When the German New Wave hit U.S. shores in the mid-1970s, then-exhibitor Ray Price made it his personal mission to screen every German film he could get his hands on. At the art cinemas he ran in the San Francisco area, the philosophy was “if the other guys were showing a dozen German movies, we were going to show 100. We went way beyond Werner Herzog or Reinhard Hauff. We were getting early Rosa Von Praunheim, Herbert Achternbusch. We went nuts with the stuff, and I was always pitching the town’s chief film critic, Stanley Eichelbaum, by phone about our latest finds.
“One day, he said, ‘Why are you doing this to me? You’re killing me. It’s too much.’ From my perspective, I didn’t think I was doing anything to him. I realized that I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have to the press’ needs and limits. But I had the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old about these movies, and I still do.”
Now, as marketing head of Trimark Pictures, Price says marketers and publicists for indie films “must have that kind of spirit, without of course driving the press crazy. This part of the film world is an adventure, it’s not just a business.”
An adventure, indeed. Although the newspaper industry is no longer strangled by the crisis of newsprint shortage of three years ago, space remains a precious commodity. At the same time, the major studios’ publicity machines are at constant full throttle, generating press on their phalanx of blockbusters. Always threatened with being crushed in this steamroll are the smaller indie movies with their lesser-known talent, stars and relatively minuscule ad campaigns.
An advance profile on the film’s star, or filmmaker, or any kind of follow-up story on the film at all, can sometimes make the difference between an indie film surviving in a marketplace seemingly designed to make them die.
Live Entertainment Co.’s David Bowers notes an added indie headache: “There’s not only less space in the papers for coverage of independent films than there used to be — there are more independent films being made. You’re not only vying for the attention of editors, but you’re battling all the other independents out there doing the same thing you’re doing.”
Price does not concur with this gloomy assessment: “I’m not sure that getting press coverage is harder now than it once was. Specialized films get more coverage now than they ever have in history, though maybe there’s been a dip from about four years ago. Overall, though, the trend on coverage is upward.”
Though it’s impossible to measure the number of daily and weekly newspaper stories covering indie work since the watermark years of the mid-1980s, when the U.S. indie movement began in force with filmmakers like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch, surveys of dailies and weeklies and conversations with editors indicate newspapers’ overall striving for a balance of coverage.
The Sunday, July 13, edition of the Chicago Tribune, for example, covered three distinct areas of the movie world, by no means ignoring indies: Along with a profile of Jodie Foster in “Contact” and a look at how a star like Danny DeVito interacted with his animated alter ego in “Hercules,” the Trib did a Q&A with Peter Greenaway, outspoken writer-director of “The Pillow Book,” one of the few indie hits this summer.
On rare days, like June 28 in the Los Angeles Times, indies will monopolize print coverage: freelance correspondent Lanie Goodman profiled homeless man Jerry Smith, featured in Tony Gatlif’s “Mondo,” whose marketing budget is only slightly larger than that of your neighborhood garage sale.
Looking for angles
The stories on Greenaway and Smith typify, say editors, the current trend in indie coverage. While all agree that the dominant type of story remains the star profile, the key thing “besides having a good movie is having a truly fresh angle,” says Bowers. “Everyman stories,” like the one on Smith or on a film about sad-sacks like Steve Buscemi’s “Trees Lounge,” “are compelling to both editors, writers and readers who are overwhelmed with all of the blockbusters.”
Publicist Fredell Pogodin, whose Fredell Pogodin and Associates coordinates campaigns with a variety of small to large indie companies, notes that having a filmmaker “like Mira Nair (whose “Kama Sutra” was recently released by Trimark), who’s screamingly articulate, and a link between East and West, can be tremendously effective” in the hunt for stories. Tribune arts editor Tim Bannon says that a Greenaway interview is “a slam-dunk, because it’s so rare and refreshing to read a filmmaker speak such engaging and provocative ideas as he does. It’s simply great copy.”
Which is the common goal of papers and publicists alike, who are also in general agreement on what indie story trends are now dead in the water — or just not newsworthy.
“Foreign films, with a few exceptions, have an extremely hard time getting covered beyond the review,” says First Look Pictures senior VP of marketing M.J. Peckos. A once-hot trend such as stories on the rise of indie female directors, notes Pogodin, “don’t seem to work anymore.” GS Marketing Group head Steven Zeller, who has recently helped on promotional and publicity campaigns for such indie films as “Cadillac Ranch” and “Wedding Bell Blues” and the upcoming Seattle festival award-winner “Eye of God,” says that “the hook-or-by-crook, I-made-this-movie-against-all-odds story of the Robert Townsend variety doesn’t draw interest, because it’s not unique now.”
Even stories on the American indie film movement itself appear to be dropping off to a trickle, Bannon observes.
Yet, with those caveats, the opportunities for indie press appear considerable for the crafty publicist and angle-hungry journalist. “Most independent distributors wouldn’t agree with me on this,” says Pogodin, “but I think the situation of coverage of these films is better now than it used to be, and for a specific reason. With the remarkable track record of an ‘English Patient,’ an ‘Il Postino,’ coupled with the decline of quality studio films, you can point to the quality films as a real option for filmgoers.”
And with quality films come quality stories. Bannon cites how — in contrast to the drudgery of press junkets orchestrated by the majors for their big titles — “with smaller, specialty films, we can have lengthy, face-to-face conversations with the filmmakers and actors, and so we get much better profile stories than the standard junket. That’s why we’re attracted to (the independents), because we can get better stories out of them.
“On the other hand,” Bannon adds, “you can’t focus just on films on two or three screens, as opposed to films on 200 Chicago-area screens. Plus, I have to look at the big picture of the section, and give it that balance of art and entertainment.”
Besides the tried-and-true star angle — as Price says, “I’ve never, ever gone wrong pitching Parker Posey” — the leg-ups for specialty films begin with playdates at the major festivals. And even these are useful for different reasons. Explains Bowers: “Sundance is key for stories on first-time filmmakers and for the press hungry for fresh angles. New York is vital, but strictly for the East Coast, which can help you with critical support but not necessarily national feature coverage. Toronto perhaps does that best, because it attracts a huge amount of press, which find themselves there almost in junkets, only for independent films and not studio films. And yet in Toronto you can also arrange for the one-on-one interview as well. It’s also economical, since you can cover a lot of filmmakers and stars in one place at one time.”
For Peckos, the theme article — a staple of the all-important New York Times — provides a large tent under which multiple indie titles can gather. “This is usually with a star, less often with a social-trend type story, like one the New York Times has on dancing in the movies, and it mentions our new film, ‘Alive and Kicking.’ We have Rupert Graves opening in two films, ‘Different for Girls’ and ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ and Fox Searchlight is handling him in ‘Intimate Relations,’ and they’re all coming out in the August-September period. So the versatility of his acting was the pitch, and it’s worked.”
“Getting the word out on specialty films really has two dimensions,” Price reflects. “Marketing them is like caucusing: How do I form a coalition of support for the film amongst, for example, writers getting their editors interested? On the other side, though, is this contradiction: Precisely because we’re about specialty films, we’re representing film with interest to special groups of people. But we’re also trying to break into not just film magazines and alternative weeklies — which don’t have all that much space anyway — but general reader newspapers.”
Citing Trimark’s Christmas release, “Eve’s Bayou,” as an example, Price says that “despite the general complacency of journalists, if I can ambush them with a good story idea on a really good film, they won’t clock out at 5 — they’ll stay and listen to my pitch. And since I don’t work on movies without ideas, I have something to talk with them about.”