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The Accidental Publicist

A prince among independent film publicists, Mickey Cottrell was the first and most persevering of my callers when I took over as film editor at the L.A. Weekly in 1989. “El-la, bee-yootiful El-la,” he sang into my voice mail in his arch, ambiguously patrician countertenor. “It’s Mickey Cottrel-la,” and I knew I was in for a mega-pitch on behalf of some outlaw filmmaker with no publicity budget and a potential audience of 20. Mickey — he’s just not the kind of guy you call by his last name — practices a kind of above-the-fray camp courtliness that subtly lets you know he has the fix on your taste, and just as subtly wheedles more column inches out of you than you’d normally allot to the brainy esoterica he represents. (He also belongs to that small band of publicists who let you know when a film sucks without actually saying so.) Mercifully, Mickey’s own taste is both catholic and, nine times out of 10, immaculate. In his time, he has banged the drum for Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, David Gordon Green’s George Washington, and, most recently, critical favorites with audiences as diverse as Tarnation, Funny Ha Ha, Ballets Russes and Down to the Bone. One of his proudest accomplishments is rescuing Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American from the straight-to-video bin, into which Harvey Weinstein, in the wake of 9/11, was about to dump it because its protagonist, played by Brendan Fraser, was an American terrorist. With co-star Michael Caine, who plays the film’s jaded British reporter, Mickey went to work at the Toronto Film Festival building buzz and persuading critics to talk up the movie to Weinstein. Told by Miramax’s Mark Gill that Harvey was bitching about his manipulating the press (a case of pot and kettle if ever there was), Mickey took it as a compliment and threatened to send Harvey a dozen long-stemmed white roses. Next thing he knew, Caine was nominated for an Academy Award.

Most local critics know that Mickey acts on the side — his most famous bit part, which he wrote himself, was as a cheerily slimy john to River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, and he also guest-starred opposite Famke Janssen in the Star Trek: Voyager television series. But few know that he was also a monk. “I was a hippie activist in the late 1960s,” he says. “And by 1969, it was clear that we had lost the revolution. I got very pissed off at America, and vowed to leave.” At the invitation of Tyrone Guthrie, with whom he’d acted for two years in Minneapolis, Mickey moved to London. When he arrived, the papers were full of obituaries for Guthrie (“So that was not good news”), and he embarked on “a year of debauchery on the Continent,” after which he signed up with the 13-year-old Maharaji, then in vogue, and spent 10 years following him around various American ashrams. Arriving in L.A. to work at the Loyola Movie Palace, which the guru then owned, Mickey set about transforming the theater into a revival house. He called local critics like Kevin Thomas, Peter Rainer, Kenny Turan, and the Weekly’s F.X. Feeney and Michael Ventura. “They all took me out to lunch and poured out their cinematic hearts, telling me that no distributor had ever asked their advice before.”

And so a renaissance publicist was born, as unlike the sleek new generation of professional PR smoothies as it’s possible to be. In his 20 years repping independent film, Mickey has witnessed sea changes in the business, not all of them bad. “The boundaries between studios and indies have broken down,” he says, “and I think that’s probably a good thing. There’s a lot more international cinema, especially from Asia — Korea, Thailand, India. But I don’t know about the great new American voices. We don’t see a Gus Van Sant or a Steven Soderbergh coming in. People look on indie work as a steppingstone to bigger and better things, so we don’t have visionaries who look at indie film as the greatest freedom.” Today his company, Inclusive PR, has expanded its functions to grassroots niche marketing and helping filmmakers to self-distribute their films in multiple cities. “It would be even more fun if I didn’t have to make a living at it,” he says. “I’ve always dreamed of the day I could afford to take out a full-page ad in Variety, requesting submissions for an absolutely free full Sundance PR campaign for one film I adore, one masterpiece to put all my efforts into and not represent the usual four films I’m paid to do.” Whoever wins that lottery will be one lucky cookie.