Advice from BAFTA winner Kevin Loader: Publicity Mistakes to Avoid as a Producer

BAFTA-winning British producer and director Kevin Loader sat down over a virtual coffee with Nicola during the monthly Stills Soiree as part of the Unit Stills Directory. 

Kevin is one of the UK’s most experienced producers. His long list of credits include Death of Stalin, Elizabeth, Nowhere Boy, The Lady In The Van and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (and photographed by the directory member David Gennard).

Kevin spoke about publicity mistakes producers tend to make in relation to unit stills that can jeopardise the success of a film, and what to do to avoid that. He also shared valuable insight on the ‘first look’ still and why it’s so vital for a film’s journey.

Make or break your film: the ‘First Look’ Still

After all those years of writing, development and pre-production a film’s first impression boils down to, as its name suggests, the first look still. But what are the elements that make up a first look still and why is it so crucial?

Kevin deconstructs this key question, “the so-called ‘first look’ is really just the first still that is released … And once that is out there, that image tends to be the image that is representing the film for quite a long time, ironically.”

“Any film is sold on its visuals to a large extent.”

Still from Loulou (credit: Federico Imperiale)

Announcing your film to the world

If you trace through the timeline of a film’s marketing campaign, it’s very common for the first look to be released as a way of announcing to the world that your film is shooting. So it’s often a still that’s been shot in the first few weeks of the film, meaning it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole film, but it is a key moment. “You may have had a ‘Day One’ [of filming] press release come out, but that will just be a dry press release full of people saying platitudes in quotation marks,” says Kevin. Most of the time, the first look becomes the thing that represents the film for the early part of its life. So they’re quite hard to pick, and often much debated amongst the stakeholders, the producers and the director.

The ‘business card’ of a film

“There comes a moment when Screen International or Deadline or Variety will all fight to have the first look, as it is incredibly crucial in the journey of a film. That first look still has to capture the flavour of the film, show the look of the leading actor or actors and give a clue to the aesthetic of the film, without necessarily telling the story of the film. But it must relate to the story of the film in a way in which everyone can understand. 

Key film publicity mistakes to avoid as a producer
Still from The Devil’s Hour (credit: Matt Towers)

Key publicity mistakes producers can make:

#1 Not hiring a unit stills photographer at all

Whether the film is a low-budget indie, or a Hollywood blockbuster, stills are an essential part of its journey. “Producers who are starting out often don’t appreciate what having a great set of images will give them in the bigger picture,” says Nicola. 

Without a stills photographer, not only will the film have very little material to market with, which is a big problem in the short term, there is also no record of the film being made, something that is important down the line, especially if your film goes on to do well! 

Producers that think simply using screen grabs make a good a substitute for high quality stills from a photographer on set, are making a grave error. There are many reasons why, both technical and creative. 

#2 Not facilitating good access for the photographer

To create the best possible images, a stills photographer needs to have access. A great producer will introduce a photographer to the key cast and crew upon arrival, so they get off to a good start, and then back them up if they are having trouble getting access to scenes or actors.

Make sure the photographer has access to the script, the call sheets, the sides, and any actor read throughs, so that they can understand the story, the characters and therefore be aware for the best storytelling moments on set. 

When there are reluctant actors in regards to stills, it’s helpful if the producer is able to support the photographer. “Some actors get it and a lot of actors don’t get it. And often it’s the producer’s job to try and cajole and sweet talk those actors into making it a priority when they don’t want to,” says Kevin. “Sometimes the more ‘serious’ method-y actors don’t want to do it. It’s a negotiation.”

Key film publicity mistakes to avoid as a producer
Still from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (credit: David Gennard)

#3 Not prioritising connecting your film to the world

A great cast and crew know the importance of the role of unit stills on set. However, when that isn’t always the case, it can be a barrier for photographers to get their job done. By default, a stills photographer is in the way of the cast and crew doing their jobs, and some may see it as wasting the already limited precious seconds of time.

“Without that thing that connects the film to the world you might as well all go home.”

“Nobody really wants to prioritise the needs of the machine which is trying to connect this film to the world. They’re in their moment, they’re just making the film and that seems to be the only thing that’s important. And it’s not true. Without that thing that connects the film to the world you might as well all go home. So a lot of producers don’t understand that you have to do that.”

#4 Avoiding discussing stills in advance with all stakeholders

Kevin explains how a large part of what producers have to do on set is anticipate those high-stress moments and liaise with the publicity, the marketing and the distribution machine early enough that you all know what you’re trying to get out of this shoot. “If everybody talks about it in advance, then you know what you need. And you absolutely have to go into the shoot with all your stakeholders knowing what you need,” he says. “Whether it’s a first look still, a specials shoot, or everybody going through the script and going ‘we really need that shot of X and Y when this happens. We definitely need that scene covered by the stills photographer.’”

Key film publicity mistakes to avoid as a producer
Still from Dangerous Liaisons (credit: Martin Mlaka)
Behind the scenes image from Seraphim (credit: Ben Wilson)

#5 Not thinking out of the box

It’s not uncommon to see ‘no unauthorised video or photography on set’ signs plastered around studios, particularly when it comes to high-budget or highly-anticipated productions. “The biggest challenge, mostly with social media, is stopping leaks from the set,” says Kevin. “But you have to think the other way as well. Actually, what we’ve done on the last few films is to encourage everyone to take pictures of the crew on their phones and upload them to a particular site … So then when we get to the end of filming, we’ve got many different perspectives of the shoot, not just the still photographer’s. Sometimes that stuff is really great for social media because it feels candid and authored.”

Bonus: Where can I find a good stills photographer?

If you’re not sure where to find the stills photographer that suits the needs of your next production, have a look at the Unit Stills Directory. It only features accredited stills photographers, with various experience levels and specialism. You can search stills photographers based on location, project type and credit. You can also see whether they are part of the Union. 

The directory also serves as a community for stills photographers who become members.  Launched by photographer Nicola Dove, the directory aims to celebrate the next generation of emerging photographers, as well as expanding horizons for established ones. During the monthly Stills Soirees, industry professionals host online talks and Q&A sessions for the directory members as a way to educate, inspire and elevate the craft of unit stills photography. Become a member to watch the full replay of the Kevin Loader Stills Soiree. 

Some quotes have been altered for brevity and clarity purposes.

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