Flacks grow in numbers, specialization, clout
With the trophy race now encompassing more than 50 pics and several dozen kudofests, and the spectrum of tastemakers proliferating beyond the trade pubs to an ever-growing gantlet of daily newspapers and blogs, it has become the studio “awards team” in recent years that, in large part, makes the Globes go around.
Of course, marketing and publicity pros have been key kudo operatives since the dawn of Hollywood award shows, but their numbers, level of specialization and clout have increased exponentially in the past decade, hand in hand with emergence of studio specialty divisions that have made trophy time integral parts of their business models.
“It has become, like everything else in the United States, a specialty business,” says one top freelance awards consultant, who like everyone else interviewed for this piece requested anonymity. (“We don’t want our clients to think we’re taking attention away from the movies,” notes another top-level awards maven explaining this skittishness.)
“These campaigns are so enormous now, you need specialists in all areas,” adds a talent agency publicist. “Everybody sets up their team differently, but first and foremost you need someone like a Tony Angellotti or a Michelle Robertson or a Cynthia Swartz — someone who carries weight — to plan your campaign.”
Whether it’s Focus, Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight or Warner Independent, each studio specialty division structures campaigns with some relying more on outside consultants and others managing the season primarily with full-time, indigenous resources. Regardless of how they do it, awards-aspiring studios most often turn to a small cadre of top-level consultants to lead their efforts. These top guns can pull in more than $50,000 a month, one PR maven says, with bonus structures thrown in based on the nominations they generate.
“You can’t delegate strategy; if you don’t bring your A game, it’s over,” says one such uber flack. “Once upon a time, there weren’t so many films. Now there are 60 or 70 films vying for attention — you need someone who knows how to figure out the right elixir for the film you have. That’s why people like me get hired.”
“There are so many elements to a campaign: setting up screenings, creating ads, figuring out when to book ads, talking to the trade press; you really need someone at the top who has done this for years to orchestrate all of that,” notes another high-level kudos-season operative, delivering a similarly job-justifying claim.
Beyond hiring on one of these architects, the talent-agency PR rep says, “You also need someone who has really good relationships with the guilds — someone like a Ronni Chasen or a Lisa Taback, who knows all the guild heads and their submission guidelines. In an ideal world, you’d want somebody who specializes in every branch (of the Academy) — you’d want a music guru and an editing guru and a cinematography guru.
It usually doesn’t get quite that specific — there’s usually someone broad onboard who can handle several different branches — but they need to have that specialized knowledge.”
In past decades, awards season represented one more set of chores for studio publicity and marketing staffers beyond the core tasks of opening movies, but today it has become a year-round, all-encompassing endeavor.
“From marketing to production, every single department and every single person at our company is somehow involved in awards season,” notes a specialty-division publicity topper. “Our very business model is based on prestige films.”
It is the publicity team that drives these efforts, starting just a few months after the last Golden Globe is awarded.
“There are three of us working inhouse, and we get a two-month reprieve from awards work before strategy time starts again in May,” the studio publicity head adds. “That’s when we start talking about what films we have and what the possibilities are — what our submissions will be, what our ads will look like. A ton goes into the submissions process alone. For example, for music categories, you have to know what songs were written for the film and which ones weren’t. You don’t want to make an embarrassing mistake and start submitting cover songs. And since crews that work on movies that win awards tend to be good enough so that they always have work, you have to figure out who’s going to be available to do Q&As and trade-press interviews.”
By August, this small inhouse publicity team expands with a help of small army of independent and agency consultants. Regional consultants — usually just one in each place — are added into the fold to handle key markets such as New York, London, San Francisco and New Zealand (home of f/x house Weta Digital). Several more contractors are added on in L.A. to handle a workload that ramps up quickly in the fall.
“Just one little activity like a Directors Guild screening and Q&A requires an enormous amount of work,” says another freelance awards maven. “First you have to draft an invite, then send it to the DGA to get it approved. Then you have to get it printed. Then you have to send it to a fulfillment house to have the letter folded and put into an envelope. Then you have to send it back to the DGA to have an official stamp put on it. This is just for one client screening.”
In addition to freelance consultants, PR agencies representing some of the key acting and directorial talent in the studio’s contenders also jump aboard the team in the fall. “If you have five agencies and five consultants working on one film and one (publicist) working on another of equal quality, the one with more foot soldiers behind it definitely has a leg up,” says a talent-agency staffer. “Having a lot of voices in a campaign is a huge advantage.”
“Some people have really deep pockets and hire tons of consultants,” adds another indie consultant, noting that one best picture contender last year sported six consulting companies. “It’s not something you necessarily need.”