Steven Lewis Simpson

Hiring a Film Publicist was my Biggest Mistake on Record-Breaking Theatrical Release

One of the things I’m looking to cover in-depth within my ultimate Indie film Masterclass (click here for info) is not just the successes I’ve had along the way, but the big mistakes that I’ve made; because that’s the biggest learning curve of all. With the movie Neither Wolf Nor Dog, I had an extraordinary run creating the longest first-run theatrical release of any movie in the US in over a decade but I did it in a reverse manner, in the sense that I launched it initially in the markets that were strongest first and not the platform markets of NY and LA. 

My strategy was once we had the big story to sell to the media about the movie’s success and the fact that it was beating a lot of other records for films in certain regions, we would then be able to get a lot more publicity when we launched in Los Angeles. Eventually, I finally four-walled a cinema in Los Angeles and on this occasion I decided to not do our PR within the company but instead hired an expert film publicist because even though we normally managed to get great local coverage, it was hard to get the national media to pay attention. 

Thus, I reached out to some of the most established film publicists for independent films and first of all, I was amazed about how few of them actually replied to me. I finally settled on this publicist with whom, after our long phone call, we had established the main thing I was looking for – a publicist with direct contacts, who will be able to pick up the phone and pin down those media journalists, because I know that an email rarely gets a reply from those people. 

But to my horror, even though she sent out emails to many established film journalists, almost nothing came from it, and the worst part is that at the end the publicist told me she never bothered phoning most of those people, even though that is what I was paying her for. She just replied:  “Well people don’t answer their phones these days.”, and so my entire reason for hiring her was rendered pointless. It felt like someone stole from me. It was the most excruciatingly annoying part of my distributing this film. I wasted around $6,500 on this individual. At the end of it, I only got a television spot on a good Los Angeles television station, and also an article in Variety that came out after our opening in Los Angeles (and had no professional benefit at all). 

Apart from that, there were some of the standard reviews that you would normally get any time you open in Los Angeles. But they are pretty automatic. When we did the same in the UK with all our marketing done in-house we found that those major reviews just automatically came to us for screeners, since that is their job.

If I was ever going to distribute a film in LA again, I would 100% do all of that national PR in-house, as although it is very hard to pin down the national Film Media, our batting average was significantly better than that of the publicist. Less than 24 hours before our opening day, she set me up with 3 on-camera interviews with video bloggers and even though they were very nice people and nice interviewers, only a few dozen people would ever see those recordings, and almost all of them would not be seen in time to go see the film on the big screen. If I had spent that $6,500 just on Facebook ads we would have drawn in a far, far higher audience. As it was, we had around the 8th highest screen average in the entire United States that week from the Los Angeles opening, though as I did a few Q&A’s I could poll the audience how they heard about the film and most were from our in-house marketing through outreach, ads, and social media. We had smaller turnouts in LA that we’d had in numerous rural cinemas, and so my strategy the whole way through, that Los Angeles was not a naturally strong market for us, proved to be true and the release there generated a hefty loss for me, though that entire loss almost came from the cost of the publicist. That is a key reason why in my Ultimate Indie Film Masterclass will be discussing in great detail about how to book and market your film in theatres that it will perform best in, and forget the linear, traditional release model where many films go to die. I’ve had well over 100,000 admissions from theatres so far and based on all the films released theatrically in the US last year, which puts my film just into the top third of top-grossing films. 

First time out, I got my film to outperform 147 of the 161 theatrical releases from the two most prolific indie distributors in the US, IFC, and Kino Lorber within the same time. 

Even 6 months after, I am infuriated to think about how much I spent just for someone to send out a few rounds of emails. She really utterly failed to deliver on what we had agreed to on the phone call we had before I hired her. If you are looking for a film publicist and are concerned you might be hiring the same person, please email me at steven@stevenlewissimpson.com and mention who you are looking at and I’ll let you know if this is that person to be avoided. 

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