Who doesn’t want a famous face attached to their documentary project or impact campaign especially when that face belongs to someone on screens small, medium, and large, nationally and globally.
Television and film celebrities have been the connectors for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in the television adaptations of their books Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, and the more recent A Path Appears. A PATH APPEARS, the 3-part television series, premiered on the PBS series Independent Lens this Monday, January 26 (through February 9). A PATH APPEARS is one example of using celebrity to lift stories of women and girls living in poverty, were forced into prostitution and the innovative programs that have evolved to achieve results in empowering their lives. (Learn more at pbs.org/independentlens/path-appears)
This month while presenting a preview from A PATH APPEARS to staffers from several organizations, someone asked “How does a documentary (appearances, narration) or campaign benefit from having a celebrity attached to it?”
There are many stories focusing on remarkable people who are not famous but struggling or striving under extraordinary circumstances. But it’s been proven that a celebrity can lift the story higher by bringing it to the attentions of a larger audience, the press, even policy makers for making change.
Having worked in programming and engagement, I can’t help but notice the celebrity impact in documentary, performance projects, events, and campaigns. Here are some of my observations of the benefits, and a few suggested approaches for bringing a celebrity into your story.
THE BENEFITS —
A CELEBRITY CAN BRING A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Participation by a famous person with a roster of accomplishments is a vote of confidence for your story in the assessments of sponsors, institutional partners, and funders. A celebrity can attract the attentions of a wider audience, giving your story greater potential for impact. There’s a win-win for everyone involved.
A CELEBRITY CAN BE A BRIDGE BETWEEN YOUR STORY AND THE RELUCTANT AUDIENCE
A celebrity can be the bridge between your story and the reluctant audience. Many could be a celebrity’s loyal fans as well as curious on-lookers. This audience will instantly recognize the face or voice of your celebrity guide/talent. This audience may be receiving the story or message for the first time. The celebrity guides in A PATH APPEARS attract viewers who recognize the familiar face. The guides lead them into a deeper understanding of the story and the issues that demand our attentions.
A CELEBRITY CAN BUMP UP YOUR PROMOTION STRATEGY
A celebrity brings her/his “followers,” “friends,” and fans to your story. Check social media boards, and you’ll get an idea of how many people your story and message can reach by having the participation of an admired famous face.
Eva Longoria has 7.1 million followers on Twitter.
Alfre Woodard’s Tweet for A PATH APPEARS to her over 15K followers:
— Alfre Woodard (@AlfreWoodard) January 27, 2015
INITIATING THE CONVERSATION
This can be the most challenging part of the process.
BEFORE YOU ASK, HAVE A CLEAR MESSAGE, A PLAN, IMPACT GOALS
Before clicking “send” or making your first call, be sure your story has a clear message, a plan, impact goals, and how you want a celebrity to be involved. You and the celebrity have no time for guess work. Have a budget, backgrounds on key personnel, organizations, fundraising, and promotion plans in your packet. Questions about these items always come up in your initial meetings.
KNOW WHAT TOUCHES HER/HIS HEART AND MIND
Jennifer Garner is on the Board of Trustees for Save the Children. Garner makes no secret about her passion for transforming children’s lives. Garner is a mother. Her mother was a teacher.
Know what touches a celebrity’s heart, mind and soul . You shouldn’t have to do a hard sell to get a celebrity to participate in telling your story. That takes too much time and energy. Do your research. Type her/his name into a search engine to find out what causes and organizations she/he champions with time, voice, and philanthropy. You are looking for the best match to lift your story, not the most popular personality. Even if you have a Hollywood budget, no amount of money can buy the genuineness you’re seeking.
Is there a local attachment? Ancestral? Birthplace? College? First job? Current residence?
Jennifer Garner is an example of “thinking local” for the A PATH APPEARS series. Garner grew up in West Virginia. In A Path Appears she returns to West Virginia with Nicholas Kristof.
I’ve noticed Baltimore, MD is a place that can count on their homegrown and home- based talent to make appearances and contributions for the good of the city: Filmmakers/writers John Waters, Barry Levinson, David Simon, actor Josh Charles (“The Good Wife”). Sports celebrities also form attachments to the home field. Some start philanthropic organizations in communities where they enjoyed the most exciting part of their careers. Print and broadcast journalists, television and radio hosts are also recognizable figures in their markets and are often involved in making communities stronger.
I prefer a personal introduction or reference, but it’s not always available. Even with a personal connection, eventually, I have to work with the celebrity’s team. These are the people who make sure their client meets her/his obligations and won’t miss out on a great opportunity. Your first point of contact may be the publicist. That’s the person who handles the visibility or publicity for a celebrity, company, or product.
BE SURE YOU’RE STANDING ON SOLID GROUND
Be sure you, your organization, company is on solid ground in its capacity, mission, vision, and organization. You are asking someone to attach their name to something that should be mutually beneficial. It’s also a two-way collaboration that should produce only the best outcomes.
WHAT IF THE ANSWER IS “NO”?
“Get the ‘No’” was the best advice a filmmaker passed on to me. Of course you want the solid “Yes,” but if the clock is running out, get the “No.” Famous people, especially in the entertainment field, are asked to do many things, be many places, meet many people while simultaneously meeting their personal and professional obligations. A “maybe” can prolong your agony. The “No” frees you and your story to move forward. You might find that a plan B or C was a plan A all along.
Many stories have been told successfully without a single famous face attached. A celebrity isn’t required, but their support can help. It also generates a certain excitement for your team and other supporters. If you’re clear about your purpose and goals, and well prepared, you can attract the best match and make a meaningful connection.
Just never forget, the real star of any project or campaign is the story.