What film publicists actually do

Publicists are one of the more overlooked positions in Hollywood. Here’s what they really do, based on my experience.
Photo of a publicist with glasses

Everyone loves movies, even if the majority of people have no idea how a movie gets made. They know the stars. They sometimes know the storyline, assuming there is one. But outside of that, films come and go without us knowing how many players involved.

Film publicists are a good illustration of how many people are involved in getting you into a movie seat. Publicists are at the heart of every film, yet few people arguably appreciate their role within the industry.

Plainly speaking, publicists aren’t the people responsible for making a film. They are the people responsible for making you want to see one.

So yeah, I’m not a publicist in the movie industry, but I have conducted dozens of celebrity interviews—some as a host, many as a video producer.

Some people are attracted to the glitz often associated with the lifestyle of a publicist, even if kicking it at parties and hobnobbing at festivals is not always the most accurate portrayal. For many interested in, or are actively pursuing, a career in Entertainment, I believe it’s important to actually know what a publicist’s job entails.

Here is what film publicists do … in 5 minutes.

What is a film publicist

Being a publicist in the film industry often involves two main tasks:

  1. Generating positive buzz for a film
  2. Overseeing the external messaging from the stakeholders involved in said film (AKA making sure no one says anything batty in an on-the-record interview)

I’m focusing on film publicists as most of my personal experience in publicity has been in Hollywood. But obviously, there is an overlap between a film publicist and traditional publicity, so I’m going to often use the terms interchangeably.

What it’s like to be one

Busy. Extremely busy. You become a publicist because you live to work and not the other way around…probably.

Film publicity is no different.

Anyone can step in during a conflict, but who can de-escalate the situation the next day and make sure the relationship remains amicable? A good publicist…

Based on my observations, if you’re not on the phone, you’re not doing your job. There is always a story that can be told about your client. Or a fire to be put out. Or a spark that could become a fire. Film publicists operate in a public-facing world where “image” is literally everything.

Your day could start with a chain of emails asking you to RSVP to a few dozen events (pre-Covid) or breaking news that could affect your team. These could spillover into interview appearances or meetings with publications, and separate brainstorms for various promotional campaigns. And then all of this culminates in several events across different parts of town where you’re representing various clients.

What an interview looks like when the publicists leave the room. This was at SXSW in 2018 and was on of the funniest interviews I’ve ever been a part of.

What makes someone a good movie publicist

Again, based on my time working with publicists and seeing them operate “in the wild,” here are some traits that successful publicists seem to have:

  • They seem to be good at falling on the sword
    In my opinion, one of the primary roles of a publicist is to sometimes be the bad guy. It’s not irregular for some high-end celebrities not to want to talk about certain topics in an interview. Instead of them having to possibly create a moment of tension by saying ‘I’d rather not talk about [blank’], the publicist can step in and act as if it’s their preference to not talk about something. This lets the celebrity/talent/actor sit back and be neutral as if the situation has nothing to do with them.
  • An ability to stand up for a client without burning a bridge
    Anyone can step in during a conflict, but who can de-escalate the situation the next day and make sure the relationship remains amicable? A good publicist knows how to stand up and represent their client while not embarrassing the person on the other end. Film publicists have two customers: their client and the person(s) promoting them. Sometimes the relationship between talent and journalist can counteract. But a good publicist will build up enough trust and credibility on both sides to see that any potentially negative situation doesn’t become permanently fractured.
  • You can think “worst-case scenario” before the scenario exists
    Publicity is more than just damage control, it’s damage prevention. Being able to understand the public’s reaction to something is where you make your money, not just soothing the public to an already negative reaction.

What tools do publicists use?

Being a publicist involves building a tremendous amount of quality relationships, which you then turn around and leverage for another person’s (your client’s) benefit.

For film publicists, this usually involves:

  • Movie and film trade magazine, websites, and publications
    • The Hollywood Reporter (THR), Variety, Deadline, Indiewire, Conde Nast (Wired, Vanity Fair, GQ, etc.).
    • As of 2020, THR, Variety, and Deadline are all owned by the same company.
  • Going to events
    • Most Hollywood parties are not excuses for people to get together and to enjoy life. Events, also known in marketing as “activations,” are vehicles for sponsorships to get their product in front of people of significance and for some form of news to be made or media (photos) to be generated.
  • Award committees
    • Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences (Oscars), Television Academy (Emmys), Hollywood Foreign Press
  • Movie Festivals
    • Sundance, Cannes, TIFF, maybe SXSW

I’m probably leaving a few off the list, but those are the heavy hitters. In short, parties and award ceremonies are not so much about honoring good work as they are opportunities to generate buzz and leverage connections. Some might say that’s cynical. But then again, the Oscars charges sponsors up to $50,000 to place an item in a celebrity’s gift bag.

Do you need a publicist?

While this might be a bit tangential, knowing why someone might need a publicist should provide a deeper insight into what a film publicist does.

Do you have a story to tell?

No, I’m not talking about writers who think they have the next big thing. I’m talking about individuals or smaller studios who are already generating buzz. Maybe you won an award at a lesser-known festival and were recently accepted at one of the major ones? Perhaps you booked an indie film role and are looking for more red carpets to help leverage your recent appearance? Notice both of these cases involve people who already have some buzz around them, which would give a publicist a “story to tell.”

How much do movie publicists cost?

A publicist or film publicity agency with major relationships (one that can get you 2-3 stories and/or appearances a month) can cost anywhere from $5,000-$15,000 monthly. That’s not an insignificant sum of money and that is also not a small range. The cost will widely vary not on output or how many stories they leverage, but the quality of the “rooms” they’ll be able to get you into.

Final Minute

The truth is, like any form of advertising—which publicity certainly is—it’s difficult to put a true price on and to determine the return. The only thing that is certain is that without some form of publicity, you’re leaving it up to the masses to communicate a positive message about your product—or to communicate any message at all. Entertainment is a relationship-based business, it has less to do with talent and more to do with who you know and whether or not that person does (or would) like you. Publicists are both an endorsement and a megaphone. They’re crucial to the industry and hopefully, now, you have a basic understanding of what they do.

This article was written by:

Paul is the Founder & Editor of in5minutes.com. He is a Certified Salesforce Marketer, FAA Drone Pilot, HSK Chinese Speaker, Ham Radio Operator, NASM Personal Trainer, and Certified Canon operator amongst other things. He hosted and produced the first original programs for Hulu and Twitch and helped launch a pilot program for teaching soft skills to incarcerated students. He currently runs content marketing for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. If you'd like to request a consultation, contact Paul here.

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