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The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO


SEPTEMBER 2005. It took so long for spring to come and now we’re heading into fall. Where has the time gone? I want summer to last longer than it does. Periiod. Is that asking too much? But this is New England, so maybe not. Well, let’s hope we have a protracted Indian summer where I don’t have to turn on the heat until December. ....Yeah, I’m living a fantasy.

One thing that was not a fantasy was an individual I had the pleasure to meet and work with this summer. His name is Scott Levine and he’s been a great mentor to our film festival, helping several interns learn the ins and outs of working with the media and understanding the nature of celebrity and the industry itself.

I learned a lot from him myself and that's what I'd like to share this month.

GTM: After working more than two decades for the publicity departments of Twentieth Century Fox and Universal Pictures, what brought you to Providence?

Scott Levine: A long time ago I was told by someone that every decade or so an individual should re-imagine himself and his work, even if he’s been enjoying it. Shake things up. I waited a very long time before I took that advice. And by then I wasn’t having a lot of fun. I’d wanted to give up the full-time pleasing of publicity work as well as the pressures that came from increasingly corporate control of show business.

My partner and I also became weary of the over-stimulation of living in New York City. After I left Universal in ‘03, we lived for a year or so on the Cape. Providence appeared to be a little city with a good location and great culture and work opportunities, including theatre (in Provincetown I started to act in plays again--something I’d given up many years ago). Also, like many people my age, I have a father whose declining health required that we be nearby.

GTM: Tell our readers a bit about yourself. When did you first become
interested in film? What is your educational background?

Scott Levine: As a kid I would go to the Saturday Matinee at the local movie theatres in our neighborhood in Philadelphia almost every weekend--movies like Teenagers from Outer Space, Giant from the Unknown, Time Machine, Dog of Flanders. And I remember being taken by my grandmother to Radio City Music Hall for the first time to see, or all things, Never So Few, a WWII drama starring Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida and Steve McQueen. I loved it. When I was young I spent a lot of time in front of the TV not realizing what a good education in American film I was getting. I’d go see movies at theatres all the time. At Colby College I programmed films from the Depression as an Independent Study project.

GTM: How did you land your first job in the industry?

Scott Levine: After college I went to graduate school at NYU. In Cinema Studies. My enthusiasm for American movies was broadened to include foreign and experimental films and filmmakers and I became familiar with notions of aesthetics and narrative theory. I was lucky to get a job as a secretary in the Cinema Studies Department, an opportunity that moved me deeper into the academic film world. Now, years later, one of my current plans is to teach film.

My first professional job was as Assistant Director of the Film Center at the Art Institute of Chicago where I programmed, publicized and edited & wrote notes and publications. I worked with people like Bertolucci, Wenders and Herzog as they traveled the US promoting their work. The greatest opportunity I had was to program and edit a catalog for a Festival called “The Actress on Film.”


One of our guests was Sylvia Sidney. She was the first star I had “on tour”. Back in the ‘30s she was one of the biggest actresses at Paramount. She co-starred with Grant, Cooper and Tracy and was directed by Hitchcock and Lang (and much later by Wenders and Tim Burton). She was a very demanding and far from soft-spoken lady. Through my earnest if at times clumsy attempts to please we somehow connected and before her death in the late 90s, we would get together periodically. Yet at the time the pressure surrounding her three days in Chicago gave me diarrhea. Makes you wonder why I’d ever want to be responsible for the travel, comfort and press schedules of a celebrity again.

GTM: You worked for Twentieth Century Fox. Tell us about the job and some
of its challenges.

Scott Levine: After my years at the Art Institute I was offered a job as Assistant Publicity/Promotion Manager. I worked for a great guy named Larry Dieckaus who’d learned from the old-time studio showmen. He showed me that while the work would be demanding and life-consuming it could also be fun and, more important, that you could be successful and manage to maintain your integrity. We worked in the Twentieth Century Fox branch sales office on Wacker Drive and were responsible for publicity/promotion activities in the Midwest. Most major cities, even places like Minneapolis and Des Moines, had sales offices in those days. Nowadays, because theatres are owned by less than a handful of chains and the business of tracking prints and billing customers has been streamlined by computers, even the studios Chicago and Dallas offices are now closed.

GTM: Tell us what a typical marketing campaign was like for a major
feature film when you first began with the company.

Scott Levine: I initially worked in a field office, which was where regional promotions were generated, as well as word-of-mouth screenings, stunts and screenings for local critics and press tours.

We started screening a film like My Cousin Vinnie a couple of months before it opened, inviting “opinion makers“: people like beauticians. At first screenings would be barely filled, but in a few weeks they’d be packed; good word-of-mouth buzz had started to spread about a film nobody knew anything about starring people they’d never heard of.

Years ago, directors and actors would travel to cities for local media tours. In the ‘80s press junkets became the fashion. Press from throughout the country and Canada would be imported to a grand hotel in New York, LA or sometimes a city like New Orleans or Seattle if the location was connected with where a film was shot or set (or if the film was showing in a film festival like Toronto). On a Saturday morning, reporters would go from a buffet breakfast to the hotel ballroom where they would sit at round tables and interview the actors, directors and sometimes producers and writers; every half-hour the principal would move to the next table. Journalists representing newspapers with especially big circulations would get one-on-one time alone with a star in the afternoon. The next day TV reporters would interview the principals in little shooting sets constructed in hotel rooms. The actor or director would stay put under the lights and the journalists would come in. They’d be introduced, “this is so-and-so from Atlanta…” At one time junkets were special. Only big films were given the junket treatment. But eventually they became the standard and it is now usual for more than one studio to have a junket in a particular city just about every weekend. When I became the NY Fox Field Manager, it was my job to oversee the NY-based junket. I also supervised premieres.

GTM: How did the publicity work change over the years?

Scott Levine: As I said, publicity and promotion became more rote, less special. And as advertising budgets began to increase exponentially and films began to play on hundreds of more screens, it became impossible to nurture a relatively weak opening. A film’s fate is now sealed on the Friday night it opens when the sales people at the studios get grosses called into them and employ a template to predict with eerie precision what a film will make opening weekend.

GTM: With films having such a short display window today, i.e., making quick money in a few weeks over thousands of venues, how has that changed the level and requirements of public relations and marketing within the industry?

Scott Levine: It’s helped make things feel desperate and mechanical.

GTM Working with celebrities can either be brutal or pleasant. Can you share some stories with our readers? Changing the names of course to protect the guilty?

Scott Levine: I always enjoyed working with people affiliated with the movies I was promoting, maybe in part because I was always a little star-struck. Traveling on tour with an actor or director was often a genuine bonding experience--but you never mistook the connection for friendship (how often did an actor who‘d told you very personal things fail to realize that he’d even met you six months later). Most big stars are professional who show up and do their jobs. Well, actually, some often need very heavy prodding to get them up in the morning. And a few have to be convinced not to walk out in the middle of a junket. Some don’t suffer fools gladly. Certainly a few are prima donnas who seem to get special pleasure having you or a limo driver or hotel manager jump through hoops.

GTM: Is there any one event or project you undertook that still remains with you as significant and memorable?

Scott Levine: A few things--overseeing the world premiere of Aliens at Radio City Music Hall. Securing simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers for Independence Day. And being the initial studio contact with the real John and Alicia Nash when I was at Universal and we were promoting A Beautiful Mind.

GTM: There seems to be a downturn in the domestic box office. Is this cyclical or an indication of the future? Or are the films really not that good?

Scott Levine: I don’t know. I think there are some good movies being made, but many seem to be mechanical retreads put together by studios that are no longer independent creative or business entities. They all have to justify the films and box-office returns to large mega-corporation parents.

GTM: What advice would you give to a young filmmaker attempting to break into the business on how to approach the so-called majors in receiving either support, distribution, or that proverbial career break?

Scott Levine: It’s harder and harder to get your work seen. The big studios aren’t all that interested in young untested people. They can’t afford to be. But the smaller distribution companies are eager for films and talent. Show your films at festivals. A spot at Sundance would certainly be great, wouldn’t it?

GTM: Truth time: tell us about some of your favorite films and actors.

Scott Levine: Classic American films (those directed by people like Sturges, Wilder, Sirk) and actors--Dorothy Malone, Gloria Grahame, Robert Mitchum, Margaret Sullavan, Cary Grant, Stanwyck, Lombard, Monroe, Tuesday Weld. I love Louise Brooks and Julie Christie (I have a collection of Julie Christie movie-tie-in paperbacks). Other filmmakers I like are Antonioni, Jacques Rivette, Jean Renoir. L’Atalante, directed by Jean Vigo, Badlands directed by Terrence Malick and Two For The Road, directed by Stanley Donen are favorites. In recent years I’ve liked Lost in Translation and About a Boy. Have you seen Wet Hot American Summer?


About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and is currently completing the multi-media components for a museum exhibit saluting American veterans in Woonsocket, RI. He can be reached at <flicksart@aol.com>