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The Other Side of the Set
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Creating Your (Increasingly Critical) BTS Footage
By Steven Jay Rubin

It’s a line item in your publicity budget – the behind the scenes (BTS) crew. You know you need it because the publicity people tell you so, and you see that footage popping up at the local multiplex, on ET and the Internet. But, you have questions. Is it really important? Do I have to get it now? And just what happens to that footage? Let’s try and answer those questions and explain just how critical BTS footage has become.

Inviting a BTS crew to your film is a tradition that dates back to the days when motion pictures were hand-cranked. However, until the late 1970s, behind the scenes footage was shot almost exclusively for epic "roadshow”- type films such as The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia. The footage was used in brief "Making of…” documentaries, shot on 16 mm, that were rarely seen by the public. Sometimes, if a network movie ran long, the station manager might throw a movie documentary into the gap, because he didn’t have a program that lasted twelve minutes. So if you were an insomniac and you turned on Channel 9 at 3:54 a.m., you might catch six minutes of "making of…” footage on Gregory Peck’s The Big Country.

The emergence of affordable video technology in the late 1970s ushered in the era of the "Electronic Press Kit” (EPK), which was pioneered at Universal Pictures under the stewardship of marketing executives like Marvin Antonowsky and replicated at all the other studios. Instead of slipping an occasional behind the scenes clip to the local station manager, the studios established an organized distribution plan to supply EPKs on ¾” video cassettes to stations in the top 100 markets. A typical EPK would include everything the local station might need to create their own programming feature, including films clips, B-roll and interviews. Pre-produced "making of…” featurettes were also included.

In the 1980s, television stations still had programming gaps to fill on their network movie slots and these EPKs proved useful. Broadcast promotional companies even sprang up to supply the studios with itemized usage reports on where their footage was showing up. However, when network movies began to disappear from broadcast schedules and gaps began to close because every precious second of advertising time needed to be sold, the window for free TV promotion closed.
Still, the value of BTS footage had been cemented with the birth of new and successful syndicated entertainment news programs like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, CNN Showbiz Today and E! Entertainment Channel.

Because of the success of these shows, plus the introduction of the DVD home video format (and now Blue Ray), there is a voracious appetite for "making of…” material. Motion picture publicity departments supply footage to their own studio websites where both trailers and BTS packages are premiered as events; they’re distributed to theater chains where "cine-media” segments entertain audiences prior to show times; and the whole package becomes the special feature template for use upon the DVD and Blue Ray release.” Because of all these venues, BTS packages are more important than ever.
"Depending on the film, we can also create longer pieces for HBO TV specials and sometimes we supply footage to our promotional partners,” explains Austin Barker, Senior Vice President of Broadcast Assets at Universal Pictures. "We really don’t even call them EPKs anymore, it’s all referred to as Content now and BTS is a more appropriate term.”
"The medium has really changed,” says Terry Boggess, Vice President for Promotional Programming at Warner Bros. "There’s an enormous hunger for content particularly on the Web. The public wants to know how things are shot and they want to see the stars in action.”

It helps enormously when the talent cooperates. Audiences took notice a decade ago when actor Mel Gibson picked up a video camera on one of the Lethal Weapon films and started filming his co-workers. Getting the talent to have fun with the behind the scenes process can prove invaluable to the marketing campaign – particularly on comedies and epic historical films.

"We had great cooperation with director Zach Snyder on 300,” explains Boggess. "People weren’t familiar with the challenges of filming in front of a green screen and Zach helped us develop weekly video journals that showed how the actors trained and how the film would eventually look. He even narrated the footage.”

"Matt Damon was terrific on The Bourne Ultimatum,” says Universal’s Barker. "He would actually ask "Where’s the behind the scenes camera?” and he would interact with the BTS crew every day.”

Barker further explains that the growth of DVD hastened the formation of a broadcast assets department that was responsible for developing the BTS materials on all Universal films.

"It took awhile for filmmakers to see the value of BTS,” Barker explains. "But when they started to see the footage online, they began to see how it helped sell the film. It started with support from the directors and producers and eventually trickled down to the cast and crew. There are still actors who loath behind the scenes coverage, but they’re exceptions.”
"There used to be different crews for BTS coverage, for home video coverage, for specialty shooting, now we have one company handle everything, " explains Warners’ Boggess. "You want the cast and crew to be comfortable with your crew so that there’s trust, that they know when to drop the camera and move back. On some of the larger shows, it’s not uncommon for a crew to come out 20-30 times.”

Barker likens the BTS crew to the film set’s resident still photographer. He says, "You want the interaction, that comfort level with the cast and filmmaker. You get a lot better coverage that way.”

How can a producer grease the wheels and make the BTS visit more effective. Here are ten quick guidelines:

  1. Get the BTS team involved early. Ideally, bring the BTS producer to the initial production meeting of all the key departments. During that meeting, the BTS producer can begin to see which shooting days are critical. He or She can also establish themselves as crew members.
  2. Keep the Talent and crew informed. Always put a BTS visit on the call sheet. Problems occur when talent and crew are unaware of a visit. If you have a unit publicist on salary, it is their responsibility to arrange every detail of a BTS visit. 
  3. Avoid visits on days when you’re shooting on tight interior sets. There’s just no way to squeeze a BTS crew into a small room. The only exception is a day that features a star cameo and it’s the only day that star is working. Otherwise, keep in mind that BTS crews need room to breathe. 
  4. Keep your first assistant director happy. First ADs rule the set and a BTS crew that doesn’t work closely with the first is an accident waiting to happen. This is particularly important when determining windows for interview times. 
  5. Maintain a communication link with studio publicity departments. Your desire to provide cooperation for a BTS visit will be immediately appreciated. 
  6. Unless unavoidable, schedule interviews towards the end of a motion picture shooting schedule when talent and key behind the scenes crew have better stories to tell.
  7. If you don’t have the luxury of a BTS crew all the time, designate someone on your staff who can handle a high-def pro-sumer camera to get some footage on days when BTS is unavailable.
  8. Avoid interview questions that begin with "How did you like working with…?” Yawn…yawn…yawn. Focus on specific scenes, preparation, execution and interaction. This will be particularly handy when featurette programs are created for the DVD special feature package. 
  9. Empower directors of photography, production designers, stunt coordinators, special FX coordinators and costume designers by getting them involved. Often their BTS stories are the most intriguing. 
  10. Be available and pro-active on the set. If BTS isn’t getting their footage, your First AD is having a tough day and the talent is grumpy, gauge what you can do. If you have to send the crew home, do it. Otherwise, figure out a way to make their day.

Steven Jay Rubin has produced BTS and DVD special feature packages for MGM, 20th Century Fox, New Line and Sony. In 2004, he was nominated for Best Classic Commentary by the DVD Exclusive Academy for his work on "The Great Escape.”