They called her “Camera Nazi” on her last film, and Sheryl Main relished the nickname. “I would go crazy anytime anyone wanted to take a photo,” she explains.
Main isn’t against photography per se, but as a film set unit publicist, refusing to let unauthorized photography off the set is just one of myriad responsibilities she shoulders — responsibilities that continue to shift amid the roar of the Internet.
Unit publicists — typically a team of one — are the invisible worker ants on a set, expected to be everywhere at once and in charge of whatever information comes or goes, all the while archiving it and preparing for the inevitable marketing and publicity that takes over once production wraps.
“My joke is that I’m like Julie, your cruise director from ‘The Love Boat,’ ” says unit publicist Deborah Wuliger. “You’re the face of the production on location because you’re the only marketing person on set.”
Adds colleague Wolf Schneider: “People might think with all the easy, fast communication mediums like Twitter and Facebook that they might not need a unit publicist. But without one, who is strategizing the content?”
Not everyone may know exactly what a unit publicist does, but the position has remained fairly resilient in the face of the recent economic downturn and general budget slashing.
The Intl. Cinematographers Guild, which includes publicists, says the 89 unit publicists who hold membership have been a steady number for the past five years.
They’re relatively inexpensive (scale is about $2,000/week) and appear to pass below the radar when it comes to eliminating below-the-line jobs.
“Cutting that kind of position would be short-sighted,” says Wuliger. “The percentage of most budgets is pretty miniscule for unit publicists.”
It is true that the Internet has made some of the unit’s traditional jobs moot. Many of the materials they used to assemble for press and marketing departments are now on the Web; issuing press releases is almost a dead art. Good, in-depth production notewriting is no longer valued, per Schneider, who adds, “there’s more of a desire for sound bites and quick, fast bits of information.”
“In some ways, (the Internet) has made our jobs more interesting,” Wuliger says. “There are more venues and opportunities for marketing, and for better or worse marketing has become more central to film release and distribution.”
At the same time, units now have to do the equivalent of stuffing cats back in bags every day. It is much harder to corral the assets and control the flow of information, says unit publicist Gregg Brilliant, who recalls that when a recent film he worked on shot in a public park, “we literally had people in trees shooting pictures. A picture got out, and within six hours it was all over the world.”
Rob Harris calls his work on “World War Z,” the Brad Pitt starrer scheduled for December release, “a huge Internet scramble.”
“At least half of my time was spent online just keeping up with what was written and correcting the reporting if it was wrong,” he says.
On some films, it has even been left to the unit publicist to hold back the paparazzi from actually overwhelming the filmmaking. Cinematographer Steven Poster recalls that on the set of 2009’s “Spread,” the presence of paparazzi trying to get a photo of star Ashton Kutcher was keeping cameras from rolling.
“They were more interested in stopping production to get their pictures than letting us shoot,” Poster recalls.
Call in the units — diplomats and archivists rolled up in one. “They organized times when the paparazzi could shoot, and asked them to give us a break,” says Poster. “Not many people could do that. It really is a tough job.”
If times have changed for the unit publicist, veterans will tell you the job has always been liquid. According to Bob Werden, who got his start as a unit publicist in the 1950s, says they once could block non-union publicists from getting on set to talk to clients. That power left with the studio system; today, they must adapt to being freelancers instead of studio employees.
No matter how the job changes, being enmeshed with a film will no doubt remain a point of pride. As Werden recalls, he turned in around 50 pages of production notes for 1997’s “The Peacemaker,” baffling the head of the marketing team.
“She said, ‘Why did you write all this? We have writers here,’ ” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, yes — but were they on the movie?’ Out there, it’s a whole different ballgame.” n
2012 Publicists Awards honorees and nominees
Motion Picture Showman of the Year
Television Showman of the Year
Lifetime Achievement Award
Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Showmanship Award — Film
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2” (Warner Bros.)
“The Help” (Disney)
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (20th Century Fox)
“The Smurfs” (Sony Pictures)
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (Paramount Pictures)
Maxwell Weinberg Publicists Showmanship Award — TV
“The Good Wife” (CBS TV Studios)
“Modern Family” (Fox)
“Ringer” (CBS TV Studios
“Shameless” (Warner Bros.)
“Two and a Half Men” (Warner Bros.)
Les Mason Award for Career Achievement
Tony Angellotti , the Angellotti Co.
Rob Harris , Unit publicist
Rosalind Jarrett , SAG Awards publicist
Sheryl Main , Unit publicist
Murray Weissman , Weissman/Markovitz Communications
Deborah Wuliger , Unit publicist
Nellie Andreeva , Deadline Hollywood
Timothy Gray , Variety
Rebecca Keegan , Los Angeles Times
Susan King , Los Angeles Times
Steve Weintraub , Collider.com
International Media Award
Philip Berk , Australia/Malaysia
Elaine Lipworth , United Kingdom
Lynn Tso , Taiwan
Excellence in Unit Still Photography — Film
Excellence in Unit Still Photography — TV