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Rob Edelman: The Power Of Public Relations

These days, one of the purposes of high-profile fall film festivals is to hype the latest high-priority releases and place them front-and-center in the upcoming Academy Awards competition. Each September, I attend the Toronto Film Festival and, each year, the talk at the fest inevitably centers on the hot new films being screened and the up-and-coming and name-brand performers in attendance.

This year, the question on most everyone’s lips is: Which films are this year’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, GRAVITY, and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB? For after all, each played Toronto last year and each emerged from the festival a sizzling-hot commodity. Similarly, which highly-anticipated films will falter after their unveiling? Which ones will not be in the running for the Oscar or any other end-of-the-year citation?

During the festival, in order to sell their films, the various high-profile performers and filmmakers conduct one-on-one interviews with journalists and many also appear at press conferences. And what you will hear usually are such generic, hype-building observations as: “My new movie is a great movie, a wonderful movie, a groundbreaking movie, a profoundly moving movie, a laugh-out-loud funny movie”; and “I loved working with this director and these actors. We were all so generous to each other. We became such a family on the set.”

Such is the nature of the publicity game. But bringing films and actors to festivals like Toronto, and also Venice and Telluride, certainly is not the only way to increase awareness of the impending release of a new film. For example, at the tail-end of July, the Australia office of Paramount Pictures released a publicity photo of a half-shell turtle plunging from a burning skyscraper along with the words “September 11”: the release date in Australia of the latest TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movie.

Not surprisingly, protests were immediately and the studio apologized for the gaffe and pulled the image. Paramount Australia issued a statement declaring that they “are deeply sorry to have used that artwork for the marketing materials promoting the September 11 opening in Australia. Combining that image and date was a mistake. We intended no offense and have taken immediate action to discontinue its use.”

My first response to all this was: Is 9/11 so old, so much a part of ancient history, that the film’s publicists would not be aware of the tastelessness of combining an image of urban destruction with the September 11 date? Or was this done on purpose? Was this artwork designed to provoke controversy and earn additional publicity for the film, which was about to be released in the U.S.?

I tend to go with the latter. That is because of the adage that bad publicity is preferable to no publicity. The cynic in me makes me think that, in the end, those publicizing this film ultimately were proud of themselves. Think of all the extra headlines their film received, even if those headlines mirrored the tactlessness of releasing this film on September 11 let alone combining the date with an image of urban devastation.

While one may smirk inwardly as one attends a festival press conference or listens patiently as an actor or director extolls the virtues of his or her latest project, their hype is unobjectionable when compared to the so-called “selling” of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.

Finally, on an altogether different note: I do attend press conferences, in Toronto and elsewhere, to observe the manner in which a certain film is being marketed. Or I may want to ask an artist a specific question. For example, once upon a time, I had the opportunity to query Drew Barrymore about the influence her grandfather, John Barrymore, had on her approach to acting.

But on occasion, I admit that I will attend a press conference just for fun. One example was in 1999, when Robin Williams came to Toronto to sell his latest film, JAKOB THE LIAR. I figured that Williams would keep me smiling broadly for the entire press conference-- and I was not wrong.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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