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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Internet Publicity: Control Versus Chaos

Last month, I wrote about some comments made during a panel discussion at the IFP Filmmaker Conference by Mark Urman, head of theatrical distribution for THINKFilm.

The gist of that post was that I thought Urman was underestimating the power of blogs, niche movie review sites, podcasts, and video reviews to help promote THINKFilm's releases. One indicator of that attitude: THINKFilm requires that anyone who wants to access press materials enter a username or password, but doesn't explain how to get one in the first place. That's not friendly to someone in Schenectady who runs a movie review Web site, and might potentially promote a THINKFilm release.

Urman sent me an e-mail shortly after that; he didn't agree, and wanted to explain his position. I asked if he'd post a comment on the original blog entry, but his preference was to talk by phone, which we did a couple weeks later.

I didn't take notes during the chat, but Urman said his company was doing outreach to blogs and movie sites, but that THINKFilm wanted to be able to vet site editors before giving them press access, and it was important for the company to keep tabs on where people were talking about its movies, and what they were saying.

I tried to explain to Urman that the old model of promoting movies was to pick your shots, focusing on the media most likely to write about a given picture (Premiere magazine, the New York Times, Variety, etc.); according to the new model, you need to let the media pick you, making it easy for them to cover your stuff. Why not provide the same movie clips to some video blogger in Seattle who reviews one art-house release a week as you do to 'At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper'?

Urman didn't seem swayed: controlling and monitoring how THINKFilm's movies are written about still seems preferable to him than submitting to the chaos of the Web -- which always produces unanticipated results, sometimes positive and sometimes negative.

I also tried to tell Urman that as a working journalist, I usually don't waste my time applying for passwords to "press areas" on Web sites -- too often, you're on deadline and can't wait for the reply. The call ended with Urman telling me that it was easy to get a password -- just call up the New York office of THINKFilm. (Not so easy, of course, for a blogger in Capetown or Sydney or London...)

I took that as a challenge.

Day One: Poking around the THINKFilm site, I found the number for their office in New York, and called it around 5:30 on Friday, October 5th. The receptionist wasn't quite sure what sort of password and username I was asking for, but after putting me on hold for a few minutes, told me that I should e-mail someone named Alex Klenert, and gave me his e-mail address.

I e-mailed Klenert immediately: "I'm a blogger, and hoping to get a press password for the THINKFilm Web site. I'm especially interested in blogging about 'In the Shadow of the Moon.'" I didn't send a link to my blog.

I also, just for comparison, e-mailed the press contact at Sony Pictures Classics, a competitor of THINKFilm's; they also require a password to get your hands on press materials. (But unlike THINK, they actually give you an e-mail address on the page, without forcing you to dial New York during business hours to request a password.)

Day Four: By Monday morning, a Sony Pictures Classics person had e-mailed me back the password.

Day Seven: It wasn't until the following Thursday, October 11th, that I double-checked my notebook and realized that I had mis-spelled Alex Klenert's last name when I sent my original e-mail (my mistake), so I sent a new request that day to the correct address. I heard back from Klenert pretty quickly, asking me what my blog was. I sent the URL. (Klenert, it turns out, is vice president for publicity at THINK.)

Day Eleven: By October 15th, more than a week after my initial phone call to THINK, I still hadn't heard anything, so I e-mailed Klenert again.

Day Fourteen: On October 18th, I finally got the password to THINK's press downloads page. (Klenert apologized, and said they'd been having e-mail problems at THINKFilm.)

I suspect THINK is not going to change its position on this topic, but let me ask you indie filmmakers, producers, and distribution execs out there: should you make it that hard for someone who wants to write about your movie to write about your movie?

(The photo posted up top is my trophy from this whole effort -- a publicity still from the recent THINKFilm release 'In the Shadow of the Moon,' a really wonderful re-telling of the Apollo story.)

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  • This is just stupid. People are going to write about the films. If they have access to the press materials, what they write will be correct. If not, well, maybe not so much.

    And In the Shadow of the Moon is the best documentary and one of the very best films I've seen this year. I was lucky to see it at a screening where the director was there to answer questions afterwards.

    By Blogger mweston, at 7:49 PM  

  • I'm not sure what these people think they are protecting...
    Oh No I have press materials and I'm not a journalist, I'm going to spread it all over the interwebs now... Wait isn't that free publicity.
    Or is the idea to make sure you only write nice reviews the idea?

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2:22 PM  

  • As a representative of foreign film press, I must wholeheartedly agree with you, Scott.

    I may want to write about a THINKfilm US release that I'd like to push Norwegian distributors to take a look at - in those cases it might be very hard for me to find press material, at least of the 'decent quality' kind.

    I hope your focus on this issue will help these organizations open up towards the very voices they should be pleasing.

    By Blogger Karsten, at 5:15 PM  

  • Scott,

    This is a great post. Thanks for taking the time to do the research on this one.

    This is another item on the long list of simple things that are so often wrong with the way films are marketed and publicized on the internet. Apart from missing a great opportunity by making it ridiculously easy for other people to promote their film for them, this strikes me as a misguided attempt to control the public conversation about their product.

    This reminds me of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book (and website) published back in pre-blog 1999. If I remember correctly, the authors argued that people are going to talk about your business, whether you like it or not; you can either facilitate and participate in the conversation or you can be left in the dark. It's remarkable that so much of that book still holds true almost a decade later. As with many good books, someone long ago borrowed and failed to return my copy.

    By Blogger Brian Chirls, at 11:58 PM  

  • Scott,

    Did you happen to mention to Mark that it's fairly trivial to get URL referral logs from their web server? This would tell them who's linking to them from wherever they may be on the Internet.

    Having said that, I can understand a company's reluctance to make materials freely available to anyone. You never know how it might get misused. You also have to consider that a distributor sometimes is in the unfortunate position of having to make the best with a stinker. Which means that the negative publicity on a "bad" film could do far more harm than the positive publicity on a "good" film when everyone is given equal access.

    Think of it this way... all distributors have their "usual" channels that are "working" for them right now. Why do anything different and risk rocking the boat?

    I'm constantly astounded at how many mini-major distributors (like THINKfilm) couldn't even tell you what the best digital master they have for a given film they are distributing. Many don't know the difference between analog BetaSP, Digital Betacam, HDCam, HDCam SR, or D5.


    By Blogger Steve, at 3:52 AM  

  • Brian - Thanks for the 'Cluetrain' reference... co-author David Weinberger is a friend, and a very smart cat.

    Steve - I didn't explain the URL referrer logs thing... but you're right. Even creating a Google Alert for the title of each new release would do a pretty good job of finding out where people are writing about the movies.

    By Blogger Scott Kirsner, at 10:09 AM  

  • I'm sorry that you feel you haven't been properly attended to, but Internet publicity and promotions is an inexact science and if you ask any legitimate Internet journalist, throughout my career I have gone out of my way to make sure that all sites get proper attention at press junkets and for regular interviews, even when older publicists would say that websites weren’t as relevant as traditional media. So I get it, I've been at the forefront of getting it, and even go so far as to send out a weekly email to over 350 online press contacts letting them know about what new materials are available on our press download site. Since there are too many websites for a small studio to research and I have a very limited staff, that email clearly isn't all-inclusive to include every single movie website or blog, but the number of contacts increases everyday.

    One of the primary reasons that we ask for a password for our download site is because we found that people were downloading our press materials (press kits, re-printing photos and posters, etc) and then selling them on eBay. They were claiming the items were "rare and exclusive" and while that is not only misleading to the general public (the materials are neither rare nor exclusive), it is also illegal. In essence, they were making a profit off of materials that they do not the authority or right to sell after they download them. Any materials that are downloaded should not be sold in any capacity and are free to anyone who asks for it.

    I hope that you can see the larger picture that studios have to deal with here. Happy blogging.

    Alex Klenert

    By Blogger Unknown, at 1:19 PM  

  • Good post, Scott. I'm reminded of what Cory Doctorow has said about book authors: the biggest risk isn't that you're going to get ripped off (or, in this case, that you'll lose "control" of the coverage), but that you'll be *ignored*.

    The grand rule of Internet p.r., as far as I can tell, is to make it easy for people with ANY interest in your work NOT to ignore you.

    By Blogger Tim Walker, at 12:58 PM  

  • Looks like we're getting mixed messages -- is it control, or the eBay story? Given the potential millions of dollars at stake with a successful theatrical run, the notion of a few morons making a couple hundred dollars off of fake press kits seems a bit inconsequential, don't you think? Especially when competitors like Sony Picture Classics, Zeitgeist, New Yorker, Palm, and dozens of other indies make their press materials readily accessible with no roadblocks. (try this link.) And you make it so difficult for individuals to actually get a credential (there's not even a sign up form anywhere on the site) that in this era of increasingly shorter media cycles, your response time ain't gonna cut the mustard--the fast talkin' online marketer at Warner will have seduced your potential blogger with a generous helping of exclusive clips, posters and stills.

    There are two simple reasons why you should make your site the central repository for assets: QUALITY and CONTROL. When a blogger comes to your site looking for assets, synopses and other info and doesn't find them, you risk that blogger sourcing old outdated posters, wrong release dates, and poor quality/badly encoded still and video assets. And do you really want him to be using the Wikipedia version of the synopsis, which probably won't come close to capturing the marketing message you want to convey?

    As an example of poor quality video assets, here's an example from one your own past releases from this year: The Ten.

    Look at the great version of the trailer on the Apple site, which you provided no doubt. The trailer makes the film definitely look like a movie worthy of a $40 night out.

    But where would a blogger go? After NOT finding anything on your site, they go to their usual backups sources - perhaps YouTube? If so, they would end up inserting this trailer , which is in my opinion is a pretty poor version, and thus not what you would prefer being passed around --it's dark, laced with motion artifacts, and just makes the film look low budget and cheap.

    If you made the trailer embed code available on the THINKfilm site, you would not only be able to ensure the highest quality version was out there, but you would also be able to TRACK views, sites used on, etc.

    But then again, I'm just a lowly blogger, so I digress...

    By Blogger screenking, at 12:00 AM  

  • Alex, bad news.

    When you have to spend that much time protesting how much you get it... don't get it.

    I don't suppose THINKFilm is publicly traded? At this point, you've persuaded me it'd be profitable to short your stock.

    By Blogger Hal, at 6:15 AM  

  • ...and I had to switch accounts to find the link, but:

    From a great interview with Penn Gillette --

    If you could change one thing about the (movie) industry, what would it be?

    I would make executives more concerned with making money. I'm serious. They get all into this "studio image" thing and they keep trying to have a blockbuster. I would like them to be very happy to make a profit and put out anything that they thought would do that. Even a modest profit. If they were run more like a grocery store, we'd have stuff that not everyone buys, but enough people buy. If entertainment ran grocery stores, we'd NEVER get oil cured olives or blue cheese, it would be JUST Coke. Coke is fine, but we need the stuff we don't all want too. If they just cared about a profit and not their image as "hit" makers we'd be fine. The only people that care what studio makes what movie is the studio execs. I wish they cared more about just running a company and putting out anything people would buy. Merchant/Ivory should do porno and horror and anything else. Who cares about image?

    By Blogger NTKO, at 6:20 AM  

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