“What I wish you knew…”: Top tips from Australian film and TV publicists – Part 2

There’s a lot that can be done strategically and cheaply to attract eyeballs to your screen projects, according to publicists within AACTA’s Media and Public Relations Chapter. There are also some very common mistakes you can avoid.

In this ongoing series, we 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.

You can read our first installment of this series, along with tips from Louise Heseltine over here. This week we talk to Sarah Finney, whose varied career – including a stint working with us at the AFI | AACTA – has given her a wealth of top tips.

Sarah Finney

Sarah got her start in the screen industry while still at Melbourne University. She worked in production roles, including as an assistant to the producer of Once Were Warriors, Robin Scholes, before working as a unit publicist on feature films AmyThe Craic and One Perfect Day and completing further studies in communication at RMIT. Sarah then joined exhibitor and distributor Dendy as Victorian publicist, working on the publicity and promotions campaigns for a range of quality local and international films.  After three years at Dendy, Sarah joined Lonely Planet where she worked on high profile brand and product campaigns including the ABC TV series Going Bush with Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman. Moving to Canberra, Sarah worked in Public Affairs for the Australian Government’s overseas aid agency, AusAID, being posted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta before becoming Media Manager. Sarah then worked in communications for the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) where a highlight was helping to bring attention to the restored version of Wake in Fright. She returned to Melbourne in 2010 to work with the Australian Film Institute on media, industry and member communications, and of course the AFI Awards! Most recently she’s been managing unit publicity on the mini-series Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War (Southern Star John Edwards) and drama series House Husbands (Playmaker Media/The Lantern Group).

Here are Sarah’s answers to our questions:

The best kinds of publicity for an Australian film are… Lots of it! Start your publicity campaign as early as you can to build awareness, and establish a website and social media presence at the outset. Utilise your main cast. Launching a new face can be as compelling as promoting established names, and don’t limit yourself to the film and entertainment sections or programs of the media. Be creative!

The most effective thing a film producer/film director can do to help sell their film to local audiences is…. Hire a unit publicist as early as possible! Seriously, know who your audience is and make sure you target them through the publicity and marketing. Support your distributor. Work with them on the campaign, listen to their ideas and expect to be challenged. Be prepared to go on the road to promote the film. Red carpet premieres are great fun but some films are better served by doing a publicity tour to major capital cities and even regional areas, rather than having one big (and expensive) bash.

Melbourne’s Kino Cinema organised word of mouth preview screenings with members of the financial sector to promote THE BANK in 2001.

The most important thing for a distributor or exhibitor to consider when publicising an Australian film is… In distribution, allow enough time to generate as much publicity around the release as possible. You can have a terrific advertising campaign but you need PR to match it. Australian films are very labour intensive from a PR perspective but as a publicist very rewarding when you have been part of the team since script stage. And of course, harness word of mouth. If you have a great movie, show it to people, get them talking about it! While online and social media are increasingly important, traditional media shouldn’t be overlooked. Australian films don’t have the advertising budgets that major US releases to, so publicity plays a much bigger part.

Exhibitors are at the coalface, dealing directly with audiences and can really help sell a film at a local level. If you’re an exhibitor/theatre, you can:

  • Organise word of mouth previews.
  • Find out if there’s a local connection with the cast or crew, perhaps they can do an event or some publicity for you.
  • Consider whether the film will lend itself well to group bookings and identify groups to target. Sometimes it’s really clear, a film is based on a classic book which means school groups will be interested. Maybe it would be a good fundraiser. When I was at the Kino, our CBD location worked to our advantage with Rob Connolly’s The Bank. I recall we had around 6 – 8 paid preview screenings, all group bookings from the financial sector – ANZ, Esanda, Westpac, ASX. They had a great night out, we got box office and helped generate word of mouth ahead of the film’s opening, and the film performed particularly well at our cinema, especially the early evening sessions for the ‘after work’ crowd. For the employees of these banks and finance companies, it was a rare chance for them to see their world up on screen. Always look for these opportunities.

If there’s one mistake that gets made when it comes to publicity for Australian films it’s… In my view, there often needs to be a more intensive word of mouth preview screening program. The more people who see the film in the 6 – 8 weeks prior to release the better. If they like it they will tell their family and friends, and it takes time for word of mouth to filter through. If there’s a secret twist or some other reason why you can’t preview yet, then you will need to build that awareness another way.

The story of the restoration of WAKE IN FRIGHT became an essential part of the publicity for the film’s re-release in 2009.

One of my favourite campaigns for an Australian film was…. At the NFSA, I worked on the re-launch of the lost Australian classic Wake in Fright. The film had been recovered and restored, and to prepare the film for release, as well as working with Madman on the campaign, I undertook extensive research and interviews to tell the story of the making of the film, its original release, loss, recovery and restoration. It was a fascinating journey and a very satisfying one, not just to see audiences discovering this forgotten film, but also to share the story of the original production, the quest to find the original negative and the artistry involved in putting the film back together again. The media really embraced the story and helped Wake in Fright find a new audience, and it was a great opportunity to raise the profile of the NFSA, because Wake in Fright made the work of the NFSA accessible and relevant to audiences.

I think that Hopscotch’s campaign for The Sapphires has been excellent. Of course it helps to have a great movie to promote, but they have really got the film out there and I hope everyone sees it.

I also think producer Robyn Kershaw and Roadshow created a terrific campaign for Bran Nue Dae. They were very innovative, establishing an online and social media presence very early on. One strategy was to give ‘fans’ the opportunity to vote for one of two very different poster designs. Key art is crucial and the producers and distributor of Bran Nue Dae engaged directly with audiences to find out what artwork they responded to and this became part of the campaign itself, as it went viral and helped promote the film.

An innovative strategy by Roadshow to involve fans in choosing the key art for BRAN NUE DAE.

My other top tips are: You only have one chance to build your arsenal for publicity and promotions and that is during production. Make sure you make the most of this time with:

  • Stills photography, an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) and behind-the-scenes shoot. These are critical. In regards to stills, you need, strong, clear, well-lit images. It is really important that key scenes are photographed and that there is sufficient light to ensure the images are bright enough for editorial use. Time on set is very tight, but if it’s a crucial scene from a publicity perspective than those extra few minutes spent on holding the set up for stills will mean you have what you need to secure feature stories and interviews, particularly cover stories in newspapers and magazines. You need scene stills and portraits of the cast and if budget permits, doing a studio photo shoot with the cast is really useful as it means your distributor or network have plenty of imagery for publicity. Investing in an EPK shoot means that you will have plenty of material for use online, through social media and DVD extras. There are production companies who now specialise in this and can work with you to shoot what you will need to promote the film across multiple platforms, especially social media.
  • Media visits to set: the variety and volume of media visits to set during filming is determined by a range of factors and in some instances, it is not practical or appropriate. In television it is not uncommon for a drama to go to air while it is still in post-production and given the condensed time frame, media visits to set help build awareness prior to the launch of the show. The timelines can be very fluid and it can mean that delivery is very rushed, so it helps to have an agreed schedule for publicity materials as well as other delivery items. Each project is different but where possible I try to keep media visits to set brief and to a minimum and ensure that there is as little disruption to filming as possible. Media usually require short interviews with cast while on set and I try to identify the best days in the shoot schedule to accommodate media without demanding to much of the actors or assistant directors. There was intense media interest in Howzat and most of the key TV press visited the set. The cast and crew were very good-humoured about it all, especially Lachy Hulme (Kerry Packer) who the media were most interested in! Lachy always found a few minutes in his very demanding schedule to do publicity.

Intense media interest in Lachy Hulme’s performance as Kerry Packer in HOWZAT helped to generate buzz. Photo: Natasha Blankfield.

In my time working in the industry, the most exciting changes to PR for film have been…. Probably digitisation and the evolution of online and social media. While a distributor or TV network might ultimately market a screen project, now everyone can help build awareness of a film or TV show for social media, especially the cast. Starting with candid Instagram pictures that cast and crew Tweet from the set, to unveiling the official website and launching the trailer online – it all helps. But you need to be strategic about it and have someone coordinating it all. Discuss this with your distributor and decide who will be leading this early as there needs to be a cohesive online presence, one official Twitter account and one Facebook page.

In my time working in the industry, the most disturbing changes to PR for film have been…. The consolidation of the media industry. While digital has brought amazing opportunities and new channels, especially through online and social media, it has also seen the rise of “shared content”. I think it is a great shame that newspapers around the country are merging and as result there are fewer opportunities to reach audiences.

Thanks for your time, Sarah and for sharing these great examples! You can also follow Sarah on Twitter at @SarahLFinney.

Next fortnight’s PR Spotlight will be Screen Australia’s Media and Public Affairs Manager, Teri Calder, and following that, 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.)