You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Peaky Blinders Season 5

    Time-Jumping Season 5 of 'Peaky Blinders' Aims for a More Cinematic Look

    Cinematographer Si Bell was thrilled to learn he and director Anthony Byrne had been tapped to shoot the fifth season of BBC’s “Peaky Blinders,” but surprised to find out how free a hand executive producers Caryn Mandabach and Jamie Glazebrook were giving them to determine the scheme of their six-episode run. “I expected to meet the [...]

  • Ad Astra

    How 'Ad Astra' Production Crew Created Authentic Look for Brad Pitt Space Drama

    In “Ad Astra,” Brad Pitt’s astronaut Roy McBride crosses the solar system to find and confront his long-lost father, requiring the movie crew to create an authentic-looking future that conveys the theme of traveling long distances to learn the lesson that it’s where you started from that has the most value. “Visually, the aim was [...]

  • Women in Animation Logo

    WIA Partners With Animation Mentor, Toon Boom to Expand Scholarship Program

    Women in Animation has partnered with Animation Mentor and Toon Boom to expand the organization’s WIA Scholarship Program with workshops and software packages. WIA scholarships are given to animation students with a financial need and who demonstrate talent and passion for animation that will lead to a promising career in the field. The Animation Mentor [...]

  • Steven Poster ICG National President

    DP Steven Poster to Receive SOC Lifetime Achievement Award

    Stephen Poster, cinematographer on such classics as “Donnie Darko” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” will receive the Lifetime Achievement Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Camera Operators at a ceremony on Jan. 18, 2020. SOC grants the award to an Individual who has served the community at large and/or the Society through outstanding service [...]

  • Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep

    Swedes Call for Incentives to Keep Potential Runaways at Home

    Horror film “Midsommar” did it last year. A new adaptation of the Swedish classic “The Emigrants” will do it next year. Prestigious productions that could have taken advantage of beautiful Swedish locations and craft expertise continue to run away to foreign locations for lower costs and tax incentives. Despite having a strong film industry creatively [...]

  • Game of Thrones

    Ireland Lures Filmmakers With Locations, Expertise and a 37% Tax Credit

    Few locations on earth can match Ireland’s proverbial 40 shades of green. In addition to its restful hues, the island nation also boasts alluring lakes, rugged windswept coasts, small charming hamlets, rustic farmhouses of aged stone, hilltop castles and breathtaking expanses of wild scrubland. Bustling and modern Dublin, Ireland’s capital, will be the largest English-speaking [...]

  • UNDONE Animated Series Amazon

    How Animated Series 'Undone' Used a Mix of Techniques to Tell the Mind-Bending Tale

    When Kate Purdy wanted to tell a story about the nature of reality, she knew she wanted to play with perception and time, fade in and out of memories and give voice to visions that only her main character could see. And it wasn’t long before the executive producer and co-creator of Amazon’s new series, “Undone,” [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content