Skip to main content

Generating a Buzz without Getting Stung: What a Successful PR Strategy Can Do for Your Film

By Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

From Marshall Curry’s Academy Award-nominated 'If a Tree Falls.' Courtesy of POV

The allocation of funds is tricky for documentary filmmakers, but it's particularly difficult to determine what monies should be set aside to promote a film.

If the filmmaker is also the producer—or the producers are individuals, as opposed to a corporate entity—hiring a PR agency to pitch the concepts and themes of the film to the media and opinion-makers, can be a difficult and expensive decision to make.

A successful public relations strategy that works across media platforms can have significant professional implications for the filmmaker, but there are caveats and contingencies that may determine if there's an equitable return on the investment.

First and foremost, though, a documentary starting its life on the festival circuit needs to be seen, and a full house and positive feedback are the Holy Grail. Festivals are the pipeline to awards; that initial burst of attention is about making an impression, and a good publicity team can influence the buzz around a film before the first screening even takes place.

"I've never campaigned to try to win awards at festivals," says Marshall Curry, whose Street Fight and If a Tree Falls both earned Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary. "I think that would be pretty off-putting to jurors who aren't really susceptible to campaigns, and just like what they like. But I think having a publicist around the festival and theatrical releases is really helpful to getting press attention, especially if you don't have relationships with media yourself."

Cutting through the noise of the 24-hour media circus is the business of a publicist, and for directors, for whom dealing with press is the last thing they have time to do—or even want to think about doing—a professional guide to raising the film's profile can be invaluable. James Longley, a two-time Academy Award nominee for Sari's Mother (Best Documentary Short Subject) and for Iraq in Fragments (Best Documentary Feature), says the press campaign at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival for Iraq in Fragments, where the film won Director, Cinematography and Editing awards, was critical in maximizing the attention that was paid to it.

From James Longley's Academy Award-nominated 'Sari's Mother'

Longley spends years making his films, focusing entirely on being in-country and shooting the unfolding life stories of his often complex casts. "I'm not the person who goes out and engages in that press activity," he admits. "I'm considered a shy introvert who likes to be behind the camera, and I don't seek out attention. At Sundance, I was constantly doing interviews and that never would have happened without a publicist."

Longley's prescient, three-part Iraq in Fragments is a good example of a film that can't be reduced to a single sentence and whose narrative doesn't conform to more traditional documentary storytelling. For films that don't fall neatly into a category, creating the bridge to the media is crucial on several levels. Good publicists have the ability to pave the way for a film with difficult subject matter. In the age of sound bites and short attention spans, it's a sound investment to hire a representative who has a deep understanding of the film and can rapidly contextualize it for a hurried journalist, determine the best fit for the film by medium and press outlet, and engage influential viewers who can spread the word.

For Roger Ross Williams, who memorably won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Music by Prudence and earned multiple festival awards and a spot on the Academy Award short list for God Loves Uganda, the publicity surrounding his films served as a catalyst for professional connections, more film funding and different kinds of work, albeit for entirely different reasons.

Producer Elinor Burkett's hijacking of Williams' acceptance speech for Music by Prudence and the subsequent media storm that followed could have sent Williams into hiding, but the publicity team that had helped bring the film to the attention of the Academy's voters also managed the exhaustive fallout. "At the time it didn't seem like it, but it actually was a gift," he admits. "When it happened I was in shock and unhappy, but it really was amazing because everyone suddenly knew who I was in the industry and people were interested in talking to me."

Williams was invited to conferences and retreats, and he took full advantage of the opportunities. "You could rest on your laurels and people forget about you pretty quickly," he continues. "So I used that momentum. I was in the middle of the whole Oscar frenzy and when people asked me what I was working on next, I pitched God Loves Uganda—although it wasn't called that at the time, but I had the story. That's how that film happened."

From Roger Ross Williams' 'God Loves Uganda,' which earned a spot on the Academy Award Short List for Feature Documentary.

When God Loves Uganda moved through the festival circuit, the battle for marriage equality was reaching an apex, as was the Ugandan government's embrace of murderous Evangelical Christian missionaries' bigotry against their gay and lesbian citizens. Williams became a go-to expert on the subject, and did a number of high-profile interviews. Press management played a role in the amount of attention the film received on its way to the Oscars short list. And while he was on that path, he again took the occasion to pitch new projects.

Curry maintains that he's found the main thing a comprehensive publicity plan can do is simply ensure that people actually watch a film. "If someone is invited to a dinner, it puts pressure on them to watch the film at a screening beforehand," he says. "And it also puts pressure on people to watch it in a screening room or theater rather than, say, playing it on a laptop while they're cooking dinner."

He notes that seeing the film in proper context can make a difference, particularly now that the rules for the short list have changed. "Academy voters are just trying to get through as many films as they can," Curry says. "I'm in the doc branch of the Academy and we get so many qualified films that it is impossible to watch them all. Many—and probably most—just never get seen by most doc branch members."

A publicity team can influence whom a filmmaker meets during the Academy process, as well as during festival and theatrical campaigns. Well-connected publicists are able to make subtle introductions to opinion-makers and voters during events, and the films may be perceived differently, according to the amount of dollars spent to provide that access. Curry stressed that while no one is going to vote for a film that they don't like because there was a fun party after the screening, a more intimate dinner or interesting conversation can make a difference to those on the edge. "It can add a little glow to an experience," he notes. "That, unfortunately, gives a well-funded film an advantage over a little film that can't afford an event."

Festival and Academy Award nominations and wins can have a long-term impact for filmmakers on getting work funded, getting commissions or securing tangential work like directing television or teaching. But it depends on the filmmaker. While Williams rapidly pitched and put together funding for more films, Longley turned down offers because he's extremely particular—not only about what he takes on but how he makes his films, most of which are shot in war zones and are heavy time investments. He also wryly notes that the gap between his films' releases nearly diminishes the effect of awards and nominations, so furthering any momentum would be an impossible task for even the most skilled publicist.

Curry agrees that the publicity surrounding the nominations helps because filmmakers can assure funders that they understand their craft. That being said, he notes that he still gets rejected from a lot more grants than he receives, and his pitches are turned down more often than they are successful. After Street Fight, he was offered more political projects, but he wanted to make Racing Dreams, a sports/coming-of-age story, which went on to win Best Documentary at Tribeca. After that honor, he was approached with more sports stories, but he wanted to explore radical environmentalism with If a Tree Falls.

If a documentary does get an Academy Award nod, it significantly raises the profile of a film, and that's likely money well spent. But little or no award attention may make a campaign seem like a boondoggle. "I think the key to making it feel like less of a waste," Curry advises, "is to make sure that the focus of any campaign is not just about the Oscars, but is geared toward getting more mainstream attention to the film—inviting journalists and taste-makers who might become evangelists for your film to the public. That way, even if you don't get shortlisted or nominated, at least you have spent your money building your audience, which is the point of all of this anyway."


Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a writer and editor with an abiding interest in cross platform storytelling and how it intersects with technology, business and culture.