“You need to let go of the bits of your writing you are holding onto selfishly. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.”
One of the best bits of writing advice I ever heard found its way to me in the editing suite of a reality TV pilot presentation. The show was about women working on Capitol Hill. I was an unpaid intern working at the production company that was producing the pilot presentation, which they then planned to take to networks to try to sell the concept and turn it into a TV show.
The presentation was to be about 10 – 15 minutes. The producer had offered me a chance to sit in on the editing process, to which I’d eagerly and immediately told her, “Yes.”
Some people look back on internships with malaise, because often, you work long hours and you are not paid. These things are true, and I won’t deny that some internships are grueling. I happened to never find myself in one that was grueling, and in retrospect, I can see that I was a good intern, because I knew that although I wasn’t being paid, I was being afforded access to spaces that I had no real business being in, and that in those spaces, I was being given the opportunity to observe and absorb experiences that I had not worked my way up the ladder enough to have myself.
And so, I spent about a month or so with Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in a tiny editing suite with the producer and editor, absorbing their every interaction and watching their creative process unfold.
There are many different ways to edit something that has been filmed, but the way that this particular project was edited was that the producer, who herself had gone to DC and shot all of the footage, was crafting the end product with the help of the editor. The producer had a story she wanted to tell, which was a dramatized version of the moments that had unfolded in real time. The editor had the technical skills to take the footage that had been shot and use it to tell that story. The producer and the editor were to sit together for many weeks, and he was to help her achieve her goals with his skills.
Some editors, I think, would have simply done that – use their technical skills to help build the story. After all, the editor had been hired by the producer. She was his client, and he’d had nothing to do with shooting the project, nor would he have anything to do with its sale, if that happened.
But this particular editor was a storyteller himself, and the editor and the producer had hit it off personally. He “got” her in that way that friends “get” each other. He could tell when she was unsure of a direction she was giving, or when she wasn’t paying attention. And he’d call her out on it. Over time, they developed a shorthand with each other that made the editing process feel extremely creative, collaborative, and alive.
There was one day that sticks out in my mind – and it’s where that good piece of writing advice came from.
They were editing a scene that just wasn’t landing. The drama wasn’t coalescing. They spent a lot of time tweaking and trying, and then the editor said, “I think we should just cut this.”
The producer’s mouth tightened a bit, like she was clenching her teeth behind closed lips. And she said, “No, we have to make it work.”
“Why?” The editor asked. No “higher ups” in the company had ever popped into the editing suite. It didn’t seem that there was particular pressure on this producer to deliver any one particular scene. It seemed the sole objective was to create a 10 – 15 minute piece that felt dramatic and exciting enough that a TV network might buy it.
She hesitated and then said, “Because. It took forever to shoot this. We spent the whole shoot making sure it happened, and then it was one thing after another.”
The editor shrugged. “No one knows that,” he said. A beat of silence passed. “Or cares.”
The producer eventually agreed to cut the scene, but I could see that it pained her a bit. To her, merely shooting that scene had been a triumph. Having produced films myself, I know the feeling of “I DID IT!” that comes with coordinating something that is really tough to coordinate. It’s like fitting a wriggling, screaming monster into a container and closing the lid. You feel like you’ve done something amazing.
But the editor was right, too. If the scene wasn’t working no matter how they tried it, that probably meant that, well, the scene wasn’t working. The overall piece was not going to be any stronger by having a bad scene in it. And no one watching it would say, “That scene was not great, but I bet it took them a long time to shoot it.”
To me, this experience is closely tied to the oft-delivered writing advice: kill your darlings.
The example from that editing room involved someone being attached to a scene because of what it took to film it. The logistics – the blood, sweat, and tears. Logistical attachment is something that may ring true for producers of reality TV pilot presentations and narrative filmmakers alike. When you’ve sat through a grueling shoot, you aren’t about to just throw a scene away without a fight.
“Kill your darlings” comes into play in other ways, too – not always tied to logistics. For a writer, it may be that a piece of writing felt particularly enlightened, or that it was emotionally difficult to arrive at (more on that later). No matter how you arrive at the impasse, the nugget of wisdom is the same: if something isn’t working for the piece overall, the no matter how much you hold it dear (and no matter why you hold it dear), it may need to go.
It’s a creepy phrase, isn’t it? Another version of it is “kill your babies,” which is even creepier. In my opinion, it’s a purposefully provocative phrase. It’s meant to make you take pause, it’s meant to disarm, and it’s meant to make you admit that you’ve become super attached to something, and now you need to let it go.
Here’s what it means in practice:
Naturally, writers and filmmakers (and all types of artists, really) tend to create things in their larger works that they love. They may love these things for a variety of reasons. For example:
They think the phrasing is just beautiful
They think it’s very clever that they came up with it
It reminds them of something else they love in life, such as a person, a place, or a thing
It was difficult to write, shoot, or otherwise create
It was challenging emotionally and led to some sort of breakthrough for the artist, and thus it became emblematic of his or her own growth
As you may have gathered, these things are all pretty internal and personal. Such is art, right?
So, let’s say you wrote a screenplay. About a third of the way in, there’s a half-page scene that took you about a day and a half to write where one character tells another something very private. Perhaps, as you were writing, you felt really emotionally challenged by getting into the minds of your characters here, and you felt almost a cathartic release when you finally figured out how to let them express themselves in this moment in the story.
By going through something so challenging in the writing process, you developed an affection for the scene. You’d been on a journey together, you and that scene, and you’d both come out better for it. And I should note that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that it was tough to write the scene. It could be that it flowed out of you and onto the page with such fervor that you thought to yourself, “Yes! This bit of the writing is so natural and so pure – it’s why I write!” Whatever it is, it’s probably giving you positive feelings. You think that piece of the writing is wonderful, and you think that you will never let go of it.
It makes sense, then, that when your producer gives you feedback on the script and suggests that you cut that scene out, it stings a little. Depending on your personality and how much you love whatever’s being suggested you cut, “sting” may be an understatement. You may find yourself clutching to the scene – and perhaps to your pride – saying, “No, that can’t go. Not that scene.”
Speaking for myself, personally, I can say that when I feel that feeling – that “No! You can’t have it!” feeling – that’s when I know it is precisely the time when I need to take a step back and ask myself: am I hanging onto this piece for the right reasons?
The phrase “kill your darlings” is, in essence, an actionable version of that question. It’s asking you to be honest about why you’re holding onto something. Is it because it’s what’s best for the piece overall? Or is it because you, for whatever reason, really love it and want to hug it and never let it go?
Often, it’s the latter. And in the realm of creation, loving something so much that you stubbornly never want to let it go deserves a closer inspection. Because it sometimes means that you aren’t thinking about it in context of the piece overall, which may well be better off without it.
Kill Your Darlings | Sony Pictures Classics, 2013
Why have advice-givers been asking people to kill their favorite bits of writing for decades?
To put it bluntly, oftentimes, those bits are indulgent. As artists, we all like to indulge ourselves from time to time. To create a piece of writing that has poetic flourish, or to film a scene that doesn’t quite fit in but feels alive. The truth is that it’s not uncommon for these bit to feed our creative souls but not actually benefit the piece as a whole.
“You have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work,” explains Forrest Wickman in an article concerning Kill Your Darlings, a film about Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, both of whom sometimes have been credited for coming up with the phrase (although the concept was around long before Ginsberg and Carr).
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings,” pronounced Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1914, in his Cambridge lectures On The Art of Writing.
In fact, an anecdote about the writing process for the film Kill Your Darlings is a nice example of the concept in action. This account of how to fix a scene that wasn’t working, written by the film’s screenwriter Austin Bunn, is a bit long, but stick with it.
“I remember listening to the first read-through of the script, four days before we started shooting, and thinking, We have a serious problem. Scene 45 – the dead center of the story, the moment when the young Allen Ginsberg reads his first poem from a boat adrift on the Hudson – was not working. More specifically, it wasn’t doing anything, and for the midpoint of a script, which is ostensibly going to propel the next 45 minutes of drama, that was a terrifying prospect.
While Daniel Radcliffe admirably worked his way through the dense stanzas of “Hymn to the Virgin” (“Thou who are afraid to have me, lest thou lose me, Great anodyne, thyself compound of pain … ”), I realized I had no idea what he was talking about. It sounded like a stuffy Victorian sonnet straining to impress. All those thous and lests and thyselves… There’s even a “sans” in there at one point. And just what who or what was “The Great anodyne”?
Part of the failure came from a sense of duty. I wrote the film with my college roommate John Krokidas, also the film’s director, about the Beat Generation artists we adored. In the research, I’d come across “Hymn to the Virgin” as the first complete Ginsberg poem, which he wrote days after the murder of David Kammerer in 1944 – the subject of our film. In fact, the subhead to the poem is “[David Kammerer to Lucien Carr].” It seemed ordained that we’d use it.
Except when you actually read it aloud – when you require a seemingly endless minute of everybody’s attention on it – it doesn’t seem to communicate much, and definitely not within our story of obsession, unrequited love, and the “uninhibited expression of the self” (or so says their manifesto).
Playwrights like to say that every scene needs an “event” in it – a pivot for the plot and for the characters’ development. This brief reading was supposed to be the proof of Allen’s talent, the origin point of what would become a lifelong friendship with Jack Kerouac, and his best shot at impressing the boy he’s in love with, the one sitting in the bow: Lucien Carr. What the hell would we replace it with?
That night, I dug through the Ginsberg journals, digging for a poem that we could get behind. And while the early work has strong sections, nothing felt quite right or relevant. And then it occurred to me that the poem couldn’t just be in there to win us the merit badge for accuracy. It needed to do some work dramatically.
There’s an adage about poetry by Marvin Bell, “A good poem listens to itself.” When I came across the line “You are not in wonderland” in one of Allen’s first pieces, I remembered we’d used the line “Allen in wonderland” earlier – credited to Lucien Carr – and suddenly an idea lodged in me: What if the poem Allen read echoed the world Lucien had introduced him to and refracted it? He would be a magpie, gathering up charged language and shaping it into art. Isn’t that what we loved about Allen to begin with? And what if, best of all, the poem was a chance for Allen to say to his best friend, “I know who you are”?
I pitched the idea to John, who was in rehearsal with the actors, and went about grabbing powerful phrases from several early poems, inserting the language earlier in the script to set it up and then knitting together what we now deemed a “first draft” Allen Ginsberg poem. Art gods, forgive me. I wonder what Allen would have made of our remix, but I think he would have appreciated the challenge. One of the most frustrating aspects I think of biopics is that too often a protagonist’s greatness is a given, what John always called the “greatest hits” version of history. We wanted to make the opposite: a film about young artists when their talent was raw, their futures uncertain, and the courage it takes to stand up in front of strangers to say something true.”
Two phrases in Bunn’s words here really stuck out to me. “Part of the failure came from a sense of duty,” and “It seemed ordained that we’d use it.”
Though Bunn doesn’t go as far as to say it, if we put ourselves in the position of writing a film about figures like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Carr with our own college roommate, we can imagine reading that poem and feeling a heightened sense of gratitude for the works of those people and what they might teach us about our own relationships to our work and to each other. We can imagine feeling the excitement of embarking on a new project. We can imagine feeling inspired. We can imagine feeling as though it was “ordained” that the poem be used in the film. We can imagine becoming attached to that idea, and feeling affection for it, and feeling like it is at the heart of our work.
To be clear: it may very well have been at the heart of the creative process. As we read in the Quiller-Couch quote: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly.” Writing, and filmmaking at large, are driven by a fire that is fed through inspiration. If you are feeling inspired, follow that impulse. Let it create what it is going to create. But be prepared, down the road, to reevaluate, as Bunn describes.
Don’t kill everything.
It’s worth pausing to say that this phrase, “Kill your darlings,” is intended to stab at your most precious bits of writing. Simplified definitions of it may say “You need to kill the pieces of the writing you love the most,” but that can be, well, overkill. This phrase means to get at the scenes you’re holding onto stubbornly – the ones that aren’t working.
“In reality killing your darlings has to be done wisely and somewhat sparingly. If you simply decide to hit ‘delete’ on all the best bits of your book the chances are you’ll end up with gaping holes in your story and, actually, some of the best bits should almost certainly stay.
What Faulkner meant was you need to let go of the bits of your writing you are holding onto selfishly. Those words, side plots, characters or turns of phrase that you personally love but, actually, if you are being truthful, don’t really advance your story in any way.
You might, for example, have thought of a killer line that just perfectly sums up an emotion or scene, it might have come to you in the middle of the night and you might have written it down with such excitement you couldn’t wait to get it into your story the next day…
However, when you tried there just wasn’t a place for it, you wanted to make it fit, but it didn’t. It couldn’t work.
Don’t force something no matter how much you love it. If it is not meant to be in your current story simply save it for the next one, and then let it go.”
So when should the killings happen?
Considering that this “kill your darlings” business sounds emotional and tough, you may want to know when to expect it, so that you can figure out when you’ll be through with it. Unfortunately, “kill your darlings” can apply at any stage of the game! For example:
You may be forced to face the music after receiving a note from a friend or trusted colleague who read your piece and told you something wasn’t working.
Or perhaps it’s your producer, who is giving you notes on the script before it goes into production.
Maybe you’re on set, filming a scene, and your actor says “Ya know, I’m just not sure this is working…”
Or maybe you’ve made it all the way to the editing suite before the note makes its way to you.
Worse still, perhaps the film has been edited, and before you lock the final cut, a higher-up at the studio tells you, “You know that scene….? I don’t think it’s working…”
Though it may be safe to assume that it’s most likely you’ll come face to face with the decision to off one of your most precious creations early in the game – say, a first draft or first cut – your darlings may not really be safe until the project is complete.
Have you killed?
Have you ever had to kill a darling? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below. Since this is something that nearly every writer and filmmaker has faced or will face at some point in their journey, it’d be fun to trade tales from the crypt!
“A treatment is never a substitute for a screenplay.”
If you got into screenwriting thinking that all you’d need to do was write a screenplay, you’ll soon discover that that’s just not the case. There are a great many other pieces of the professional screenwriting puzzle, including the pre-writing process; working with agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers; and of course, the focus of our discussion today – the treatment.
Many new screenwriters assume that it’s necessary to write a treatment for each and every project they touch. Yes, there are times when you should and will write a treatment, but there are also times when it’s actually not necessary. For example, do you have to write a treatment before you can start writing your spec script? Nope! You can if you want to, but you don’t need to.
First things first. What precisely is a treatment? Let’s pin down a definition so that we’re on the same page.
In its simplest form, a treatment is a prose-based telling of your screenplay. You might think of it as a “novelized” version. Instead of writing in traditional screenplay format, you’re relaying the narrative as a sort of short story or novel.
So, rather than saying:
Sarah stands at the sink; no one else is in the room. She washes beets, and their purple juice flows down the drain. She’s sobbing.
Why did you do this to me?
In a treatment, we might say:
Sarah stands at the sink; no one else is in the room. She washes beets, and their purple juice flows down the drain. She’s sobbing. Out loud, to no one in particular, she asks, “Why did you do this to me?”
Treatments are used primarily as a way to communicate – before the screenplay is written – what a screenplay will be about, and what will happen within it. It’s thought of as a form of prewriting. Rarely would you write the full screenplay and then follow up with a treatment summarizing everything. More commonly, the treatment is written to distill and convey the writer’s intentions. That’s not to say that it never happens the other way around, but “treatment first” tends to be the most common approach.
Treatments are a tool of the trade in some arenas of the screenwriting business. For example, let’s imagine that a producer has hired a screenwriter to develop a screenplay based on a “presold concept”; that is, on an existing property such as a novel, comic book, or someone’s life story. Or perhaps they’re hiring a screenwriter to rewrite an existing screenplay. In this case, the producer likely would use a treatment as a way to vet the screenwriter’s vision for the script and ensure that it aligns with the producer’s vision. In this context, you can think of a treatment as a written, somewhat long-winded pitch.
How long should a treatment be?
There really isn’t much consensus around how long a treatment should be. That’s because treatments are used for different things by different people.
Screenwriter John August discusses this lack of consensus. When trying to figure out how long to make your treatment, he recommends that you identify what the treatment will be used for and what the expectations are.
August was asked:
“I am currently writing my first feature length screenplay and have been asked to send in a treatment to a production company. What is the standard form for a treatment (how many pages, etc.)? I have trawled the Internet to no avail.”
There is no standard. Ask the production company what they mean by a treatment, and they’ll probably tell you what they’re looking for in terms of pages. They may even send a sample.
For example, my assistant Dana is currently writing a treatment for a production company. The treatment will end up being 15-20 pages, single spaced. To me, that’s at the long end of a treatment, but that’s what the company wanted.
A treatment of any length generally describes all of the major scenes or sequences in the movie in prose form, but doesn’t get into specific dialogue. From a treatment, a reader should be able to get a good sense of the movie’s plot, but not necessarily its special flavor.
A treatment is never a substitute for a screenplay.
“There seem to be three accepted versions of a treatment. One version is a one-page written pitch. The second version is a three to five-page document that tells the whole story, focusing on the highlights. The third version is a lengthy document – some say up to 60 pages – providing an elaborate, scene-by- scene breakdown of a script.”
60 pages is elaborate, but it allows the writer to really dig into what the screenplay will be like once it’s written. Writer and director James Cameron is famous for writing long treatments. His treatment for The Terminator is worth a read!
The Terminator | Orion Pictures, 1984
Are there other similar documents?
Yes! A screenwriter may be asked to create other documents which, like the treatment, express the intended direction for the script. Such documents include an “outline” and a “beat sheet.”
These are often the same thing, John August shares, and what distinguishes them from a treatment is that they’re more a list than a flowing, novel-esque bit of prose. Sometimes a producer asks for an outline when what they really want is a treatment.
“To me, an outline tends to be less prose-y and feature more bullet points, but there is no common consensus in Hollywood about what’s what. In features, we use ‘treatment’ and ‘outline’ and ‘beat sheet’ interchangeably.
A ‘write-up’ is generally a written version of something you’ve pitched. It could be long or short. A ‘leave-behind’ is a written summary of a pitch that you literally leave behind after the meeting.”
Above all, it’s best to follow August’s advice: get a clear understanding of what the person requesting the document wants and expects so that you can deliver accordingly.
What about when someone isn’t asking for a treatment?
Some screenwriters feel that creating a treatment is something that they have to do when writing a screenplay. In truth, unless someone asks you for one, you probably don’t need to create a treatment.
Many screenwriters, especially those new to the game, are developing “spec scripts”. A spec script is a script that’s written on the “speculation” (thus putting the “spec” in “spec script”) that someone will want to buy it at a future date, after it’s written. A screenwriter developing a spec script is essentially working for him or herself. He or she has had a good idea and decided to dedicate the time to translating it to the page.
As a part of developing their spec script, a screenwriter may engage in different prewriting techniques to help them get their writerly brains around the characters they’re creating and the story they want to tell. It certainly can be beneficial to work out the beats and overall trajectory of a screenplay before actually sitting down to write it, no doubt. But is there a requirement to do that in the form of a prose-based treatment? Unless someone who is paying you to write has asked you for one, absolutely not!
Different analysts and consultants have different ideas about the pros and cons of writing a treatment when no one has asked you to. For Horowitz, it can be a good idea:
“Part of succeeding as a screenwriter is to write at least one great screenplay. There is no substitute for craft, but screenplays are hard work and take time to perfect, so if a writer has already completed one screenplay, doing a treatment for the next can help determine whether or not the new screenplay is viable. Why? Because the treatment creates distance. Distance allows the screenwriter to get an overview of his or her work and look at it objectively.
If the basic story is not something an audience wants to see, no amount of rewriting can fix it. This is a problem I encounter over and over in my work as a writing coach. Screenwriters often forget that they are writing for an audience. Writing a treatment before you start your next screenplay can help you work out problems and determine whether your story idea is a diamond in the rough, or just a lump of coal. The goal is to combine stories told from the heart with a deep understanding of what other people want to see.”
“There’s really never any compelling reason why you would want to write a film treatment if your spec script is not under contract, or you weren’t hired to write or rewrite a script. Unless it’s Spielberg (or someone like him) doing the asking, I wouldn’t write or rewrite for anyone for free. And make no mistake: writing a film treatment is hard work.
Keep in mind that after carefully planning every aspect of your plot, if you also write (for example) a 30-page film treatment, you can easily ‘burn out’ all your creative energy on that treatment before even beginning to write your screenplay. Writers need a sense of discovery when writing their scripts, so that they can remain fully engaged in the process. Certainly, you’ll want to plan your plot very carefully before beginning to write your screenplay – but not to such an extent that you are ‘writing by rote,’ and are no longer open to the happy accidents that can happen along the way.
It also should be noted that it’s extremely unlikely that you, as an ‘unproduced’ screenwriter, will sell a script based on a treatment alone. Hardly ever do film producers buy treatments from unknown screenwriters when no script has been written yet. If you are not already established as a successful screenwriter and want to sell your movie idea, you will probably have to write a spec script.”
When it comes to deciding whether or not you should write a treatment for a spec script, ultimately I feel that both Horowitz and Rabin make valid points. A treatment can help you get organized and find some perspective. But on the other hand, particularly when writing a spec script with little to no oversight, it can be challenging to keep motivated, and the danger of burnout is real.
If you’re feeling especially burdened by writing a treatment, it may not be the best use of your time, although Horowitz may argue that the resistance you’re experiencing could be indicative of a fundamental problem in the screenplay. If you can’t get excited about the treatment, maybe the idea needs some serious rethinking, and it’s time to reorient.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales | Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017
In a work-for-hire situation, the whole picture is different. The treatment is often an integral part of the process and an extremely useful communication tool. It’s a way for you to show the producers what you’ve got. In this case – because you have a boss overseeing the process, and because the treatment is a step toward what likely will be some sort of collaboration – developing a treatment can set you up for a less frustrating experience writing the screenplay itself. If you work out all of the kinks beforehand, you may face less resistance on the actual page.
That said, some screenwriters in the work-for-hire world find the whole treatment process immensely frustrating. Here’s Terry Rosio, one of the Pirates of the Caribbean writers as well as Shrek and Aladdin:
“And so we come to the subject of treatments.
Writing treatments in Hollywood.
And already, we’re lost.
I would like to tell you that up is down, right is wrong, good is bad, long is short – but I can’t, because that stuff makes sense.
I’m tempted to say, ‘Writing treatments is like designing a film by hiring six million monkeys to tear out pages of an encyclopedia, then you put the pages through a paper-shredder, randomly grab whatever intact lines are left, sing them in Italian to a Spanish deaf-mute, and then make story decisions with the guy via conference call.’ But no… compared to writing treatments, that makes sense, too.”
Yikes! But hey, it could be worse. At least Hollywood producers don’t resort to more… Elizabethan methods:
Shakespeare in Love | 'Cut Off His Nose' (HD) - Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson | MIRAMAX - YouTube
It may not be so intense for everyone, even with the financial pressures of the studio level. But especially as Rosio continues and explains why the process can be so frustrating, he’s telling us something important, which we’ve already touched on here:
Writing for hire is not the same as writing a spec script.
By its very nature, writing for hire means that you are working in a more collaborative atmosphere from the start. It’s different to get notes on a screenplay you’ve already written than it is to get preemptive notes on a screenplay you haven’t had a chance to write yet.
In this respect, it can be helpful to think of the treatment as its own project. Ultimately, it will provide a roadmap to writing a screenplay that has a shape all parties have agreed to beforehand.
Of course, that’s not to say the producer or studio won’t have notes on the screenplay itself! Chances are, they will. But still, getting some of the confusion out of the way at the treatment stage can save you from heartache down the road.
So, what do you think? Have you ever written a treatment for a spec script? Did it help you? What about in a work-for-hire situation, for a producer or studio? Did you find a treatment to be a useful communication tool? We’d love to hear about your experiences and field any questions you may have in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
Want to learn more about treatments and screenwriting more generally?
Then we invite you to enroll in our online film school! It’s the filmmaking training you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.
“The time to start thinking about publicity is right now.”
The deeper you get into the film industry – pitching projects, crewing on professional productions, attending film festivals – the more you’ll hear about lesser-known but no less essential roles.
When first starting out, it can be difficult to grasp what each of these roles contributes to a film professional’s career. To help you climb the learning curve, we dove deep into the world of the filmmaker’s core behind-the-scenes “team”, comprising the agent, manager, and entertainment lawyer. Today, we’ll take a look at an auxiliary team member: the publicist.
What is a publicist? What do publicists do? We’ll explore these questions today through three lenses: the role a publicist plays in an actor’s career, a filmmaker’s career, and throughout the life of a film.
A General Definition
After earning a degree in screenwriting, I spent several years working as an assistant at a boutique talent management firm in Brooklyn, New York. There, I worked closely with several high-profile actors, several of whom had – you guessed it! – publicists.
Unlike a manager or agent, publicists tend to come and go. A publicist’s main job is to seek publicity – press – for their client. As Sokanu puts it, “Public relations is the art of influencing public perception by using strategic communication”, where “strategic” is the key word. A publicist communicates on an actor’s, filmmaker’s, or film’s behalf to achieve a specific outcome; for example, the elevation of one’s public image.
I. What Publicists Do for Actors and Other Celebrities
What does it mean logistically for a publicist to seek publicity for their client?
Well, at the most basic level, this could mean that the publicist reaches out to media outlets including newspapers, magazines, and television shows, pitching their client for coverage. “The main responsibility of a publicist is to get positive press coverage for his client,” Dave Roos details. “To do this, the publicist needs to create and maintain good relationships with journalists by sending them original, insightful, timely story ideas that involve the client in some way”:
“The most important skill for a publicist is the ability to think like a journalist. Journalists and editors need publicists as much as publicists need them. Editors need to fill the pages of their newspapers, magazines and websites. They need stories tailored to their readers’ interests. Celebrity and entertainment writers, in particular, rely on tips from publicists to keep their sections original and exciting.”
So for example, a publicist may reach out to a contact at, say, People, letting them know what their client is up to and why a story about them would be interesting. If People were to agree to a story, then the publicist would coordinate it. They would set up a time for an interview and photo shoot (if necessary), and likely speak with the editorial team about areas of interest the story could cover.
The same happens on a television show. Imagine the publicist reaches out to a late night program to get their client booked as a guest. In this scenario, the publicist schedules the appearance, arranges travel logistics (if the show tapes in New York City but their client is Los Angeles based, for example), and perhaps briefs the show’s producers on interesting talking points. Often, producers of late night shows conduct pre-interviews with their guests, so that when it comes time to do the show, the host already has some idea of what direction the conversation could go. It can be a lot of fun:
Chris Pratt Knows The Best Card Trick Ever - The Graham Norton Show - YouTube
But why would you want a publicist to reach out to media outlets on your behalf?
As an actor, part of your job is being a public figure. Many people watch movies in part because they want to feel connected to their Actor Obsession, not only on the big screen but also through the material leading up to it; for example, a TV interview where an actor shares funny anecdotes about the production process. Consequently, many studios tie a movie’s potential profitability to the likability of its leads. A publicist can help an actor score gigs that build their likability, thereby building their bankability, which can open the door to future projects.
Of course, there are other reasons for a celebrity to hire a publicist, including damage control. If an actor’s reputation has been tarnished, their likability declines, pulling them down the image-profitability continuum. So a publicist may be hired to appeal to newspapers, magazines, and television shows to feature the client in a way that empowers them to revamp their image. Imagine an actor has been criticized for not caring about the environment – a magazine feature about their philanthropic work rehabilitating animals could help repair their image.
Speaking of philanthropic work, a publicist also may be hired to promote a cause or charitable organization the celebrity supports. In this scenario, the publicist highlights the work the celebrity is doing with the organization, spinning it into an interesting story for a major publication. This raises public awareness, encouraging others to give or otherwise support similar philanthropic work.
Other common reasons a publicist is brought onboard include:
For help navigating a time during which the celebrity is highly sought-after. For example, an actor nominated for awards may lean on a publicist to manage associated press appearances, as well as the logistics of the various awards ceremonies.
For help spreading the word about a project. If you’ve written a book, you could enlist a publicist to boost the book’s profile and coordinate press.
For help writing speeches and landing speaking gigs, such as university commencements and keynote addresses. The publicist would weigh in on which events the celebrity accepts – do they stand for and support the same things the actor stands for and supports? Are their belief systems compatible? Will speaking for organization (x) raise the actor’s profile in a positive way? The publicist’s job is to evaluate how gigs will affect the actor’s visibility and public image.
II. What Publicists Do for Filmmakers
A filmmaker may hire a publicist for the same reasons as an actor or other celebrity: to boost their profile, rehabilitate their image, help navigate awards season, and spread the word about a project. Although it’s less common for, say, a film director to be booked on a late night show to publicize and thus sell a film, it’s not unheard of – household names like Steven Spielberg sometimes find themselves in this position.
A director also may want a publicist to represent them at a film festival. This is especially common when the filmmaker or their film has a fairly high profile at a festival and is generating a lot of buzz.
More specifically, at a film festival, a publicist may:
Help coordinate interviews with the filmmaker.
Help the filmmaker prepare for Q&A panels and choose which ones to do.
Help coordinate which festival events the filmmaker will attend: parties, premieres, screenings, awards ceremonies, and the like.
III. What Publicists Do for a Film
It’s very common for a publicist to represent an entire film. In this context, the publicist’s job is similar to when they’re representing an individual, only instead of pitching stories about a person, they’re pitching stories about a project. The goal remains the same: to raise the profile of the film by making it seem interesting, which leads to more coverage, which leads to people hearing about it and wanting to check it out for themselves.
Here, a publicist will manage what’s called a “publicity campaign” – in other words, a specific, focused effort intended to boost the film’s profile. Again, this is very similar to when a publicist works with an actor or filmmaker, but it can be easier to wrap our minds around a publicist’s responsibility in context of a film project. We’re used to the idea of a movie being advertised to us but tend to be less aware of the fact that people are advertised to us, too.
A film publicist’s job can include:
Creating a press kit, which is a collection of promotional/informational materials that’s sent to press outlets. Traditionally, this was (and in some cases still is) a physical packet of information, printed out. However, Electronic Press Kits (EPKs) are increasingly the norm. Be it physical or EPK, a press kit can include a film synopsis, stills, and blurbs about the production process. Press outlets can use these materials to write stories and as a springboard to launch more in-depth interviews with the filmmaker and actors.
Managing a press tour, in which actors meet with press outlets in different cities. For example, imagine that the cast of Superhero Movie 3 travels to New York City for a day, where they take back-to-back meetings with newspapers, magazines, bloggers, and TV producers. This usually happens in a hotel. Actors sit in a room, and different interviewers come in and out to ask questions. The next day, the cast travels to London, where they’ll do the same thing but with the London press.
Coordinating press screenings, in which the press and other notable people are invited for a premiere or advance screening of a film, with the understanding that those people will proceed to spread the word about it through coverage across multiple channels: articles, photos of actors walking the red carpet, and the like.
A publicist for an independent film does many of these things on a smaller scale, in addition to managing film festival submissions, which often involves sending a press kit. Regardless, the goal is the same: to raise the profile of the movie.
How Are Publicists Paid?
Unlike agents, managers, and entertainment lawyers, who are paid through commission – meaning that they receive a portion of whatever a celebrity gets paid for a particular job – publicists are hired fir a fixed fee. According to a report in The Hollywood Reporter that breaks down the pay of many different professions in the film industry:
“A unit publicist hired by a studio earns about $2,750 a week, or $41,000 per film. Personal publicists employed by stars earn much more, with some making $400,000 or more a year.”
It’s worth repeating that publicists, unlike agents and managers, come and go throughout a celebrity’s career. When a celebrity is very busy with press appearances or has a particular need for logistical help or image boosting, they may hire a publicist. When a celebrity is lying low or otherwise at home preparing for the next big thing, a publicist may not be a necessary piece of the overall team puzzle.
What Skills Must a Publicist Have?
Because the job involves making connections with the press and pitching stories as well as coordinating press-related activities, at its core, being a publicist requires you to be creative, outgoing, and super organized. Creative Skillset describes it like this:
“To do this role you will need to:
Have a good knowledge of and understanding of the media – print, TV, radio and internet
Have good contacts in the film and media industries
Be able to thrive in changing situations and remain flexible and spontaneous
Be good at problem solving and dealing with situations strategically
Be able to multitask
Be good at pitching and persuading
Have good networking skills
Have excellent communication skills and enjoy working with different people
Be a good writer”
Personally I would add that having an affable personality is an asset. After all, the job is about making connections and wooing people into telling the stories that you want them to tell!
Where Can You Find a Publicist?
Although many publicists work on their own, others work for publicity firms alongside other publicists. If you want to find publicists who have worked with indie filmmakers, you could research filmmakers you admire and identify who their publicist is or was during a period of their career similar to yours. IMDbPro is arguably the best place to find up-to-date information about a film industry professional’s agent, manager, entertainment lawyer, or publicist.
Additionally, film festivals can be a fantastic resource when it comes to seeking out advice on who to connect with. Alia Quart Khan, who’s in charge of publicity for the LA Film Festival, elaborates:
“Once you get word that you’re in, the festival’s publicity department can be a great resource. Khan said the LA Film Festival keeps a list of recommended publicists that they share with filmmakers, and since the Festival works with agencies closely throughout the year, Khan and her staff are able to help filmmakers discern which one might be a fit for your film.
‘One thing that I would tell filmmakers when they’re asking me about publicists,’ said Khan, ‘is to ask them straight-up, ‘What other films are you covering and are they in my category?’ Because you don’t want someone who’s going to be pushing two things at the same time to an outlet.'”
You also don’t want to rush into hiring a publicist before the film has been made. Sylvia Desrochers, president of Big Time PR & Marketing, stresses that a publicist can’t really start working to bring attention to a film until it has been accepted to a major festival. Even so, “the time to start thinking about publicity is right now. “You’re storytellers and so are we,” she says. “We have to tell the story of your film. So it’s never too early to think about how you might present the story of your film to the public.”
Who Are Some Well-Known Publicists?
As a good editor tends to be invisible, so a good publicist pulls the strings behind-the-scenes, making it seem as if the results they help achieve naturally would have occurred in the life of their client. To call attention to themselves or their work would undermine it. Even so, there are some publicists whose work is admired.
Consider Business Insider’s list of the 20 Most Powerful Publicists, which highlights powerful publicists’ clients and some of their most memorable career moments. Here’s an example, from the work of Nicole Perez-Kruger:
Under Perez-Krueger’s guidance and tactical direction, Lauren Conrad remains the third highest-selling magazine cover despite the fact that she hasn’t been on a television series for years. Also, by orchestrating strategic press coverage and positioning, Perez-Krueger transformed the public (and professional) image of Matthew McConaughey from a romantic comedy heartthrob to a serious actor and awards contender.
That’s a really diverse list of accomplishments!
Have you ever worked with (or as) a publicist? What do you think? Or have you as a filmmaker done aspects of a publicist’s job on your own? We would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below!
Lauren McGrail, with
Want to learn more about publicity and promoting your film?
Then we invite you to enroll in our online film school! It’s the filmmaking training you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.
“The best notes are those that understand and embrace the screenwriter’s or filmmaker’s intention and then work to help them realize it.”
Ah, “notes”! An oft-uttered, sometimes feared term in screenwriting and filmmaking circles. ?
Briefly, “notes” refers to feedback on a project provided by, ideally, trusted individuals – collaborators, colleagues, professors, and the like – intended to help you improve your project.
And can we be honest for a moment?
Sometimes notes sting.
Which makes sense, of course! When you hand someone a draft of your screenplay or show them a cut of your film, you’re choosing to be vulnerable – to lay bare an expression of your creative soul.
No doubt you’ve spent countless hours pouring your heart and mind into the project at hand, and even though you know deep down that it can and will get better, it stings a bit when someone tells you that something you thought was working in your project actually, well, isn’t.
In fact, there may even be a part of you that’s sort of, kind of hoping that you’re going to hand someone your script or your edit or whatever and they’ll be like, “Hey, it was fantastic. Don’t change a thing; this one’s a winner.”
Have you been there, in that hopeful seat? Me, too. But you know where I’m pretty sure few, if any, of us have been? On the receiving end of “Hey, it was fantastic. Don’t change a thing; this one’s a winner.”
Arguably, no act of creation is perfect, especially in its first form. In the words of Salvador Dalí, “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
But you can try.
Once you get over the initial sting of constructive criticism, you’ll realize that notes are actually one of the most valuable resources available to screenwriters and filmmakers. Notes are a gift, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. They can unearth problems you didn’t realize your work had, enabling you to develop solutions you didn’t realize you needed.
“When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood,” Dennis Palumbo shares, “I hated getting notes from producers, directors or studio execs – even if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script. No, especially if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script.”
So, let’s do some soul searching and have an honest conversation about how to approach notes and use them effectively as a creative professional. You might think of our time together as a little aloe vera for your burns. Let its cool, soothing qualities take the heat off the criticism, so that you can focus not on how the notes make you feel, but rather on what they might mean and how that can help you elevate your project to the next level!
Ultimate "NOOOOOOOOO" Compilation by AFX - YouTube
How to Handle Notes with Grace (and Quiet the Screaming Demon)
Let’s get one thing out of the way right upfront. I’m not suggesting that you should find a way not to feel the sting or confusion that often accompanies the reception of notes!
Between studying screenwriting, practicing the craft, and producing numerous film projects since, I can say with confidence that I’ve taken a lot of feedback over the years, and I still get that sinking feeling of “Oh, really?”.
It’s natural. These projects are our babies. When you’ve spent a lot of time investing in your creative work, about the last thing you want to hear is “Yeah, this isn’t working.”
Perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves is (1) acknowledge that notes can be challenging, (2) allow the resultant feeling to emerge, fully experiencing it, and then (3) let it go. By going through the full cycle of emotion, you’ll be able to recognize when your response to a note is a knee-jerk reaction – for example, getting teary-eyed or defensive – and instead of indulging that response, handle the moment with grace.
“It’s human nature not to like criticism,” screenwriter Philip Gladwin observes. “And unless every note is just an endorsement of what you have written (which must mean you are entirely in tune with the producer, director and market research, which is probably classifiable as a minor miracle) then there will be things that need changing”:
“With that inevitably comes an implied criticism. You weren’t perfect.
Get over it. You can walk, or you can come back to the battle. Over the years I’ve done both, and though it’s a fine call sometimes, I generally prefer to keep involvement with my baby when I can.
Go ahead and feel disappointment when you get that first feedback on a script. Feel bad for a day or two, that’s normal – but don’t let it linger or turn into self-pity.”
The bottom line here is that we’re not suggesting that you repress your emotions. We’re suggesting that, the next time a well-meaning notes-giver offers you their perspective and that knee-jerk response of “OMG YOU’RE WRONG MY FILM IS PERFECT” creeps up, you turn to that screaming demon and say, “I know what you are, you funny little thing. You’re my natural reaction to notes.” Pat it on the head and tell it to buzz off. Trust in the fact that once the demon-feeling subsides, the sting will, too, and you’ll quite possibly be left with some solid new ideas for your project.
Because that’s what notes are, right? They’re ideas.
“Notes” is the traditional industry term, but maybe thinking about them as “ideas” will help you accept that you don’t have to take them. Of course, nine times out of ten, you shouldn’t dismiss them outright – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When to Get Notes, Who to Ask, and How
When in the creative process should you get out there and seek feedback?
It’s really a case-by-case thing, but generally speaking, where screenplays are concerned, you probably want to ask for notes each time you have a new draft that you feel really happy with. In the case of a film, you should consider sourcing notes when you have a rough cut, and then again when you revise and fine-tune it.
When you arrive at a presentable draft or cut, it’s natural to want to share it with all of your trusted minds – friends, peers, film-savvy acquaintances, your mother’s best friend’s dog. And while it’s often wise to cast a wide net, bear in mind that agreeing to notes is a commitment on the part of the notes-giver. It takes time to read that draft or watch that cut, and it takes time to then come up with thoughtful feedback and share it.
So, consider staggering your requests for notes. Ask a handful of people for feedback on the first draft or cut, a couple more on the next pass, and so on. You may get lucky and have someone who’s eager to review each and every iteration of your project, which is great, but remember that not everyone will have the time to give your project the thought and care it deserves more than once – even if they say they do.
Regardless, it’s usually a very good idea to continue to bring new perspectives onboard throughout the notes-gathering process. That way, you’ll encounter fresh, objective perspectives regularly. Since the final product will be viewed by anyone and everyone who decides to watch your film, it’s a good idea to hear what different people have to say.
But how do you actually ask for notes?
Since providing notes is a commitment, it’s polite to ask the potential notes-giver first whether or not they’re available to review your work. If they agree, then pass along your draft or cut. Don’t automatically pass it along, assuming that that person is available. By checking in first, you’re communicating that you respect that person’s time and aren’t being too presumptuous.
How to Respond When Someone Gives You Notes
The first thing you should say when someone gives you notes is:
We can’t stress this enough: providing notes is usually a time-intensive process that’s tapping into an individual’s experiences and expertise. It’s important to affirm and acknowledge their commitment with, at the very least, a sincere “thank you”.
As we’ve already discussed, notes can sting. Put the “YOU SUCK I’M A GENIUS” demon in its place if you feel yourself getting defensive. Don’t react in the moment. Instead, live with the feedback. Let your emotions and your intellect digest it. When you’re ready to engage with the feedback seriously and diplomatically, you can approach the notes-giver in conversation or otherwise implement the notes that resonate, all according to your taste and creative vision.
It’s worth mentioning that both my and Lights Film School teacher Michael’s college experiences stressed the importance of mastering the knee-jerk reaction to notes. Our projects were critiqued in workshop-style classes. As Michael explains:
“At NYU, part of my training was sitting in a room full of my peers and professor who would dissect the script I’d written, and I wasn’t allowed to say anything during the process unless asked a question. They were training the ability to listen – the ability to tame that emotional ‘eff you!’ reaction.”
Because, again, notes are a gift. You need to be able to get out of your own way so that you can receive it. When you do, you’ll start to unlock the power of constructive criticism.
Look for Patterns in the Notes
Notes help you assess the degree to which your intentions translate to the page or screen. At risk of over-simplifying, your job as a storyteller is twofold: you must (1) create a compelling story and (2) communicate it effectively to an audience.
Sometimes, your story will be clearer to you than you’re able to express on the page or distill in an edit the first time around – or any time around. Michael had a professor who helped him manage his expectations of his own creative work, especially early on: “The best it will ever be is in your head.”
If someone reads your script or watches your cut and shares that they don’t understand something – or if it’s clear that they’ve missed something that you intended them to pick up on – great! That’s incredibly valuable feedback. It’s a fantastic prompt for you as you move forward: how could you more clearly express that element of your story? What can you add or change to more clearly convey your intention?
This is where you should ask the notes-giver questions. Notes can be a conversation that reveals the road to a stronger project.
Even so, film – and all of art, really – is inherently subjective. Your cup of tea may not be mine. When evaluating a note, remember that it’s a window into how that person’s unique tastes are (or aren’t) connecting with your material. Did they laugh at your jokes? Respond to your emotional scene? Why or why not?
Asked differently, to what degree is their reaction “personal” and to what degree is it “professional”?
Here at Lights Film School, we believe that the best notes are those that recognize what a creative project aspires to be and help it become the fullest possible expression of itself. This often means that “personal” reactions are flagged and backgrounded to discussions of craft and execution.
Unfortunately, such feedback can be hard to come by. The personal is not (perhaps cannot) be separated completely from the professional. That’s why it’s important to remember that everyone’s taste is different, and that you can’t define success according to just one notes-giver’s metric. Aim for a diverse set of notes-givers, especially when you send out your early work, so as to ensure a whole range of opinions! If there are patterns in the opinions – notes that crop up again and again – then you have a pretty strong indication that those things deserve another look.
Of course, you’ll want to run them and really all notes you receive through the filter of “target audience”. If, say, you’re working on a free-wheeling science fiction film but asking for notes from a Ken Burns-style documentarian, it’s possible that not all of their feedback will catch the vision (unless they’ve successfully separated the personal from the professional).
Conversely, because of that documentarian’s unique experiences and expertise, it’s possible that their perspective will bring to light something new and promising in your work which you simply hadn’t realized. Balance their feedback with feedback from people who are more familiar and naturally onboard with what you’re trying to do; in this case, scifi fans.
Again, to sum it up, the name of the game is “diversity”.
You Don’t Have to Take Every Note (Except When You Do)
You’re welcome and encouraged to take only the notes that resonate with you, the creator.
Well, most of the time.
If you’re working for a studio or other entity that wields some serious power over your project, you may have to concede. In your own projects, however, yes, the power is yours to say “That’s a great idea, I’ll take it” or “Thanks for your feedback” followed by a dismissal of the note. Just be sure that you’re dismissing it because it doesn’t fit with your vision for your story, not because you’re upset or offended. Quiet the demon!
So, how do you know which notes are helpful and which ones aren’t?
This brings up back around to our discussion of target audience. Consider the note in context of what you and your project are trying to achieve.
For example, a note that wants a draft of a dark drama to lighten up and become a slapstick comedy isn’t meeting the draft on its own terms. It’s trying to force the draft into someone else’s opinion of what’s good. Remember, the best notes are those that understand and embrace the screenwriter’s or filmmaker’s intention and then work to help them realize it.
What If You Don’t Have a Filmmaking Network?
If you’re just starting out and don’t yet have a cohort of qualified friends and filmmakers who may be able to provide feedback to your projects – or if you want to extend your existing network – then you could plug into a community online and/or commission notes professionally.
Community is a key component of the educational experience here at Lights Film School. I’ve been teaching with LFS for seven years, and in that time, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with students from literally all around the world, many of whom were at the very beginning of their filmmaking journeys when I met them.
As a part of the curriculum, our online film school includes notes on projects you create throughout your studies, in addition to the social component of the platform that enables students to connect and become each other’s network. It’s a really cool (virtual) place!
Of course, there are other online resources that focus primarily on feedback, including The Black List, which has grown from a list of top scripts curated by agency assistants to a leading notes-centric platform for screenwriters and industry professionals. In our digital age, you don’t have to embark on your filmmaking journey alone!
As you transition from developing a draft or refining a cut to opening it up for feedback, be aware that some ideas you’ll get will be great, while others will go straight to the “discard” pile.
Film is one of the most collaborative art forms in existence, and creative people in the industry love exchanging ideas (both good and bad). I’ve seen some really incredible breakthroughs spring out of the notes giving-and-taking process. Maintain an open spirit while honoring the guiding light of your creative vision, and you’ll be in good shape.
So, tell us!
How do you keep your emotions in check while sourcing notes? Have you ever received a note that transformed your script in a good way? What about a note that felt utterly preposterous? The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome points of discussion in the comments section below! We’re all in this together.
Lauren McGrail, with
Want to learn more about notes – and get professional, individualized feedback to your own film projects?