For Publicist Marvin Levy, It's All About Eyeballs A publicist is responsible for making a movie known — in a good way, with any luck. It's a multifaceted job, but what does he or she really do? NPR's Susan Stamberg continues her annual Hollywood Jobs series with a story of one prolific publicist and the director he serves.
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For Publicist Marvin Levy, It's All About Eyeballs

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For Publicist Marvin Levy, It's All About Eyeballs

For Publicist Marvin Levy, It's All About Eyeballs

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Academy Awards are this Sunday. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" has 12 nominations. Now, as you may recall, and earlier Spielberg film, "Schindler's List," will soon be re-released in its 20th anniversary edition. These movies have at least two things in common: one of them is Spielberg, of course. The other is a publicist who's been with the filmmaker for more than three decades. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg continues her series on Hollywood jobs with movie marketer Marvin Levy.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: His office is at DreamWorks Studios, a cactus and palm-lined cocoon on the big Universal lot. It's a fabricated world of adobe buildings that echoes, Arizona where Spielberg grew up.

MARVIN LEVY: This was built after "E.T." Universal wanted to make sure, as a thank you, to Steven for bringing such an enormous hit. And also, they wanted you to make this your home.

STAMBERG: Marvin Levy began doing publicity for Steven Spielberg on the 1977 film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Small and peppy in a blue jacket and jaunty baseball cap, Levy is 80-something, and still going strong. He is the carrier of the mission statement. He upholds Spielberg's vision and keeps the various pitches and promotions consistent. That's the marketer's job - although Mr. Levy has a punchier definition.

LEVY: It's all about eyeballs.

STAMBERG: Getting people to see the film.

LEVY: Whether it's seats in the theaters or it's seats at home. Or these days, they could be standing up with some device in their hand.

STAMBERG: Wherever they're watching, the publicist needs to craft a pitch that will lure audiences to the screen. Not an easy task. And veteran Marvin Levy is a realist. He knows that pitching films is an imprecise science.

LEVY: Some movies are marketed more to what they think, initiall,y the core is, and it turns out it was really something else.

STAMBERG: His example is the 1973 film "Walking Tall." He worked on that campaign at the Cinerama Company.

LEVY: "Walking Tall," is about a Southern sheriff, Buford Pusser. A name not easy to forget.


LEVY: The first ads for that were with guns and real action, you know, he was the fighting sheriff. It opened, it didn't do much. Everybody went back to the drawing board and came up with another campaign. Because we realized that the movie also had a great story - the wife who stood by him - and that part of the movie really resonated.


STAMBERG: A new poster played down the action stuff and emphasized family. It showed Pusser and his wife and just the holster of the sheriff's gun. It worked. The film went back into release and was so successful - especially throughout the South - that theaters had to hold it over for weeks and weeks.


STAMBERG: Some four decades later, Marvin Levy is still tackling pitching problems, this time with Spielberg's big, but challenging, "Lincoln."


STAMBERG: How do you market a movie about a president who lived ages ago, wears funny clothes, is not particularly handsome and is trying to railroad, a really hard-to-understand and not very popular amendment, through the Congress of the United States?

LEVY: You have to say: What are the elements that make it so an audience might want to go see it? They've known Lincoln. It's like part of their life. "But what they really know is very little. So, OK, what is it that you're going to find out that's different? You're going to see a Lincoln they haven't seen before.


STAMBERG: Two decades ago, Steven Spielberg showed audiences a hero they really hadn't seen before: Oskar Schindler.


STAMBERG: It's hard to believe that "Schindler's List" opened 20 years ago but Marvin Levy remembers. He pulls out a tattered folder.

LEVY: Yeah, this is the basic press kit.

STAMBERG: Inside, a lot of black and white photographs.

LEVY: That's right.

STAMBERG: A cast list - Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, little-known then. And the original press release.

LEVY: The hardest thing is usually that first page. What we call the positioning statement.

STAMBERG: Can you read to me that first paragraph of this press release?

LEVY: Oskar Schindler was a man of great talents and even greater contradictions. A born salesman, an inveterate gambler. Like many an enterprising businessman, he joined the Nazi Party to make deals.

STAMBERG: And the next line in the next paragraph is? His conscience gave him little trouble - key words: at first.

LEVY: At first. That draws you in.

STAMBERG: I think, today, it wouldn't take nearly as long to get to the but here's the part you don't know. He was a big businessman, he was a ruthless merchant, he was a Nazi. And yet, he saved X thousand Jews.

LEVY: No. And the reason no, is it would not have been true to the film. That would work for some other movie.

STAMBERG: What's wrong with what I did? Too sensationalistic?

LEVY: Much too in your face. Much too making it like it's another one of those action movies. This is a movie that's about humanity. And you can't get away from it. Once you do, you're putting out the absolutely wrong message.

STAMBERG: Marvin Levy, Mr. Mission Statement, keeping the message consistent. One more question before this movie ends. What's the campaign you didn't get to do that you wish you had?

LEVY: Probably something like "Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia."

STAMBERG: A big epic.

LEVY: Yeah. Or the great big musicals - I mean, to have spent every day on "Singin' in the Rain," with all those people around? I'd have loved every minute of it.


STAMBERG: One thing about Hollywood: You meet a lot of people who are crazy about movies. Marvin Levy, clearly, is one of them. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Movieland.

INSKEEP: And all of Susan's Hollywood job profiles for Movieland are at, including a location scout and key grip. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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