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Publicists get ink for screenwriters

Even Oscar-nominated writers need someone looking out for their interests in the crush of award season.

February 21, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

If a screenwriter turns out a brilliant screenplay and there's no publicist to flog it, does it still make a sound at awards time? Of course, we'd like to think that artistic excellence always rises to the top but it certainly doesn't hurt to have someone reminding people that, as the writer, you actually contributed something of note to the film.

Beyond that, like any other industry player, a writer wants to make the most of an opportunity -- public kudos being the most potent -- to parlay sudden visibility into an improved career situation.

"As far as I'm concerned, the reason I represent anyone is to help support their career and their career choices," says PMK/HBH publicist Catherine Olim, who recently took on Oscar-nominated screenwriter Iris Yamashita ("Letters From Iwo Jima") as a client. "And if positive exposure that they might not have had otherwise on a project helps them get their next project, then that's the reason for hiring us."

Often, a newer writer's agent, manager or lawyer will try to persuade the writer to hire a publicist to up his or her profile and strategize exposure, such as pressuring the studio to put their names in the film's print ads and include them in event Q&As and panels, something the writer would likely never do on his own behalf for fear of negative associations.

A good publicist cannot only make sure that the writer is included in any major stories about the film, but also make the most of awards season events -- like the academy nominees luncheon -- that are otherwise devoted to actors.

(An added bonus from using publicists is coaching in publicity-speak. One publicist points out that since writers are used to expressing themselves on the page, they often need guidance on how to deliver anecdotes about the film's production or the writing process when talking to the media, as well as tips on toning down the gripe factor when discussing his or her creative relationship with the studio, director or actors. In other words: positive, positive, positive -- an attitude writers often have difficulty expressing when discussing their experiences on a film.)

Ronni Chasen has long represented such writers as Robin Swicord ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), Jim Sheridan ("In America") and Julian Fellowes, whom she helpfully steered to an Oscar win for his "Gosford Park" screenplay in 2002. "We tried to create a very focused campaign that illuminated for people the fact that this was such an intricately crafted screenplay on every level," Chasen says. "It was important for people to be able to hear from him how this was created. For me, it's bringing into focus the writer's contribution."

Usually, the studio publicity department will handle media and other requests for writers around the release of its movie, but since writers are almost never the face of a film, they often get low priority behind actors, producers and directors. A particularly powerful agent may be able to pressure the studio into hiring a publicist for the writer, but this is rare.

And unlike wins for best picture, director or the acting categories, a screenplay Oscar does nothing to bounce a film's box office post-awards. So, though an Oscar win can bring the individual screenwriter a greater creative autonomy, more high-profile meetings and a pay raise, the studio has little incentive to peddle him or her to the media during awards season.

For example, Warner Bros. may throw its weight (and money) behind campaigning for a Martin Scorsese director nod for "The Departed," because this can be translated into additional gross revenue, but it's unlikely to market William Monahan, a WGA Award winner, for his adapted screenplay nomination. A writer like Monahan would have to take matters into his own hands, which he did by hiring Michael Nyman of Bragman Nyman Cafarelli PR.

But many writers hesitate to hire a publicist out of a vocational wariness of self-promotion.

Whereas an actor wouldn't think twice about hiring help to get his name out there, the act of self-promotion is often seen in the screenwriting community as unseemly -- as if it signals an arrogance writers are somehow supposed to be above despite their public marginalization being their most common complaint.

The bottom line is that in the chaotic crush of navigating a career in the industry, it's always nice to have someone in your camp looking out just for you.

"That's why we're all in business," Chasen says. "People want to bring somebody onto their team that can help them strategize and find their way through the awards campaigns. There are many more awards shows, there are more events to go to, there are more opportunities, and you don't want to get lost in the shuffle."

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