny new tool becomes THE necessary tool in the pack could marginalize you. Keep up with the trends and adapt accordingly.

I will be participating in a half day workshop in Los Angeles on May 26, 2012 with The Film Collaborative’s Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter. This will be an intensive session filled with tools and strategies you should know regarding building an audience with online tools, utilizing film festivals and how to plan your distribution with particular emphasis on digital distribution. This workshop is for filmmakers who are ready to accept the new challenges of film marketing and distribution and not intended for those only seeking a traditional, all rights scenario. Tickets are more than affordable ($20 for TFC members, $50 for non members) and are on sale now.

Today’s post is from my from my client and friend Chris Olsen, a filmmaker/animator/photographer from Chicago. It is also his birthday. Chris and I have many philosophical talks about what it means to be an artist and how digital media tools can enhance the creative process.

Today is my birthday, and as birthdays go, I’ve been doing a fair bit of of reflecting on my life, my career, and my hopes for the future.  While I’ve found that there are in fact MANY rewards for getting older, my favorite is that I’ve gained some valuable insight into the moments that have helped shaped me into the person I am today.  I’ve always been a guy who loves a great story, and more than anything, my idols are those incredible storytellers that have whisked me away to faraway lands, filled my mind with indelible images, my heart with wondrous emotions, and left my view of the world forever changed.  These are the people that have inspired me to tell my own stories, and to pursue as many mediums, tools, and techniques possible to translate the stories I see in my head into something tangible for others to see.

Of all the arts, Film has by far been my single largest influence.  Film is a medium that connects with me on nearly every level, tying my passions for clever wordplay, impassioned performance, dramatic design, and exuberant music into a wondrously shiny bow that I just can’t stop staring at.  And of the many incredible films I have been lucky enough to see, there is a select group that have inspired me to further explore my own views of the magical, mystical, fantastical, and humorous arenas of our existence.

Many of these films have connected with me in ways that are truly indefinable.  And miraculously, through this indefinable connection, I have discovered a remarkable kinship with others like me, enlightening me to a very important fact – Being a fan knits you together with those like-minded individuals for all of your life.  (There are few things more delightful than mentioning a film’s title and finding an instant connection with others in a room, where all involved recognize each other as kindred souls.)

So, as part of my annual reflections, it occurred to me that I owe a debt of gratitude to the films and filmmakers who have helped pave my way into the craft.  Now, to be fair, this list is far from complete, but each of these ten films has in some way influenced the manner in which I translate my personal stories to the screen.  As such, I humbly thank each and every one of the filmmakers who contributed to the making of these films, applaud them for their dogged pursuit of your craft, and hope these films will continue to inspire others as much as they have inspired me!

A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964) – This is a movie I saw far after its initial release, but Oh Man!  How I laughed when I finally got the chance.  Hard to know which gag’s my favorite… from the stellar unfolding of indiscretions in the opening sequence, to the nudist colony-plus-guitar bit, to the hilarious drunken Clousseau, Kato, and Elke Sommers “Menage a Trois”, this film is both a goldmine, and a national treasure. (Thank you Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers for among many things, making bumbling so cool.)

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) – Although initially released in 1975, I knew nothing about this film until the weekend after receiving my driver’s license in ‘86, after which I ended up seeing Rocky Horror every Saturday night at Midnight till I hit college, and even after for a few years. Time Warp is one of the few songs that can cause me to stop and dance no matter where I am, or what I am doing.  (Thank you to Jim Sharman, Richard O’Brien, and Tim Curry for inducting me into world class camp, and introducing me to “garter belts”… Hotcha.)

MURDER BY DEATH (1975) – Sure, not everyone agrees with me on this, but IMHO, this is one of the funniest movies of all time.  Truthfully, I still don’t completely “get” the “fake maid in the suitcase” bit, but it doesn’t matter, because Neil Simon is a freakin’ genius. (So, Thank You Neil! ‘Nuff said.)

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) – My folks took me to see this film at a drive-in in downstate Illinois.  (Oh, how I miss drive-ins…) This amazing film, while supposedly about “alien contact”, is an inspired illustration of the human reaction to the magical and positive aspects of the unknown.  Visually brilliant, aurally inspired, and characteristically stunning throughout, I was hooked by the 5th note. (Thank you Mr. Spielberg, for among SO MANY THINGS, making films infused with wonderment and awe.)

STAR WARS (1977) - I was lucky enough to be introduced to this film as a 7 yr old boy opening night in Chicago by a rambunctious uncle.  I proceeded to see Star Wars in theatres thirty more times that year, and managed to see every sequel on opening day, all the way through till the last release of each shagging episode of the “prequels”.   Star Wars was my “gateway” film. (Thank you, Mr. Lucas, for blowing the doors off the movie making process!)

GREASE (1978) – One of the few soundtracks to which I can sing every song, every line, every note.  Travolta as Danny was absolutely the coolest, Newton-John as Sandy was so totally the hottest… This is by far one of the greatest “Guy meets Girl” movies, and perhaps the naughtiest “Family film” ever made.  Yay! (Thank You to Randal Kleiser, and one of the best ensemble casts EVER!)

HALLOWEEN (1978) – My first real Horror Film, and IMHO one of the scariest movies ever made.  I don’t care if he was wearing a painted “James T. Kirk” mask.  The original Michael Myers spooked me for years… and I loved it! (Thank you, John Carpenter, for scaring the living crap out of me, and for the theme song that still defines the holiday 32 yrs later!)

FLASH GORDON (1980) – Incredible Art Direction, Insane Costumes, Epically Campy Visual Effects, and QUEEN delivering one of the best soundtracks of all time… how could you NOT love this movie? (Thank you to Dino De Laurentiis, Mike Hodges, and Freddy Mercury for making the best damn Sci-Fi Rock Opera ever made.)

TRON (1982) – I was first in line opening day at the Virginia Theatre to see this film, and it so completely blew my mind I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the week… this is the film that changed the way I saw EVERYTHING, and got me into Computer Graphics. (And yes, I’m totally geeked about the upcoming “TRON: Legacy!”) (Thank You, Steven Lisberger, for loving Video Games and championing Computer Animation!)

CINEMA PARADISO (1988) – Because I’m a hopeless romantic who loves movies, so of course I loved watching a movie both about lovers and movies.  I’ll also forever be a sucker for a really good screen kiss, so there you go. (Thank you, Giuseppe Tornatore, for loving film so damn much you had to make a film about it.)

There are dozens of other  films that I could have included in this list,but I’ll save them for another installment down the road. For now, I have some celebrating to do…  so on my behalf, please have a fantastic Friday!

Christopher Kai Olsen is an Emmy®-winning filmmaker based out of Chicago. Part writer, cinematographer, and animator, his playful storytelling approach can be seen in a variety of high profile projects, including the award winning PBS documentary “THE ARTSIDERS®”, the hit animated television series “VEGGIETALES®”, the film festival favorite “BUTTERFLY”, and the musical children’s video series “THREADS™”. In addition to his film work, Chris enjoys teaching and lecturing to educational institutions across the country, and has been known to walk miles out of his way in order to procure a well-made chai tea latte. He can be reached via Facebook, Twitter @CKOlsenPresents and on his blog .