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Smartphone Photography Makes Life Hard for Unit Publicists

Cast and crew can now take pictures on set and immediately leak the images on social media, spoiling the studios' PR campaigns

Smartphone Photography Makes Life Hard Unit
Nils-Petter Ekwall for Variety

According to guild rules, the only person on set allowed to take photos is a union still photographer.

How quaint.

The digital and social media revolutions that have taken place over the past several years have rendered such regulations almost meaningless. Unit publicist Ernie Malik recalls that while shooting “Oz: The Great and Powerful” he had to contend with the fact that virtually everyone on his set had a camera-equipped smartphone.

“Oz” was filmed entirely on the stages at Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac in 2011 and there was always the chance that a grip or a gaffer could snap a photo of Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West, post it on Twitter, and ruin the film’s big reveal with an explosion of social media shares.

“There’s always a curious crew member who pulls a phone out when they see something interesting on the set,” Malik says. “But it’s one thing to take a shot, it’s another to post it online.”

The job of unit publicists is to coordinate publicity and photography efforts during production. They’ve traditionally been tasked with writing the start of production announcement, compiling material for the production notes, coordinating press set visits and working with the unit photographer to get all necessary shots of the cast. But now that everyone can shoot and instantly share both stills and video, an extra and not always surmountable challenge has been added to the job.

“Set designers might grab a photo of actor on set for inhouse use, and now that photo can somehow suddenly end up on social media and all hell breaks loose,” says former Publicists Guild president Henri Bollinger. “The studio screams at the unit publicist, ‘How could you have allowed that to happen?’ ”

Veteran unit publicist Sheryl Main says a lot of time is now spent trolling social media sites from Facebook to YouTube, searching for leaks.

“You have to be more vigilant,” Main says. “I’ve worked on movies where only department heads were allowed to have cell phones Security was there the whole time.”

But sometimes it’s hard to get the message across. Even on big event films where everyone is required to sign nondisclosure agreements, people often forget that sharing info about the production on social media can get them fired.

“They’ll say, ‘Gee, I didn’t realize I couldn’t send out that photo of that endoskeleton,’ ” says Main, who recently worked on “Terminator Genisys.” “Really? You signed something.”

Unit publicists constitute about one-sixth of the approximately 480 members of the Publicists Guild, which is part of IATSE Local 600, also representing camera crew members, vfx supervisors and still photographers. In addition to the union still photographer, other camera crews are allowed on set for EPK or news purposes, but they too must be union members.

“Some people say there’s nothing specific in contract about somebody using a cell phone,” Bollinger says. “There have been (union) meetings with unit publicists for months now dealing with this issue. Some people say the chain of command needs to be clearly defined so the unit publicist has the authority to tell people to please put their cameras away.”

Still photographer Barry Wetcher does his part to help his publicist brethren keep a lid on unauthorized shooting.

“Any crew person that I see taking out a phone and photographing, I have a talk with them, and that usually stops them,” Wetcher says. But, if it’s one of the stars taking pictures, “I personally don’t go near it.”
It’s also true that a star’s social media postings can give a big boost to the promotion of a film or TV series.

Studios want to control the timing and the reveal,” Malik says. “If filmmakers want to do social media while a film is in production, that’s discussed upfront, and you try to create the campaign and have it build to a wrap photo so you end on a high note.”

Today, that item might come in the form of a social media posting.

“In the old days, I would’ve called up (late Variety columnist) Army Archerd,” Malik says. “That’s old-world now. A column item in today’s language would be a tweet.”