Tales from the Red Carpet

Local 600 publicists put on their dancing shoes for some fancy Awards Season moves

It’s all about fashion and fantasy, sound bites and social networking. It’s got to look easy. But even when planned down to the smallest detail, wrangling a red carpet event takes a special kind of Guild publicist. Now that we are deep into Awards Season, we thought it high time track down those intrepid behind-the-scenes personalities to find out what it takes – besides the obvious cool head, strong sense of self, and generous heart – to work a red carpet event. And, to clarify, there are two main kinds of “red carpet” events – Awards Show and Premieres – both with similar goals: selling projects and Hollywood’s bigger-than-life personalities.

The SAG Awards is one of the toughest jobs for a publicist to handle. But, Rosalind Jarrett Sepulveda, Executive in Charge of Publicity for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, makes it look (almost) easy, because of pre-event planning.

“There is a little more pressure on the set up for us than, say, the Oscars,” Jarrett Sepulveda admits. “We set up the red carpet at the Shrine one day ahead, while the Oscars might get a week. So, we have to plan for contingencies.”

Jarrett Sepulveda says physical consideration of space is important, as are road closures and fire lanes. “That impacts where the limos drop off, where the people enter the building, where you put the fans and the media. Another important factor to consider is where the sun is, not only for the media but also for the stars.”

Action on the “red carpet” at the SAG Awards / Courtesy of Screen Actors Awards

Positioning is challenging at the SAG Awards – 16 years ago the decision was made to place some of the key national media representatives on platform positions, instead of in bleachers. Next there is the first of two media lines for outlets who don’t have platforms – television, online, radio and print.

“Events will often put photographers in bleachers,” Jarrett Sepulveda continues. “Doing that enables us to compress the shooters into a shorter, linear space on different levels. Of course, there is always jockeying for position, even in these spaces. The configuration of the Shrine means we have a sharp right turn after the initial interview line and photographers, and another whole line of media – television, online, radio, etc., as they go into the building.”

What about those all-important stars? “Everyone walks the same carpet, they are just split into two areas,” Jarrett Sepulveda adds. “Those who are being interviewed, and those attending. The trick is to move people in front of the photographers and don’t back up the carpet, but also move the throng slowly enough so the photographers can get what they need. It takes a lot of people.”

In fact, the PR team for the show includes spotters who watch for the limousines, people at the limo doors, people who are directing the guests as they arrive at the security tent, people with the publicists waiting to intercept their clients and walk the red carpet with them, and a whole lot more. Thanks to digital technology, some aspects have become easier – media are now credentialed on the sagawards.org website, with a team of publicists sifting through online applications. Factors on who is credentialed include the event’s capacity for media and the reach of the outlet.

Rosalind Jarrett Sepulveda, Executive in Charge of Publicity, SAG Awards / Courtesy of Screen Actors Awards

As for placement, Jarrett Sepulveda says “media must be in their positions by 2 p.m., ready to do pre-interviews with SAG Awards Committee Chair/SAG Foundation President Jo Beth Williams as well as other producers of the show, while publicists walk the carpet to advance their clients. The carpet is opened with a Taittinger Champagne toast one hour later, at 3 p.m., and then the parade begins.”

The digital age allows many outlets and the SAG Awards staff to start posting to social media links for the live event right away. “This is a little different from a premiere because it goes out live,” Jarrett Sepulveda adds. “There is also a lot of pressure for the director, who is cutting the arrivals tape as quickly as possible to open the telecast.

“We also take a special approach to filling the seats for our on-site audience,” she shares. “We auction off seats before Christmas, and then in early January, we kick off a dedicated auction just for bleacher seats. Everything we raise benefits the SAG Foundation.”

That’s a lot on the shoulders of any publicist helming these live events. How does Jarrett Sepulveda handle it all? “The key is incredible teamwork – a good staff along the carpet, handing each specific position,” she says. “One of the things that makes this event less stressful, at least in one area, is the stars love to come out for this show. We never have to worry about who is going to show up.”

Red carpet “Premieres” cover a much bigger swath than awards shows: concerts, family events, high fashion, and even live stunts. Hollace Davids, Senior Vice President, Special Projects for NBC/Universal says,  “flashy expensive events are becoming endangered as budgets are reduced and business models change.” So, if an event is planned, it better generate enough buzz to warrant the expense. Usually, it’s a team at the studio, or an independent publicity company that has been with the production.

Each set up is different, and all are venue- dependent. In Los Angeles, planners have large spaces like the TCL Chinese Theater and ArcLight in Hollywood, or the Village in Westwood. Veterans say it is possible to shut down Hollywood Boulevard between Orange Dr. and Highland Avenue, if the carpet is that big. In New York, the space outside venues tends to be smaller, which impacts how many people can be put on the carpet and how much space there is for a photography pen; New York events often have an “A-pen” and a “B-pen.”

In London, events can happen in Leicester Square, which is massive. “It’s a big deal,” Davids observes. “But, big theaters are going away. The Chinese [in Hollywood] has been renovated into an IMAX from a capacity of 1,200 to 900; in New York, larger houses are not as plentiful as they were, so that usually means smaller events.” All of which impacts press coverage. “Sometimes you can be limited to one staff photographer or videographer crew and other times it’s hundreds of crews and photographers,” she describes. “Either way, we try to create environments that are easy access for both the talent and the media.”

Speaking of which, the media pecking order has been established for a while, although social media and Web blogging has shaken things up. The big four outlets for premieres remain: ET, Access Hollywood, Extra and E!, which are usually provided with platforms for franchise movie premieres. Next up [in Los Angeles] are local TV reporters, like George Pennacchio and Sam Rubin. “Social media reporters and bloggers have to be vetted, to make sure they are real,” Davids notes.

Hollace Davids, Senior Vice President, Special Projects for NBC/Universal, at the Hollywood Boulevard premiere of Bruno / Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Hollace Davids, Senior Vice President, Special Projects for NBC/Universal, at the Hollywood Boulevard premiere of Bruno

Experienced producers and actors sometimes supply their own teams, who also have to be vetted. Tom Cruise not only does the whole carpet, but he has his own crew that shoots and feeds for his own social media outlets. Stars on Twitter even have their own “tweet crews” to help generate buzz. Premiere publicity departments often go into partnership with on-line sources such as Yahoo! to stream the events live.

Unlike awards shows, finding ways to get people to actual red carpet is a big deal. “When we did Oblivion, we had set pieces and vehicles at the site and we even had the Oblivion experience where people could come and experience it,” Davids recounts. “It was incorporated into the red carpet and simulcast all over the world.

“For Despicable Me 2, we had a family event that ended in the premiere at the Universal Amphitheater,” she continues. “We had ‘minions’ working a bright yellow carpet, the Despicable blimp, big costumes, a premiere at 2 PM and an after-party.”

Logistics for the Despicable Me 2 premiere [the film went on to gross nearly one billion dollars worldwide] involved sending out invites, vetting the press through the studio, deciding who would cover and where they would be, and several staff photographers with a crew to service outlets that couldn’t be placed.

Hollace Davids at the Despicable Me 2 premiere at the Universal Amphitheater, Los Angeles, CA / Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Premiere events can border on the outrageous, and the studios bank on the draw. “For King Kong, we took over 42nd Street and had a life-sized statue, 8,000 people and a huge party on the pier,” Davids reflects. “But, the most outrageous was Fast and Furious in Rio. It’s always a challenge out of the country with people and vendors that aren’t familiar with this kind of event and we have to use local people with different standards and ways of doing business.”

Even when everything comes together, the industry (and life) can still throw curveballs. “We’d set up this big premiere for Bruno, the day Michael Jackson died,” Davids remembers. “And we had a big sing-along scheduled for Les Misérables, the night of Sandy Hook. Premieres are not for everyone,” she concludes.  “You need to be flexible, resourceful, even tempered, and able to handle a lot of stress!”

Walking the red carpet is another area of publicity that may be just as vital as setting up the event. Stan Rosenfield, president of personal publicity firm Stan Rosenfield & Associates, views red carpet events from a different perspective.

“I compare them to a Farmer’s Market, where you see incredible spreads of food but very little makes it to your table,” Rosenfield explains. “With the exception of live TV coverage of the SAG Awards and Oscars, 98 percent of what happens never gets used.”

Still, stars and their publicists have to be prepared for those moments that might make it to the screen. “That means no chewing gum on the red carpet,” Rosenfield laughs, remembering the time he caught himself on camera and learned a vital lesson.

Stan Rosenfield with Helen Mirren on the red carpet at the Academy Awards / Courtesy of Stan Rosenfield

Rosenfield, who represents Oscar winners George Clooney, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford, reminds his clients that red carpet events are all about flash bites; the press might talk to 30 people but use only three. “If you want to talk for 15 minutes, be aware the most that is used is 10 seconds,” he advises. So don’t go back to and ask, “why did they use that when I was there to promote this?”

Typically, Rosenfield and other personal publicists like him, walk the red carpet (hopefully out of the line of the lens). They are constantly prodding their clients to be aware of the questions being asked to avoid embarrassing pitfalls.

“I remember a red carpet years ago when there was a rumor that Brad Pitt was getting married at George Clooney’s place in Italy,” Rosenfield recalls. “One persistent reporter cornered him on the red carpet and said:  ‘I was told there is going to be a wedding at your place….’. George didn’t let him finish. He turned the tables on the reporter. ‘Who told you that?’ I hope all my clients are as sharp as George. It makes the job easier.”

When possible, Rosenfield says he tries to scope out the best spots before the event. His best friend is the Academy Awards, where there is a run-through. “We know where the photo banks are and the interview stations. There is also help from the event publicist. There’s nothing more degrading to a performer to wait in line to be interviewed.”

Stan Rosenfield with George Clooney at the Oscars / Courtesy of Stan Rosenfield

There are other little tricks red carpet veterans like Rosenfield have learned over the years. “If you have someone that is the fourth lead in the project, get them there early, because if they arrive late and the crunch begins, the outlets won’t talk to them, even though the actors know not everything is being used,” he offers.

Rosenfield is famous for his light elbow tap, signaling the client it’s time to move on. He also teaches his clients the “walk and wave.” “They learn to walk slowly, answer the shouted out questions, and move on,” he describes. “It’s just as much exposure if you stand for everyone and then move to the next.”

He admits to having compassion for both sides of the red carpet. “Stars have the pressure of having to promote themselves and their projects. They are deeply invested in creating the buzz. And, sometimes, they just aren’t covered when they should be.

“I also feel bad for the journalists,” he adds. “Like the talent, they are just doing their jobs. But they are sometimes given bad positions on the carpet. They should all have equal access but it’s something that happens in the credentialing process.”

At the end of the night, Rosenfield concludes, “we all have to go with the flow [literally] to get our points across, and get off the carpet. You just hope a little bit of what was said or shot helps set off the buzz the event was designed for.”

 By Pauline Rogers