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Knowing Who You Are When Hiring a Vendor

Recently, for my magic doc [link to website + trailer], we got into our first film festival, Nashville -- so one of my director friends asked me, "So, have you hired a PR agency yet?" As a first-time director, this thought had not occurred to me so I said, "No, do you have any recommendations?"

As I thought more and more about it -- it made a lot of sense to hire a PR agency. At the minimum, they could help with local coverage in support of the festival which would help build up a press kit / etc. and you never know who might see those articles, TV reports, etc. On the far end, perhaps they could even help with getting larger, national media or industry specific media (e.g. either magic specific media or entertainment specific media.)

As someone who has frankly hired a lot of vendors / contractors (I use the term "vendor" loosely here -- I'm basically trying to distinguish it from any sort of full-time employees to make this post more specific) -- the process usually goes something like this. For any particular position / function, there's some group of people I know / have heard about before. I actually keep a Google Doc labeled "To Hire - Startups", "To Hire - Film", etc. that I add to anytime I hear of someone that someone I trust recommends. From there, I usually email out either to a subset of my friends or to an ex-Google / ex-Amazon email list for additional recommendations. 

In this case, one of the startups that I work with had previously told me about their PR agency -- a smaller one from the home state of the founder -- and how wonderful they were. Reasonably priced, very scrappy, and got them a ton of PR when they were nobody. I remember checking out their website and though their bailiwick is clearly businesses, they actually had done PR for a doc before and got amazing publicity. It was a doc short and they got a segment on Good Morning America, etc. (The director of the doc was a former tech exec and even wrote that this was the best PR agency he's ever worked with.)

As I was thinking about who to hire or even who to potentially engage -- it dawned on me that it might be tricky to hire a traditional entertainment PR firm. Here's the list of likely clients for an entertainment PR firm (at least in terms of films):

1. The Avengers (i.e. big blockbuster films whose studio is paying some large order of magnitude more for the firm's services than I am)

2. The Descendants (i.e. mid-size films made by well-known and widely celebrated filmmakers)

3. Films that got into a more prestigious festival than mine -- I'm quite proud that my doc got into Nashville but it's factually not as prestigious as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, Toronto, Cannes, and Berlin.

4. My film

So when those firms are out pitching to... anyone really -- if they have those other films in their stable, who are they going to pitch? Has to be 1-3 before they get to my film. (or they give me a very junior account executive who doesn't have those other films and that's problematic for other reasons)

I suppose the only place they would pitch me first is places where my film has a distinct angle -- in my case probably either business media (because of my personal background) or magic media (because of the nature of the film). But the entertainment PR firms are frankly not super likely to have better relationships with those media outlets anyway.

I think it's really easy to get caught up in the prestige of any individual firm when looking to hire. There's a certain amount of aura / social proof / etc. associated with them. Because they have such great case studies / examples -- it's almost like, "If X firm works with Y film, then they can do the same for me." Now -- I should note that I think there are pretty specific variants to this line of thinking. For example, for my movie poster, I went with a firm that has big name clients (they do a ton of work for Sony Pictures Classics and had done the posters for several Oscar nominated films this past year.) They're not traditional big though -- I looked at some of the big ones and even their websites have a completely different (highly polished) feel. However, I loved this firm's work. It had a very evocative yet distinct feel and several of their posters became some of my all-time favorites. (Including one for "Sketches of Frank Gehry" which got nominated for a key art award.) [link] I frankly still thought they would be too big / too expensive for me -- but I figured, what does an email cost me? They got back to me immediately, watched a very early cut of the film, and told me they'd love to work with me. They had a discounted rate for indie filmmakers that I could work with, they were extremely accommodating (they preferred to work on the poster during their slower months, before awards season, and when I didn't get a far enough along film to them to do that -- they still worked fast, did great work, and had no problem handling the change), and did great work I thought.

The common thread in both cases was that I knew who I was going in -- I was the small fish but needed someone who both had experience working with this type of client but also had ideas / a vision for where to take the work.

It's just been a couple of weeks with Dittoe (the PR agency I hired) [link] but I must say, I've been quite impressed. They're smart, aggressive, and I've learned a lot just in watching them work. They're slowly building up interest within the magic community (multiple magic publications are interested in screeners and just today I had a magic group requesting a screener because they'd like to show the film to their membership) along with strong outreach to wider known / national media. I find what they've done with social media (Twitter + Facebook) to be very smart and their overall strategy to be thoughtful. Even in their proposal -- among other things, they listed out who they would go out to and it's pretty clear what type of tact / angle they would use. I also like the fact that I personally like and respect them -- I want people who represent me to be people I would like to represent me -- because they're an extension of who I am.

We'll see what it turns into, but I'm hopeful. My final point though, is that I'm really glad I invested the $ into this. I have a friend who got his first film into Sundance a few years ago. In his words, he basically expected that once it got in, his whole life would change -- and it didn't. Even today, he's struggling to gain traction. When I was at Sundance earlier this year, I met a producer who has had several films in Sundance and I recounted this story to her. She then said, "Unfortunately, getting into Sundance is just the beginning." While PR is not cheap, docs (and any film) are expensive and ultimately, my PR cost will be a fraction of my overall doc cost. However, I think this investment will give the doc its best chance to succeed -- and that's a really worthwhile investment to me.