“What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 1

If you work in the Australian film and television industry you already know how essential it is to find an audience for your work. It’s a matter of survival! But when there are limited funds to actually produce the films and television programs, often made on the proverbial smell of an oily rag, there’s very little left over for marketing, advertising and publicity.

A lack of funds is no excuse for poor planning, leaving things to the last minute or simply hoping for the best, according to publicists within AACTA’s Media and Public Relations (PR) chapter. In fact, there’s a lot that can be done strategically and cheaply to improve your chances of breaking through the information overload and finding the right audience for your stories, according to our publicists, and there are some very common mistakes you can avoid.

The Media and PR chapter is one of the 15 chapters of accredited screen professionals which constitute the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.* This Media and PR chapter encompasses A-list agents, film writers, critics, marketing specialists and publicists. It’s this latter group of publicists that we’re showcasing in this new blog series.

An experienced publicist knows how to target the right media for the right product, providing information and story angles on your film or television program, so that journalists, commentators and opinion-makers can talk about it through their own channels, whether these are print, online, radio or television. This involves careful planning, often many months ahead of a film’s release or a television show’s broadcast.

A publicist’s mailing list is gold. He or she (though in Australia at least, it’s more likely to be ‘she’) will make sure your press release finds its way to the right inboxes; that your beautiful key art, stills photography and behind-the-scenes videos are seen and reproduced in all the right places.

A publicist’s work might involve the following tasks: offering and organising the media’s interviews with lead actors, writers or directors;  organising set visits for industry journalists to get the inside story on ‘the making of’ a production; setting up promotional word-of-mouth preview screenings; coordinating a social media strategy combining Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Pinterest; and a host of other activities aimed at getting the word out.

A good publicist is an informed, resourceful and trusted colleague – not just for their clients, but for members of the media who are always searching for good stories, clear and engaging photos or film clips, and access to quick facts. A good film or television publicist actually loves good film and good television, and though they’re paid to find the good aspects of a production, they’ll try to work with things they love and believe in.  In our experience, there are many such people working with admirable dedication within the Australian screen industry to keep the media engaged in our products.

No matter how well-connected, persuasive and organised a publicist may be, they can’t make the media like your product if it’s lacking in appeal, but they can give it a red hot chance of being seen and being considered for its news and entertainment value.

In this ongoing series, we’ll highlight the skills and expertise of publicists within our AACTA membership, inviting them to share tips, tricks and insights borne of long experience in our particular industry. We’ll also ask these publicists to name some of the frequent frustrations they encounter in the line of duty, in order to better assist our filmmakers to promote their work.

Louise Heseltine

Louise Heseltine

First up is Louise Heseltine, who has worked in PR for over 10 years in Australia and overseas, including implementing campaigns for the Melbourne International Film Festival, Melbourne Queer Film Festival, St Kilda Film Festival, AFI Awards, IF Awards as well as some of Australia’s most well known producers, directors and productions, including The Slap, The Straits, Bogan Pride, Rogue, Matching Jack, Last Dance, Em4Jay, Jerrycan and Saved. Louise has worked at the 2005 and 2009 Toronto International Film Festival,  2012 Sundance Film Festival and is currently working in Los Angeles, where she’s worked with Stan Lee, Robert Evans, independent filmmaker Bert Marcus, the Gersh Agency and the American Film Institute.

We asked Louise to complete these sentences, and if there’s one take-away message from her answers, it’s to start your campaign as early as possible – something she notes is done far better in the US, where publicity starts as soon as a project is announced.

The best kinds of publicity for an Australian film/and or Television show are … Early publicity! There are several millions of people you need to reach out to, to let them know your film exists and why they should go see it and you can’t do that in a week.  The more time the better.  I currently work in the US where PR campaigns start as early as 12 months ahead, so by the time the film hits the theaters, everyone is aware of the film.

The most effective thing a film producer/film director can do to help sell their film to local audiences is…. Again, start early! Even if it’s just through social media with a Facebook page at pre-production stage with casting announcements.  You need to start raising awareness and interest as early as possible so you can build and grow your audience through the various stages of production, post production, festival screenings and then finally theatrical release. It’s also really important to know and understand who your audience is.  Clients always want the big articles in mainstream newspapers or interviews on commercial radio/TV, but if they are not your audience then readers/listeners are not going to be interested and it’s a wasted opportunity.

The most important thing for a distributor or exhibitor to consider when publicising an Australian film is… I think the approach to PR should be a lot more strategic when it comes to promoting Australian films.  There are a few distributors out there who know this and are fantastic at utilising PR.  Australian films don’t have the P&A [Publicity and Advertising] budgets that US films do, so you can’t just rely on interviews and reviews to run in the week of release. So much more can be done.  People need to remember PR isn’t just about media coverage. This is especially important to consider when TV shows and films are distributed differently through online or VOD platforms.  There is still a place for traditional PR, but room needs to be made for more innovative methods.

If there’s one mistake that gets made when it comes to publicity for Australian films it’s… Waiting until one-to-two weeks before the film is released to start raising awareness. When competing against blockbuster films which have massive budgets, films with smaller budgets need to start early in order to ensure awareness is raised.  There is often a fear that if you start too early, people become fatigued by the time the film is released in cinemas.  This is not true – if the campaign is implemented strategically, people will be waiting in anticipation for the film to be released.

As a publicist, I wish my clients would… Put more emphasis on PR. PR is often a last resort if there is leftover money in the budget.  In the US, PR is the first thing people think about and the campaign starts from the moment a project gets announced in the trades. Again, PR is not just about securing interviews/reviews – a strategic publicist can be brought on from day one to create and manage social media, the website, producing press materials, media meet-and-greets with key cast and crew, managing teaser clips or behind the scenes footage… and so much more. I remember watching online the audition tapes for Red Dog [which were released on social media] about 6 months before the film was released – so simple, yet so engaging. (See below.)

As a publicist, the aspect of my job which gives me the most joy is… Allowing me to work directly with creative people who constantly inspire me.

One of my favourite campaigns for an Australian film or TV show was…. That’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is! I loved all my clients and their projects, but if I have to single one out I would have to say The Slap.  We worked with the ABC and Matchbox Pictures (who lead the team behind The Slap and who are so innovative and creative)  to come up with PR ideas that fell outside the square.  For example, premiering the first two episodes at MIFF and generating that early buzz.  Matchbox Pictures are also one of the loveliest groups of people to work with – always a bonus!

A favourite campaign of Louise Heseltine’s – THE SLAP. The first two episodes premiered to great buzz at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival.

My other top tips are…  Make use of social media; it allows you to directly speak with your target demographic and start building an audience from an early stage.  A social media campaign does, however, need to be implemented strategically and consistently.  Updating your Facebook status once a month is not enough. I think people become afraid that if they are engaging in social media more than once a week it, then people get annoyed.  People get annoyed if you are bombarding them with useless or repetitious information, but if the interaction is newsworthy, informative and engaging, then people won’t ‘unlike’ and you will only grow your audience.

My other tip is good, strong, clear, light images.  The more the better! So many times we arrange reviews and interviews and then when it comes to supplying the media with images, we are given dark, blurry or non-descript ones which will never be used. I’ve had journalists say to me that the review was going to be a feature review, but because we didn’t have strong enough images, it became a 200 word capsule review. A picture really can tell 1000 words.

In my time working in the industry, the most exciting changes to PR for film and television have been….  The move towards online and social media has been the biggest change in the industry and because it can be so niche, we have the ability to reach out to target audiences directly and this is a huge advantage.  An interview in a major newspaper doesn’t always correlate to ticket sales.  It varies from project to project, but often we have more success when PR runs across targeted online media rather than commercial mainstream media outlets.  You also don’t always have to spend thousands of dollars on mainstream media – a campaign across a smaller outlet can often be much more effective for a fraction of the cost. While I believe there will always a place for traditional PR, people are sourcing information very differently to how they were five years ago and an interview in a major newspaper won’t always correlate to ticket sales.

In my time working in the industry, the most disturbing changes to PR for film and television have been…. The competitive nature of media – it’s all about exclusives and who gets first break. Unfortunately clients don’t often understand why they can’t get coverage to run across all outlets. I also find it very disturbing when you work on a project that is sponsored by one media outlet, and the competing media outlet won’t conduct interviews as a result.  I’ve even had conversations with certain media outlets who will not conduct interviews unless you advertise with them!

Thanks for your time, Louise, and best wishes in LA!

Next week’s PR Spotlight will be on Sarah Finney, who got her start as a teenager on film crews and has worked on everything from Dendy Cinemas’ national campaigns, to the NFSA’s restoration of Wake in Fright, the AFI Awards, the Logies and most recently, Channel Nine/Southern Star’s recent Television drama Howzat: Kerry Packer’s War.

In coming weeks, we’ll be profiling a number of other publicists from within our AACTA membership, including Screen Australia’s Media and Public Affairs Manager, Teri Calder, and veteran Australian publicist Catherine Lavelle, managing director and founder of boutique PR agency CLPR. If you’re a screen publicist and an AACTA member interested in contributing, please email editor@afi.org.au

*The 15 chapters within the Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts are: Actors, Animation, Cinematographers, Composers, Costume Designers, Directors, Editors, Executives, Hair & Makeup Artists, Media & Public Relations, Producers, Production Designers, Screenwriters, Sound, and Visual & Special Effects. More information on membership and chapter allocation can be found here on the AACTA website.)
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4 thoughts on ““What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 1

  1. I am so excited to read these blogs. I am in my final year of PR at university and all I want to do is PR for film and TV – I would especially love to work on film festivals! Louise, you have my dream job! 🙂 Cant wait for next week!

  2. I am so excited to read these blogs! I am in my final year of PR at university and all I want to do is PR for film and TV – I would especially love to work on film festival campaigns! Louise, you have my dream job! 🙂 Cant wait for next week!

  3. Pingback: “What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 2 | AFI blog

  4. Pingback: PR Profile: Teri Calder, Media & Public Affairs Manager at Screen Australia | AFI blog

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