Film PR: Blockbuster Bonanza

Competition to be the summer's hottest movie release is high. So how can film publicists stay one step ahead, asks Suzy Bashford.

Hype and momentum seem to surround summer blockbusters, and even a bad review certainly does not mean failure at the box office. If enough buzz is created around a film, the public will often go to see for themselves, no matter what the film buffs say.

In early summer this year, the epic tale of Troy jostled for attention with the much-anticipated third instalment of the Harry Potter saga, The Prisoner of Azkaban. They weren't alone. But unlike these two summer blockbusters, what if you don't have any star-pull that can compete with these kind of casts?

This was the position 20th Century Fox UK marketing director Kieran Breen faced when planning the PR strategy for The Day After Tomorrow - an apocalyptic film about the potential effects of global warming. 'The biggest challenge was how to rise above the noise other blockbusters were generating,' he says. 'It looked like a tall order, as the celebrities in rival films were easy to find a hook into. We had limited mileage in our lead Dennis Quaid, who was unable to do UK publicity.'

The PR team tentatively decided to leverage the environmental angle, which no other film had, but avoid coming across as crusading for global warming issues. Fox gave a group of environmental and science editors a 20-minute sneak preview of the film. Pressure groups, such as Greenpeace, were also invited to explain to them that while the filmmakers had done some research it was primarily an entertainment vehicle.

Unique selling point

Identifying the film's USP and planning PR accordingly is the only way a film will achieve its 15 minutes of fame in the crucial opening weekend before the next blockbuster starts up its publicity machine.

To publicise King Arthur, which is released in August, Buena Vista International publicity director Charlotte Tudor aims to make the British storyline the hero, pushing the characters, such as Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, rather than the actors. 'If you've got a star-driven cast, then you're clearly going to maximise that,' she explains. 'We're hoping that it will be the appeal of the original story that will win over British audiences,'she says.

King Arthur also adorns the cover of Empire, following months of planning by the publicity team. 'We wanted to break the story to tie in with Euro 2004, because the film boasts the best of British on screen while fever pitch is mounting. The cover line is: 'England Expects; King Arthur kicks off the ultimate summer review','adds Tudor.

To secure this slot, the Empire journalist visited the set during filming and was supplied with exclusive photography and face-to-face interviews. The biggest challenge was allowing journalists to see pre-release footage - increasingly difficult owing to the gap between US and UK releases becoming shorter.

'If you haven't got the final film to persuade the journalist about the movie, then they might jump to the conclusion that we're trying to hide the film because we don't have any faith in it,' she says. To combat this, Tudor flew journalists from Italy, Germany and France to join British press in London for a screening of rough cuts, still in the process of being edited.

Materials are essential. A wide range of stills, the best broadcast footage, special shoots and production notes are key for journalists. Lawrence Atkinson, who runs the UK film division of Premier PR, has promoted Kill Bill and the Shrek movies, and is currently trying to encourage fashion journalists to make Jude Law's look in his forthcoming movie Alfie the look for autumn.

One of Premier's trickiest PR briefs was for Calendar Girls. The UK press was so keen to cover the British tale that they relentlessly tried to uncover headline stories, such as rumours of a rift between the original girls that opted into the film and those that declined.

Internationally, to get round the point that the film could have been viewed as a parochial British regions story, Premier used the Cannes Film Festival as a platform, organising a tea party with a private screening.

'It couldn't have won awards. It wasn't even in the festival. But we wanted to set it up as the biggest film in Cannes. And sure enough there were photos of the original Calendar Girls with the film's stars on the beach all over the papers,' adds Atkinson.

Successful PR at that time brought its own problems: the film wouldn't be released for another four months in the UK. A lid had to be put on coverage or people would have thought the film was coming out. The PR team therefore concentrated on setting up long lead interviews, with the hype cranked up again around release time with the premiere in Skipton,Yorkshire, the story's setting, and the launch of an updated calendar with sales proceeds going to cancer research.

Merchandising

Merchandise can also sustain buzz - sending products such as cuddly toys to radio and TV stations can create a talking point. However, there's growing cynicism among consumers that summer blockbusters over-egg the film's credentials and appear to be using it as an incidental vehicle to flog products.

360deg Communications account director Richard Barnes specialises in lining up deals between product manufacturers and films. He warns against blatant merchandising strategies.: 'The danger is you forget the film should be at the core (of any promotion). It doesn't look good if it seems focus groups have been asked before to see what money could be made from spin-offs.'

Accusations of cynical money-making is the last thing a film campaign wants. In fact, publicists say they favour soft stories, often fed by the publicity machine but with the feel of an unofficial source - one reason why the internet has become so key in film promotion.

'The trick is to drip-feed harmless stories from when a deal is done to new stars signing and new locations. Oceans 12 is a good example - we've had gossip and photos and it's not finished yet,' says Mario Tilney-Bassett, founder of entertainment PR firm Leap Consulting.

For film publicists, the trick is also to have one eye on the present pick of the day and the other on next summer's, and to sustain interest in both. With film studios pouring such vast amounts of their budget into summer blockbusters, the stakes are high and the pressure is on for the publicity machine to recoup costs and get bums on cinema seats.

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN

Studio: Warner Brothers

Release date: 31 May, Monday Bank Holiday

PR Team: In-house

Coverage generated: Interviews were set up with Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry Potter), with the extra hook for the media being that he turned 15 around the time of the film release.

Popular angles that the media picked up on included the premiere night in London, which brought crowds out in droves despite the rain. In addition, profiles of the child-stars four years after the first Potter film were written about extensively. The Sun also ran a week-long slot on the film.

Opening weekend takings: Nearly £24m - took £5m on the opening Bank Holiday Monday alone, which is the biggest single day in UK cinema history, according to Warner Brothers.

TROY

Studio: Warner Brothers

Release date: 21 May

PR Team: In-house

Coverage generated: Film reviews were, in general, disappointing. Coverage focused mainly on the celebrities in the film. There was widespread media coverage in the form of interviews with Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana and little known German actress, making her blockbuster debut, Diane Kruger.

The film had the tendency to be overshadowed by its star-studded cast, with the biggest news being a comment Pitt made during an interview about the pressure of monogamy, which subsequently turned interest to the state of his marriage to Friends star Jennifer Aniston.

Opening weekend takings: More than £6m.

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Release date: 27 May

PR Team: In-house

Coverage generated: Picked up by most broadsheets and tabloids and some TV programmes, such as the BBC's News at Ten. Sparked headlines such as the Independent on Sunday's 'Man-made calamity the world is ignoring'.

Opening weekend takings: £7.5m. Projected to make £24m-£25m at the UK box office in total.

To what extent can takings be attributed to PR? Coverage wasn't measured by a cuttings agency, but Fox UK marketing director Kieran Breen says the film had performed way ahead of expectations and PR was a key element in achieving this.

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