For film lovers, even those who are fairly well versed in the business, the credits that roll at the end of all films—everything from Short Term 12 to The Avengers—can sometimes seem like an endless series of made-up titles. I myself am guilty of this. Until I was 19, I thought a line producer and 1st AD were the same thing. Yeah, I know. But as aspiring filmmakers become working filmmakers, suddenly that jumble of words has all of the meaning in the world. Not only are you watching your own credits roll, but now you’re staying through the credits of other films and appreciating the hard work that went into them, knowing what every job is and how the film was better off for having someone in that position.
One of those roles that’s often misunderstood or under-appreciated is that of the unit publicist, a publicist who focuses on a film’s production. My fellow unit publicists and I have found that within the independent film community, we often get the question, “What is that and why does it matter?” “Unit publicity is generally the first line item to be removed from an independent film’s budget, but is one of the most critical components needed to deliver the movie when it is sold to a distributor,” says Erik Bright, president of Prodigy PR (Unit Publicist, All Is Lost, Kill Your Darlings, Margin Call, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways) I talked to a handful of unit publicists who work on all types of sets—indies, studio films, union and non-union—to help explain what a UP does and why. Here are the top ten reasons a UP does matter.
1. A producer is not a publicist. All too often, the producer ends up taking on the role of unit publicist without even knowing it by starting the social media or scrambling to deliver assets upon acceptance into a film festival. Let the producer focus on production. Best to have someone dedicated solely to coordinating the EPK and photographer, organizing set visits, communicating (or shutting down communication) with the press, taking notes, getting quotes for and writing the press kit, preparing festival assets and activating/monitoring social media. Unless you have a dedicated, professional publicist focused on the job, it’s not necessarily going to get done the way it should.
2. A UP manages your assets. Coordinating film festival assets is certainly a crucial piece of the puzzle, but it’s just part of the bigger picture facing every production: “deliverables,” which refers to all the materials that must be delivered to the studio, sales reps or whoever is going to move the production forward after wrap. These include a certain number of approved photos, behind-the-scenes videos and interviews, as well as a full press packet that includes production notes and cast and filmmaker biographies. Who is most qualified to make sure these things happen? Someone trying to play catch-up after the film wraps? Rather, it should be someone who knows every frame of your film because they’ve lived it with you and throughout the process have focused primarily on ensuring that every deliverable is ready in a timely manner and is as effective as possible for press, festivals and distributors. Increasingly, publicists have been asked to assist in asset managing—keeping track of assets needed to fulfill incentive agreements. This could mean getting special interviews or shooting b-roll at a particular location. On larger projects, unit publicists often liaise with strategic partners (organizing behind-the-scenes footage for marketing, entertaining VIPs, tours of production and the set) to get them excited about the project. A lot of money rides on these partnerships, and it’s often left to the unit publicist to be the host and tour guide.
3. A UP will help craft your image with you from the start. If your film is sold, having someone crafting the image of the film with you from the start means that you have something to hand off that reflects the film the way you want it reflected. Having your materials ready and positioned the way YOU want them is essential.
4. A UP works in tandem with the production photographer. The photographer’s focus should be on photography: capturing, editing and uploading the best images. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether a photographer also has the expertise and experience dealing with producers, talent agents, or studios. A photographer may not feel comfortable being as assertive as necessary to get a special shot, especially on an indie film where he or she may only be on set for a few days, without knowing the entire crew and subject to the fast pace that comes with guerilla-style filmmaking. This is when the photographer and UP working as a close team comes into play. The UP will know which shots are priorities because he or she knows what will be important in later marketing efforts, and will make sure you know it when you might be missing out on a crucial opportunity.
5. A UP creates a social media presence early. Hire a publicist to find your usernames, prep profile photos, develop an outreach schedule and manage social media assets on set. Behind-the-scenes peeks are becoming more and more a part of filmmaking culture, and being able to offer those to anyone who may be anticipating your film for any reason begins a vital groundswell. This ensures you have a base already in place when you go to your first festival or get picked up for distribution.
6. A UP is the gatekeeper of production. Unit publicists are the liaisons between the outside world and the set. They field the communication from press, fans, local community organizations, film commissions, etc. Due to their relationships with the filmmakers, the studio and the talent, there is less of a chance of misinformation getting out. Whether you’ve got 15 international journalists descending upon a set to interview eight actors, one director, two screenwriters and five producers, or a councilperson making an official visit to the set, or if the studio is requesting a special photo shoot on the first day of filming, these are the kind of things that the UP has the expertise to gracefully juggle, ensuring that all visitors walk away with exactly the impression you want to convey. Plus, by being a part of the production with daily access to the set and filmmakers, the unit publicist is able to share interesting anecdotes and stories with any press or VIPs during or following production, to encourage their interest in the movie and cement the project on their radar for the rest of the film’s journey.
7. You may need a troubleshooter. Should there be an incident that will make for good or bad press during filming, it is the unit publicist who fields the phone calls and often writes or issues statements. It is also the UP who disseminates the “party line” to cast and crew. When a studio is involved, the unit publicist is the liaison between the studio and the set, informing them of media mentions, press requests, paparazzi activity, etc., particularly when shooting is on a distant location. By being a part of the production with daily access to the set and filmmakers, the unit publicist is able to share interesting anecdotes and stories with any visiting press or VIPs to encourage their interest in the production.
8. A UP’s notes can be invaluable. Usually the last thing a producer wants to do is take the time to write up the entire history of the filmmaking process. And there’s a major difference in quality when a publicist hired after production wraps writes a press kit, never having been an active part of the production. Production notes written by a UP serve a lot of purposes; The information is often picked up by the media, whether it’s for a story about the production or a filmmaker profile. “I have often seen information taken from my production notes in the body of a journalist’s story (sometimes when the journalist never came to the set),” says UP Spooky Stevens. “I’ve even seen things in reviews that came from those notes.” It’s also a function of the unit publicist to make sure the information is being offered to the right media outlets—the ones that speak directly to the specific audience the filmmakers want to reach. UPs identify and build relationships with those people in the media throughout production.
9. A legacy is a terrible thing to preclude. You know what won’t end up in a major magazine’s look behind the scenes of this indie flick that ended up changing the face of filmmaking? A screen-capture. You know what won’t be high-res enough for printing? On-set selfies taken on cell phone cameras. Ensure that your film will have the materials to support a legacy. “Hey, have you ever seen this photo of the random effects dude from Escape From New York creating the skyline matte paintings?? Oh, wait—random effects dude was Jim Cameron?!?!!” Give yourself a chance to become legendary.
10. A UP can save you money in the long run. “It always puzzles me when I’m asked to a screening of a recently completed independent movie to learn that no publicity materials were developed during production and that the available publicity materials do not adequately describe the making of the film, its target audience, or the information needed to develop its marketing campaign,” says Henri Bollinger, president of the Publicists Guild. “Independent filmmakers often spend several years getting the film made, from creating the idea to getting the script written and raising production financing, without having given a thought to developing the basic marketing materials that will help secure distribution. The cost of hiring a unit publicist is minuscule compared to all other production outlays and can significantly increase the odds of recovering the initial investment and making a profit.” Unit publicists attach assets that increase the value and profile of a film. A cover story, magazine spread, or three-minute segment on national broadcast media can represent millions of dollars of assets and media impressions. In turn, this creates a package that makes a film much more attractive to festivals and distributors. Publicist Michael Klastorin notes, “There have been many times on a set where I’ve seen an opportunity to get a special shot that my photographer and I have wrangled in between setups, which if a marketing department tried to recreate at a later date, would have cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
11. BONUS: You can take them with you! Eventually, most filmmakers hope to fulfill the goal of shooting on a larger scale. Major directors tend to use the same unit publicists again and again, and there is a reason—this job is about trust. Once a director finds someone they trust to position his or her film and act as its public face, someone who is able to communicate the director’s vision to the outside world with finesse—they tend to keep that person around. Find your person you can trust now to take the journey with you before you make that next step.
Rachel Walker / Los Angeles Film Festival Publicity Coordinator, Unit Publicist Life Partners, in collaboration with unit publicists Michael Klastorin, Eric Meyers, Sheryl Main, Spooky Stevens, Erik Bright and Henri Bollinger