Write it as Art, sell it as baked beans… How to publicise stage shows, movies, books, TV and Shakespeare

Sit back, relax and have a cup of tea.

Throughout my life, whenever I’ve been asked what I do, I have never been able to give any understandable answer because the truth is I’ve really just bummed around doing overlapping this, that and sometimes the other.

One thing I used to do was review and write feature articles about movies, so I saw previews a week or a month before the films were released, having read little or nothing at all about them.

I saw them ‘cold’ as they were structured to be seen.

That blissful ignorance happened again last night with the movie The Adjustment Bureau. I had read nothing at all about it. I knew it starred Matt Damon, was based on a short story by Philip K Dick (who wrote the stories on which Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report were based) and, on the poster, Matt Damon and a girl in a red dress were running away from people chasing them in a city.

That was it.

So last night I saw The Adjustment Bureau cold and thought it was a fascinating film – quite often totally doolally, but fascinating. It is severely weird for a commercial film and it is well worth seeing.

But the poster bears no relation at all to the basic content of the movie – to the extent that it even implies The Adjustment Bureau is in one particular type of movie genre when it is actually a totally different movie genre (I don’t want to give it away).

So that’s an example of a misleading movie poster successfully attempting to get bums on seats. It’s a potentially counter-productive strategy because word-of-mouth soon gets round.

I’m interested because another thing I did – for over twenty plus years – was make on-screen TV promotions – ‘trailers’.

I was a writer or producer or director or writer-producer or writer-director or whatever it took a company’s fancy to call the job.

So I am interested in how creative products are ‘sold’ to the audience.

A couple of days ago, someone asked me about their 40-word show entry for the Edinburgh Fringe Programme.

My advice was the same advice I give on anything creative.

Write it as Art.

Sell it as baked beans.

If the content is high quality in itself, it won’t be demeaned by a tabloid headline type of publicity.

There’s nothing wrong with being populist.

The opposite of popular is unpopular.

The creative work itself is what you want people to read, hear or see. It can be as subtle and/or as sophisticated as you want. Publicity is another matter. Publicity is like someone standing outside, in a busy street, with lots of other audio distractions, yelling through a megaphone to try to get people to notice you and your creation exist.

If it fails, no-one will see what you have struggled to create. So don’t knock it.

If you are in Piccadilly Circus or the High Street in Edinburgh amid 150 other people yelling about what they’ve done, then you need to be loud to be heard and you need to wear bright colours to be seen.

I’ve also written books. In standard publishing contracts, the author gets total control over the text inside a book – the publisher cannot change it without the author’s permission. But the publisher has total contractual control over the design of and text on the cover. There is a reason for this.

What is inside the book is the artistic creation you want people to experience. What is on the cover is advertising and promotion aimed at intriguing potential readers into picking up and buying the book and its unknown content.

Publicity is persuading as many people as possible to buy an invisible pig inside a bag.

In its own way, it is equally creative. But it is different.

Content is a different form of creativity from publicity.

In television, the last thing you want is for a director to make the promotion for his own TV programme. The result is almost always shit. For one thing, he or she is too close to it to be objective. Also, he or she may be able  to make a great 30 or 60 or 90 minute TV programme, but, trust me, he or she knows bugger all about selling a programme to the viewer in 20 seconds in the middle of other promos amid forests of £500,000 adverts for soap powder, cars and insurance companies.

There is a difference between creating something which will give a pastel-wearing theorist at the Arts Council a creative hard-on and creating something which will get people en masse to pay out money and/or spend time to read-hear-watch it.

Repetition is also not always bad.

There is nothing wrong with populism.

The opposite of popular is unpopular.

‘Populist’ is just a word meaning ‘popular’ made up by people who can’t create anything popular themselves and want to save their egos by trying to seem culturally superior.

Shakespeare was never less than populist.

Macbeth was written by Shakespeare because the new English King James I was actually King James VI of Scotland who was interested in witchcraft and the supernatural. So what better way to suck up to the new King and revived public interest in the supernatural than to write a Scottish play with witches and ghosts in it? And bung in death, destruction, gore and swearing.

The best Shakespeare film I have ever seen is Baz Luhrmann‘s movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet – a movie so untraditional and in-yer-face that, the first time you see it, it takes about five minutes to adjust to the OTT style.

The second best Shakespeare film I have ever seen is Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, financed by Playboy magazine, with Lady Macbeth nude in the sleepwalking scene and awash with more blood than the Colosseum on a bad day for Christians. It was the first film Polanski directed after his wife Sharon Tate was butchered.

I’m sure Shakespeare would have loved both movies because they are real audience pleasers. Once you get people in and watching, you can communicate any in-depth piece of philosophical seriousness you want.

Reverting to my chum who wrote 40 words on their Edinburgh Fringe show… The first version was ineffective because it described the plot rather than push the unique selling points of the show.

I asked: “Don’t tell me what’s IN it, tell me what it’s ABOUT.”

You want to say what it is ABOUT – what made you want to create the thing in the first place. And that, in fact, is how to promote bad productions too.

My rule of thumb in TV promotions was never to mislead or lie about a programme to the audience. If it was shit, I tried to figure out what the original concept was that got the producer, director and cast keen to make it.

No-one intends to create a shit book, play, comedy show, TV series, movie or whatever.

In promoting anything, part of what you want to communicate is whatever made the people involved keen to create it in the first place. If the audience can be interested in the concept as much as the failed creators originally were, then you may get an audience and they won’t feel too let down because what they have been told is there actually IS there. Even if it’s not very good.

If the creative product is good – as The Adjustment Bureau is – then that’s even better.

Pity their poster was so misleading.

Of course, some things are so shit, the only thing to do is to get in and get out fast before the word-of-mouth gets round.

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Filed under Ad industry, Books, Comedy, Movies, PR, Television, Theatre

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