Film merger gets a good reception

Film publicist Premier Public Relations last week acquired rival McDonald & Rutter. Ian Hall gauges reaction to the deal in this tight-knit industry sector

Handling publicity for Hollywood blockbusters, A-list stars and even art-house flicks is, it might be assumed, one of PR's most glamorous fields. Say 'film PR' and you think Gwyneth, Leonardo, paparazzi flash-bulbs and the red carpet at Cannes.

The reality – compiling pre-production biographies, dragging directors through mind-numbingly repetitive interviews, or plugging underwhelming films set for a sure-fire slating – can be somewhat less than life-affirming.

Indeed film publicity, which is generally far less well rewarded than, say, a major consumer brand campaign, is just a minute sub-sector of  the UK PR industry. PRWeek estimates that only 100 people are employed in film publicity agencies in London: it is a world in which everyone knows everyone, and rivalry is friendly rather than fierce.

Perhaps this is why Premier Public Relations' acquisition of rival McDonald & Rutter has attracted approval rather than approbation from those not involved (PRWeek, 31 March). There is little lip-licking about potential client conflicts, for example. The combined entity will be co-run by Premier CEO Sara Keene and M&D's co-founding partners Charles McDonald and Jonathan Rutter.

Both Dennis Davidson Associates (DDA) and Freud Communications – the only other two London-based agencies with a heritage in film publicity – believe the deal makes sense. Kate Lee, who founded Freuds' film division seven years ago, says: 'I am pleased for Jonathan and Charles. This is a remarkably civilised world as there are so few of us. There will continue to be enough business to go round.'

Similarly, Michael Gubbins, editor of Screen International, says: 'Film PR is a small business, done very much on first-name terms.

Premier and M&R's alliance makes sense as the market expands. I don't think there's much more to the deal than that.'

Combined force
M&R is 12 years old and has a reputation for promoting art-house films. Its 15 staff will join Premier's 33 employees in the latter's Berwick Street offices later this month.

Premier, better known for handling UK and international campaigns for US studios, also employs five staff in Los Angeles, meaning the new-look company – with the interim name of Premier PR incorporating McDonald & Rutter – will be more than 50-strong.

This makes it larger than DDA, which has 35 staff in London and seven in LA. DDA does, however, have two further affiliates (DDA in Sydney, and Bossa Nova in Paris) and positions itself as the leading UK-based international film publicity company, with a particularly notable presence at Cannes.

Premier's parent company is the sprawling Miracle Media Group (MMG), whose CEO David Willing describes last week's deal as 'elevating Premier overnight to another level'. 

Premier was formed in 2001 after MMG acquired Corbett & Keene the previous year. Today it promotes films from production through to DVD release (recent campaigns have included Brokeback Mountain and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-rabbit). It handles publicity for TV dramas such as the BBC's Life on Mars and Spooks and corporate PR for production companies such as Tiger Aspect.

In addition, Premier handles press for the London Film Festival and UK PR for the San Sebastian Film Festival, as well as representing stars such as Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet.

M&R, meanwhile, works regularly with directors such as Mike Leigh, while recent films it has promoted include The Constant Gardener. It also handles corporate PR for BBC Films, promotes TV programmes and has a theatre PR department.

Lawrence Atkinson is European V-P at DDA, having moved just a couple of months ago from Premier, where he was director of film. Far from worrying about the power of the combined Premier/M&R, he views the deal as 'taking a player out of the market. Clients have traditionally liked the choice of the three or four main agencies – now there will be one less'.

He adds: 'This could also bring its own problems, as clients might not like putting too many of their releases with one agency.

Premier/M&R may have a positioning issue – how will M&R retain its branding within Premier?'

Keene responds: 'I don't think company branding is a problem – Charles  Jonathan and I have our individual reputations and these don't disappear just because the name above the door changes. Film PR is a relationship-based industry first and foremost.'

Power shift?
Borkowski PR founder Mark Borkowski agrees with Atkinson that the most significant aspect of the deal is that it removes an entity from an already-small market.

He adds: 'Film publicists have undersold their work for 30 years because producers have been lowering the prices they pay: and the PR firms have to take it. Will this deal put some power back in publicists' hands?'

Keene answers: 'I hope he's right. But it's still a competitive market and, historically, film campaigns are not particularly well rewarded.'
Of the other firms with a stake in film PR, Public Eye – run by Ciara Parkes – competes with Premier. It represents 52 individuals (including Sienna Miller) and has a film publicity department run by Kash Javaid.

Meanwhile, Rogers & Cowan, part of the Interpublic Group, opened a London film division only last month (PRWeek, 17 Feb). Janine Azern, formerly at DDA, is running the office, and projects include Sony Pictures' international release of The Da Vinci Code.

PMK/HBH, a big name in Hollywood, opened a London outpost last year (PRWeek, 30 Sept 2005), with ex-Miramax director of international publicity James Dickinson at the helm.

But there are relatively few competitive pitches between film PR agencies and there is, of course, a finite number of clients (most notably the five main movie distributors – 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Buena Vista, Warner Brothers and UIP).

Predicting the future is as troublesome  a task in this market as  in any other. As Gubbins says: 'You can't say what is going to happen in film PR any more than you can tell what might happen in the film industry overall. All we can say is that it is going to expand: we just don't know when or where.'

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