By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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