Even though the public is clamoring for celebrity news, the box office is in a slump. But worked correctly, celebrity stories can result in major attention for a film.
The movie industry is in the middle of a serious slump this year, but studio executives can't blame declining ticket sales on a lack of interest from the press.
Whether it's the flurry of stories on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, or the ubiquitous Jessica Simpson, media coverage of all things Hollywood seems to be at an all-time high.
True, a lot of this coverage tends to focus more on the lifestyles of the film stars rather than on their movies. But at the end of the day, movie publicists say that all coverage serves the same purpose, which is to build buzz for a new film.
"Publicity is publicity," says Steven Zeller, president of the GS Marketing Group, which specializes in marketing and publicity for independent films. "There is no such thing as bad publicity when it creates awareness for your movie."
Winning film coverage
"The celebrity-oriented magazines do a great service for us because they get the talent and the film out there," says Ava DuVernay, president of The DuVernay Agency, an independent publicity firm that helps studios target the urban market. "For some films, we'll focus more on the script, filmmaker, or the character arc, so we'll want Premiere and Movieline. But there are other films where we need those celebrity magazines."
When it comes to celebrity-themed stories, DuVernay says the real challenge is making sure reporters work the movie into their coverage of the stars.
"Most can't reach the celebrities directly, so they have to go through the film publicist," she explains. "In many cases, we know we're not going to get a full feature, but we may get a little featurette. My feeling is, if I'm going to give an outlet a photo of a celebrity from their most recent film, they can't just only talk about her new purse - they've got to mention the movie."
DuVernay says that outlets will often ask for an exclusive, but she adds that most editors will still cover a film without one.
"I purposely leave off seven to eight elements from the movie press kit so that you can give Entertainment Tonight an exclusive and Access Hollywood an exclusive," she says. "For me, it's not so much trying to make everyone happy; it's more, how can I maximize the publicity by cutting up the press kit so I can offer as many outlets as possible something special?"
For independent films without a lot of star power, the publicity process can be tougher. Zeller notes that even movie-centric outlets like Premiere aren't the easiest sell for smaller movies.
But he adds that there are ways to build buzz for lesser-known movies. "Film festivals help quite a lot, not so much for the consumer as for the press," he says. "Even if they don't see the film, if the movie plays at one of the major festivals and has any type of acclaim, it helps because editors, reporters, and reviewers end up hearing about it in advance."
Arguably the biggest change in Hollywood in recent years has been the massive success of DVDs, which have turned home video into a $20 billion annual business. DVDs have not only been a boon to PR firms specializing in home entertainment, but also have triggered the creation of new reporters, sections, and outlets dedicated to them.
"At places like the LA Times and Entertainment Weekly, you have totally different critics when it comes out on theatrical release and when it comes out on home video," says Shawna Lynch, SVP with Bender/Helper Impact.
But she adds that publicists often do not have the same talent at their disposal to promote the DVD release. "Typically, secondary characters play a major role when the DVD comes out," she explains.
A structured process
Watching the mostly negative media frenzy around Cruise in the weeks before the debut of War of the Worlds, it might seem as if publicists are losing control of the process. But Stephen Pizzello, editor of American Cinematographer, notes that, if anything, publicity surrounding films has become more structured.
"We have no problem with getting interviews with the people who make films for a living," says Pizzello, whose magazine appeals to those in the film industry, as well as movie buffs. "But in recent years, it seems like everybody and their cousin has approval over art, so the process has gotten very laborious, and we have to get our requests in much earlier and go through all those different sign-offs."