Skip to main content

Flak Attack: A Pre-Production Publicity Checklist

By Elizabeth Blozan

"Never spend money on your one sheet," advises James Lewis of the publicity firm mPRm. Having worked on films like March of the Penguins and Dust to Glory, Lewis can tell you that in today's market a distribution deal puts you in the fortunate position of having a marketing campaign created for you by the distributor, usually financing posters, press kits, electronic press kits (EPKs), event screenings and the services of veteran publicists. If you're picked up by an outfit like the award-winning PBS series P.O.V., your benefits will also include a "community engagement" campaign with nationwide public screenings hosted by local affiliates. "We're really lucky to get 12 to 18 jewels a season," says P.O.V. Vice President Cynthia Lopez. "And we will try to work every angle that we can. We would provide that entire package for every single film."

But the publicity campaign requires critical pieces only you can deliver. Lewis, Lopez and David Magdael of David Magdael and Associates (which has handled such docs as Super Size Me and Mad Hot Ballroom) helped outline a checklist to review before filming begins.

1) Define Your Audience

"You need to be really honest about why you're making the documentary," says Magdael. "What is your goal? Do you want to see it on the big screen or are you happy just on a broadcast?" According to Lewis, if your goal is a profitable theatrical release be prepared to "meet the audience halfway." Lewis argues that a strong narration is the key factor to theatrical success. Consider that seven of the ten highest grossing docs of all time have narration (and that Warner Independent Pictures paid a WGA screenwriter and an Oscar winner to rework the original French narration of March of the Penguins prior to its US release).

A television audience, on the other hand, keys into a film differently. "I do believe that people who go to theaters and see a documentary are different from people who watch that same documentary at home," says Lopez. "They're looking for a different experience. In terms of television there are more opportunities for learning in a different way."

2) Energize Your Distributor and Your Publicist

Your publicist will tell you the real selling begins after you sell your film. Often you're the one keeping your distributor's nose to the grindstone. "That's something that a lot of filmmakers forget," says Magdael. "They should not just back off and think the studio is going to push it. Once they get the sale the battle has just begun."

You also need to excite and fully educate your publicist with every detail they need to both define your marketing message and your audience. This step is so important to the P.O.V. team that Lopez asks filmmakers to submit in-depth articles and academic papers discussing concerns of the region where the project was filmed. "We're in the business of, How do we contextualize the thoughtful work of our filmmakers?" she explains.

3) Prepare Materials for a Press Kit

Your film's all-important press kit will contain industry-standard components your publicist will finalize with you. But you provide the following raw materials:

  • A complete, accurate crew list.
  • Bios of key creative personnel (including any details that attract special interest press).
  • A draft of a synopsis.
  • Production notes that include production adventures and any detailsfrom technology to locationsthat can attract a story.
  • A director's statement that conveys your personal story and passion.

A press kit might also contain material to introduce the press to the unique culture you've captured. For the GunnerPalace press kit Magdael included a glossary of military terms and the lyrics of the soldiers' raps from the film. P.O.V. requires filmmakers to submit a timeline of key historic events surrounding the film's subject matter.

4) Get Great Photographs

The majority of documentary press will be print media, and to land in print you must have great photographs. Sometimes the lack of publicity stills will even dissuade a distributor from picking up a film. Says Lopez, "I always tell the filmmaker, How do you describe your film in four photos or less?" The press gets four to six photos with your press kit but your publicist should get a larger selection from which to choose "that photo Variety has to run," as Magdael puts it. Lopez advises to start photographing at the film's inception, even including production meetings.

If you have no still photography you're left with two choices: Return to the scene of the crime for representative photography or generate photographs from the film. But beware: manipulating a film or video grab up to print resolution is pricey. According to Lewis, an entire print of Touching the Void was sacrificed by its distributor, IFC Films, to get a handful of source images needed for glossy adventure magazines. Manipulating a video grab will run about $200 per image, but some high-profile print outlets will reject even expensive conversions.

You also need a photo of yourself. Says Lopez, "Get someone you trust to take pictures so you look at that picture and say, Wow, that's a good impression of who I am!"

5) Shoot Footage for an EPK

An EPK is distributed on Beta SP to broadcast outlets, and it includes the following:


  • Four to six 60-second clips.
  • At least one version of a trailer.
  • Behind-the-scenes footage.
  • Interviews with the cast and key creative personnel.
  • A "making of" piece.

Your publicist only needs broadcast-quality raw footage for the EPK. If you didn't interview cast and key creative personnel during production, film them after the fact. These extras are used for press, DVDs and TV promos (and will add value to your film at sale).

6) Keep Records of Your Contact with the Press

The best gift you can bring your publicist is a festival award or a gushing review from a notable critic. But at the very least keep a detailed account of your contact with the press, including distribution of press releases.

7) To Blog or Not to Blog?

Ever since a hailstorm of Internet posts helped make The Blair Witch Project one of the most profitable films in history, blogs have been seen as having the voodoo power to break a film. True? "Not really," says Lewis. "Viral campaigns tend to be very immediate and require a very topical, controversial subject or pop culture phenomenon. It's hard to sustain Internet buzz for the amount of time it takes most documentaries to build a following in the theaters."

Publicists hope you have a website and some helpful feedback from viewer posts, but raging Internet buzz is not expected. In fact, P.O.V.'s award-winning Web team builds a custom site for each film that includes a forum, live post-broadcast chats and very robust downloadable teaching guides for educators.

8) Organize Your Film's Champions

Theatrical distributors release documentaries very slowly, relying on the revenue generated in one or two cities to fund the film's expansion. They count on a core audience to open the film and sustain it through word-of-mouth. The publicist relies heavily on you to identify and energize these champions. "What we try to do is dissect the film and figure out, OK, who's going to be that sympathizer?" Magdael explains. "Those are going to be your first weekend people who are going to come out and drive that box office, which unfortunately is very important."

With documentaries in particular the publicist has no proven path to follow for marketing a film; every film poses a brand new problem and has the potential to find a brand new niche audience. "We work closely with filmmakers to develop a campaign that really has what they consider their primary audience and their secondary audience as the reason we developed the campaign in a particular way," Lopez notes.

9) Invite Your Subjects to Join Your Campaign

Meeting the subjects of a film is an encounter only a documentary can offer and has a unique impact on the press and public. Working the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Magdael passed out Valentino pumps to promote Ramona Diaz's Imelda and, with Morgan Spurlock, 100 Egg McMuffins to a shivering line outside a Super Size Me screening. But Magdael says the best "swag" that year came from the team of Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, dir.; Rosadel Varela, Hani Salama, prods.), who brought Hassan Ibrahim, correspondent for Al Jazeera, to the festival. "That was what [the press] was going to get online and blog about: 'I met someone from Aljazeera tonight,'" Magdael notes.

If your cast members aren't press veterans, your publicist will help them. Magdael recently worked with the Sierra Leonean musicians featured in Zach Niles and Banker White's The Refugee All Stars. The musicians traveled from their homeland to attend the 2005 AFI Festival (where the film took the Best Documentary award). " Because the movie's very strong, people feel this really emotional bond to them when they see it," Magdael maintains. "We made sure they were comfortable with that."

10) Make Time in Your Schedule for Press

Often a publicist's biggest problem is tracking down the overextended filmmaker. "You have to remember that, just because you made the film, you got it into a festival and then got picked up, your job is not done; it's just begun," Magdael maintains. "You need to be dedicated to pushing that movie." Press interviews can start as early as four months before a film's release, and with documentaries they can last months afterwards.

Magdael points to Spurlock as a great example of "someone who had his shit together. He had people from the health community, and he had people who would go out and engage the network. He had his photos, he had the idea for the poster. So everything he did was very smart. And he was available for anything we asked."

Luckily the intrepid publicists who specialize in documentary (and there are few) are a strange breed, undaunted by difficult subjects and difficult campaigns. "People who work in documentary know it takes a longer time to tell both sides of the story," says Lopez. "So that's always something that we struggle with. When I think about some of the political films that we put up I think, Oh my God, what a challenge it is! How do you make democracy at 10:00 interesting?" Says Magdael, "I look at every film as individual; you've got to, especially with a documentary. And the exciting thing for me, why I mostly cover docs and indie films, is because they are such a challenging market."