The relationship between PR and movie journalists

How do film websites get access to movies early? And what kind of things go on behind the scenes? These and more, addressed right here...

Last year, I was part of a panel hosted by Mark Kermode on the future of criticism across multiple disciplines. And for me, when considering the questions raised, I couldn’t help but think of the public relations (PR) ecosystem that’s built up and evolved around the reporting of films. And, in turn, the way the film media world works.

I should warn you straight up: this isn’t going to be a nerdy feature of where the Star Wars films should be heading. Instead, what I’m trying to do is pull the curtain back a little. You may or may not be interested in all of this, but it seems odd not to talk about it.

So let me start with something that goes against the perception of how the PR industry works: most movie publicists we talk to, and we talk to lots of them, are brilliant.

They’ve got into this because they love film, and whilst part of their job is disguising the films they don’t like (the usual line is “I’ve not seen it yet”), the fun part is when they ring up and tell us that they’re working on something really special. We got to The Guard early, for instance, because the person promoting it urged us to see it as soon as we could. They were right.

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It doesn’t always work like that of course. Some films have been eulogised about by PR contacts, and turned out to be cobblers. But generally, a good majority of people that we talk to in film PR are genuine film lovers.

However, there are inevitably some issues. And so to try and sort this into some kind of order, we’re going to list some of the common grumbles raised against movie journalism, and where PR fits in. It’s not in an attempt to place blame – heck, nobody’s perfect, and a separate piece on behaviour of movie journalists over the years could easily run to longer than this – but rather that it’s not a helpful veil of secrecy.

I think it’s important that we talk about some of what happens behind the scenes, and how it affects how sites like these are able to cover things, for better or worse. We’re not naming names – this isn’t a feature whining about things, or trying to give out some payback or anything. It is, hopefully, an honest assessment of the status quo. Warts and all. Because, as I said, it seems odd that this is a side of things that never seems to be properly discussed.

So what tools does the PR industry have when dealing with movie websites such as these? Well, let’s start with a biggie.

Controlling access to a film

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It’s not going to come as a radical surprise that movie websites really could use as early access as possible to a film. Particularly those outlets that rely on having reviews live for day of cinematic release, if not earlier; there’s an instant dependency on publicity departments to get a site access to a movie in the first place.

The vast majority of the time, this goes without a hitch. For a publicist looking to get exposure for a movie, it does make sense to get people to actually see it. In some cases, publicists push particularly hard to get people in to see a film early, knowing they’ve got something special on their hands.

So where can it go wrong?

Well, in two ways. In denying access to the film, or in timing access to it.

Most film writers with extensive experience behind them have had the moment where they’re shut out of a screening for one reason or another. One distributor in the UK – and this isn’t a piece about naming names, as I’ve said before – was notorious at one stage for blocking out certain reviewers who had slated its previous releases (get us in the pub one day, and we may even talk about the ad campaigns this site has lost for reviews in the past. It’ll take a few drinks, though). Those movie writers whose behaviour has, er, ‘been less than savoury’ are also likely to be on the list of doom from time to time. And sometimes, albeit very rarely, a seemingly innocent comment in a previous article is enough to get you shut out.

Most of the time, you have simply no idea why you weren’t allowed in. One major release a month or two back we tried to get into a screening of, as we were keen to cover it early. We were told that the screening was full, when it turned out not to be.

This happens a lot.

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In such cases, what are you supposed to do? Easy: pay to see the film. More websites do this than they’re given credit for (and Eurogamer, in the videogame industry, is now the only major website of its ilk we know of that’s insistent on only reviewing retail versions of videogames). In film, not for nothing do release day early morning screenings at the local Odeon/Vue/Empire/Cineworld tend to attract movie reviewers.

For being shut out of a movie isn’t quite as problematic as a theatre critic being shut out of a play, for instance. From the day of release, films play on tens, hundreds if not thousands of screens. But it’d be remiss not to acknowledge that sheer access to a film is a major tool in the armoury of a film publicist, acknowledging that very few – rightly – choose to use it negatively.

The bigger problem, and this does inevitably affect the words that ultimately are written about a film, is when reviewers are allowed access to a film. And this is where the division between print outlets and online-only ones comes into play quite a lot.

Even today, studios tend to have different people working with print media than they do with online media. There’s some logic to this: print has longer lead times, but it also inevitably offers a leg up. Earlier access to a film means more time to think about it, and potentially being able to post a review before pretty much everyone else (it also leads to the inevitable ‘first review’. Again, talk to Mark Kermode about that one, he’s got some thoughts on it). For print products have online presences too, and if you’ve ever wondered how some get access to a film before others, that’s one main reason.

Another is that if you’re approved to interview someone related to a film, you generally get to see it a bit earlier. If not, then the main press screenings for ‘online’ press (again, noting that it’s hard to find a press outlet that isn’t online), as a rule, tend to be quite close to release. The reasoning? The reputation, again with some justification, that some websites got for running reviews early. The ones who broke the ’embargo’ (I’m coming to that in a minute).

The upshot is that the timing of a press screening, and the embargo attached to it, has a direct impact on the amount of time you have to turn a review, or a feature, around.

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In the case of A Good Day To Die Hard, 20th Century Fox infamously scheduled the press screening in the UK for a nice and late 9.30pm start the day before release. The embargo for reviews lifted at midnight. Someone, if memory services, still managed to break it. But the level of control here was clear: by getting press to the film as late as possible, it avoided the headlines of ‘it’s not being press screened’, but also the splatter of negative reviews arrives as late as possible.

To be fair to Fox, it did at least organise a screening. Some major releases aren’t screened for critics at all. It’s not always a popular view, but I see the logic in that. What use are reviews of Mrs Brown’s Boys: D’Movie actually going to be to its distributor?

I should note: in videogames, the situation is a lot worse. Reviewers who wanted a full review of a major game on launch day a few years’ back were told they had to play it in a room set up by the publisher, with representatives for the publisher on hand. In this instance, the PR representatives could select exactly who would review it, and watch them going about doing so. My hat is duly tipped to everyone who declined this opportunity. My hat stays on for those that didn’t alert their readers to the circumstances in which the review was conducted.

Embargoes

I’ve mentioned embargoes once or twice, and they’re worthy of a deeper look.

Basically, for the majority of advanced film press screenings, you have to sign an embargo form. This states that, in exchange for seeing the film early, you agree to not run your review until a set time on a set day. That’s, in a nutshell, what an embargo is.

It’s worth pointing out for a start that not everyone is beholden to exactly the same embargo (with one comic book movie this year, some outlets had permission to go with their review early, some didn’t). Also, it’s not uncommon that the main press screening for a film takes place after an embargo has lifted. We’ve very much felt the yin and yang of this over the years. We got refused access to one blockbuster sequel due to our lack of enthusiasm for it in news reports leading up to its release, and thus couldn’t get to review the movie until a week after the embargo had lifted. This is neither common, nor rare.

The harsh reality for websites is that if your review lands a week after everyone else’s, fewer people are likely to read it. That’s not to say that it’s the first review – usually the most incorrect, in truth – that gets the most attention. But there’s a clear advantage.

So what happens if you break an embargo? Well, the blunt answer is that it depends who you are.

When the last Pirates Of The Caribbean movie rolled around, one national newspaper ran their review ahead of the embargo lifting. Out of curiosity, I enquired a few days later what the consequence of that was. The line was that said national newspaper would be denied access to interviews and early screenings for that studio in the future. But, as both of us on the call knew, this was never to be the case. Said daily newspaper was simply too big. It bore nothing close to even short-term consequences for its decision to run said review. A few angry words on the phone, perhaps, but it was business as usual come the next film.

That’s not to say that there are never ramifications for the very big – we know of more than one member of the movie star fraternity (nope, not Clooney) who refuses to have anything to do with one particularly huge newspaper – but why, in the scheme of things, would a good movie publicist cut off potentially millions of readers?

If you’re further down the pole? Then clearly things are different, and the withholding of future access is a potent threat. Although, to our knowledge, rarely an enacted one.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the worst offenders for embargo breaking and spoilers tend to be larger outlets. Whilst not quite bulletproof, a small subset of them tend to be the offenders, in some cases proving the catalyst for policy changes that affect even those who have played by the rules.

So are embargoes a good thing? Personally, I don’t mind them. Having an embargo that lifts a few days after seeing a film, if not later, builds in more thinking time. Yet there’s some further muddying of the water. And that’s a growing inconsistency in embargoes.

The Social Media Invasion

Studios, aware of the power of social media, have been requesting in some cases that full reviews are held back to closer to release. Yet specific permission is then given to Tweet about a film, or post about it on Facebook. Specific hashtags are then dished out. This now happens quite a lot.

This has always been a bit of a puzzle, in that I’ve always felt it should be clear whether you can write about something or not. A Tweet saying “this film is unmissable” or something of that ilk is a review of sorts, however brief. It’s why you see posts – as we’ve put together ourselves – collating together immediate social media reactions from reviewers, knowing full well that the reviews have to be held back a few weeks or months.

There’s an inevitable question about how reliable a Tweet on the way out of the cinema is. Thinking time, I’d argue, is crucial to a good review (moreso perhaps to something like Inherent Vice over Taken 3). But movie studios – particularly US publicists, we’ve noticed – are very keen to get a groundswell of social media support as early as possible. It gives the studio’s official accounts – again, some of which are very good – enough fodder to retweet, for a start.

Lots of outlets thus play ball, and the problem continues. For added fun, there’s a trend for some to Tweet when they’re on the way to see a film, that others haven’t got access to. You won’t be surprised to hear that that causes a few phone calls behind the scenes – as well as, presumably, a few unpleasant responses from readers who see such Tweets as gloating.

Poster quotes

Den Of Geek has been quoted on a few movie posters over the years, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t uneasy about it. As much as a buzz it gave us first time around, there’s something strange about 800 words of a review being knocked down to three words in quote marks and a star rating. On a smaller film that needs support and love, then it’s easier to reconcile. But the lure of a poster quote, and seeing your name on movie publicity, is an enticing one.

Movie PR departments know it, too. It’s a frequent occurrence now to be asked, after a press screening of a film, for a line or two of reaction, and an indication of a star rating. More often than not, such emails now arrive as you’re leaving the screening. Those lines tend to form the poster quotes that follow, and that tends to explain why sometimes, quotes don’t always marry up to the full review that follows.

One trend that’s of particular alarm though is the ‘anticipation quote’.

This is an oddity. Ahead of the release of a major blockbuster a year or so back we were asked by a publicist to provide a quote about how much we were looking forward to the film in question, with the carrot dangled that our name may appear on the film’s poster.

Now: this was a sizeable carrot, for this was not a small film, and we are not the world’s largest website. The name of this site could potentially have been seen all over the country as a consequence. The problem, though, was that all we’d seen was a trailer for the film. The kind of quote we were being asked for was along the lines of ‘this is the big one for the summer!’, or ‘the must see movie of 201x’!

After checking that the film in question didn’t feature Jason Statham, we declined. Still, an anticipation quote was found elsewhere, and we saw it a few weeks later. A quote that pushed the film in question, where it was clear that the provider of the quote hadn’t seen the movie. Repeat: hadn’t seen the movie.

It’s not just me: that matters, doesn’t it?

The lure of the poster quote is a significant tool in a publicist’s armoury. It continues to be an effective one. But audiences, we’d recommend, should treat such quotes with caution, if they don’t already. Especially if our name is on it, of course.

The freebie problem

A bugbear, then. This is where the lines of demarcation, on both sides, need to be clear. Pulling things back to basics, the job of a movie publicist is to gain exposure for the film they happen to be publicising. The job of a movie journalist isn’t. There, the focus has to be on readers, and putting across views in an honest, untarnished manner.

And yet the world of movies is a glamorous one. Not always a well paid one, either. This raises questions.

In my earlier days writing for Den Of Geek, I interviewed Robert Zemeckis. At the end of the interview, I asked him to sign my Back To The Future boxset. That, in hindsight, isn’t clear demarcation. I wasn’t quite taking a selfie and posting it (more common than you may think), and it didn’t affect my views on the film I was writing about, but looking back, I’m not sure I was as much on the right side of the line as I should have been. If I’m doing an interview, I’m supposed to be on your side, not his.

Since then, things have changed, but it’d be remiss not to acknowledge that we’ve got to where we are by not always adhering to the things we put in place now.

Freebies, meanwhile, are increasingly commonplace. A few times a month, for instance, we’re told that a gift will be delivered to our office (er, we don’t have one, but that notwithstanding…), and we’re ‘invited’ to Tweet about. It’s usually to mark the release of something, be it a film in cinemas, a videogame, or a DVD. Gifts range from cakes, to toys, to T-shirts. Followers of our Twitter feed will note we don’t do this. My personal view is that a Twitter feed full of ‘look what free stuff we got and you didn’t’ isn’t a good thing. Again, though, dig back through our Twitter history, and I’m sure you’ll find somewhere where we’ve edged close to that line in the past.

In truth, I can’t sit here and suggest that a freebie affects anyone’s opinion of a film/game/DVD, but conversely, reading that someone has got a free cake because a film is out on DVD does puzzle me a little. Presumably, it raises awareness for the product in question, but does it do so in a positive way?

Freebies have long since worked in journalism though. For one TV show a few years ago, a bunch of journalists were whisked away to an Eastern European prison on a jolly. Lots of coverage was generated. Clearly the system works, as again, trips like this go on far more regularly than you may think. Do they, ultimately, shift DVDs? Couldn’t tell you, but the fact they still happen suggests so.

Is a good relationship with PR reps a bad thing?

Appreciating to this stage this article has been a mix of what goes on, our sins, and my thoughts on them, it does seem right to conclude with the big question: is the system right?

Much of this piece has been spent looking at the status quo behind the scenes, and how it affects what words sites like these are able to put on your screen. But should websites be working closely with PR teams at all? Shouldn’t we all be utterly independent?

Inevitably, there’s an element of damned if you do, damned if you do.

Part of the reason for penning this piece was to be open about how things work, and to be clear that we’re not holier than thou on this. It helps, perhaps, that we’re not London based, so miss out on the circle of London junkets/screenings and such like. But when we do pop down to the smoke, we’re continually impressed by the diligence, hard work and passion of the majority of movie journalists we meet, and the care and enthusiasm of the majority of publicists. It sounds twee, but it’s true. Filmmakers? Your movies, for the most part, are in very safe hands.

But there is a line, and it comes back to this. The job of a publicist is to gain exposure for a film, no matter how good or bad it is. The job of a reviewer is to be honest about the film, resisting the many pressures put on them (and I’ve not even touched on the pressures from magazine, newspaper and website editors and such like). Most reviewers achieve this. Most have annoyed a publicist an awful lot in the process.

In an ideal world, everyone would have equal access to everything, and merit would be the only criteria for the films and the level of coverage they get. It’s not an ideal world, though. And my answer to the above question is this: as long as you’re honest about a film, and remember that the duty of a film reviewer is to the readers of the review (and not the filmmakers, who they may have met and got on with, and not the publicists), then there’s not a significant problem here.

I come back to this point: I’ve dealt with many brilliant movie publicists, who fight hard for a film they really believe in. Who shine a light on a smaller project. That’s when everything works. There’s perhaps no clear conclusion to all of this, but neither is there supposed to be. But it is important, I think, to try and get across some of what goes on behind the proverbial curtain.

With that, I’m just off to welcome Jason Statham round to my house, in advance of the five star review for Fast & Furious 7

[And a genuine offer: if a movie publicist wants to pen a post looking at the situation from a different perspective, then please get in touch]

See also: the problem with being a red carpet reporter

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