DALLAS: When Kelly Kitchens attends the Turner Class Movies (TCM) Film Festival in Hollywood each year, she dresses like Judy Garland and other classic stars. It’s her way of celebrating her love of classical film.
When she hosts a round table session – where writers, bloggers and podcasters gather to interview film producers, directors and actors – she doesn’t rush them, she gives them plenty of time to have a “real conversation” with her clients.
And when public relations’ newbies, (who could become potential competitors) ask her for advice on how to get ahead in the media relations/entertainment publicity business, she always says yes.
With this kind of passion for the entertainment industry, appreciation for the media, and genuine concern for others, it’s no wonder that this well-connected media relations and entertainment publicist is one of the most respected in Dallas. And this year marks her 20th anniversary.
HER FIRST LOVE
Kitchens first discovered her love for writing when she joined the yearbook staff during her sophomore year of high school.
“The instant I was in there I knew,” Kitchens recalls. “I thought then that if I could work on the yearbook for the rest of my life, I’d be happy, because it gave me the excuse to know absolutely everything that was going on at school.”
This was also a time when she learned a valuable real life lesson, thanks to her yearbook advisor.
“She stood up on a chair and ripped up a story that I had written into little pieces and say, ‘Now, do it again.’ Even though that was really hard on me, it was good for me because when you enter the world of journalism, if it’s not up to par you have to start over.”
After spending her childhood in Fort Worth and El Paso, at the age of 12, Kitchens moved with her family to Houston. Having always loved the North Texas area, she planned to return to that area to attend college. When she heard that the University of North Texas (UNT) had an excellent journalism program, in 1986, she headed to Denton.
Beyond her degree plan, she studied art, astronomy, esthetics of film, philosophy of art and music, the Texas blues and more. Kitchens also studied at the American College of Switzerland for a semester in 1989 as a part of UNT’s Classic Learning Core Capstone Seminar program.
“That was such a gift to me.”
With a solid foundation in place, she headed into her journalism classes. But half way through her junior year when she met with her advisor, she told him she didn’t want to go into news reporting.
“I didn’t want to write about murder and politics, I wanted to do feature writing and I wanted learn about criticism.” When he refused to let her go down that path, Kitchens quit and became an English major.
What a coincidence it was that as soon as she switched from journalism to English she started doing journalism, when Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) student “rag” publication came looking for UNT writers. They wanted to expand their student paper, The Student Voice up to North Texas.
“The two schools are as different as night and day,” Kitchens says. “SMU’s paper covered Greek life. At North Texas, you’ve got to cover music, the arts, and theater.”
When the SMU publisher said he didn’t know anything about the arts, she told him not to worry because she did. So she started covering all the bands coming out of North Texas as well as writing theater reviews. It helped that all her friends were artists, so she starting writing features about them. And that’s how Kitchens became UNT’s entertainment editor of The Student Voice.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
When Kitchens graduated from UNT in December of 1991 that was about the same time the Dallas Times Herald folded. And with D Magazine having been sold to American Express the year before (the magazine returned in 1996), that created a void in Dallas’ hard news coverage.
At that time, the Dallas Observer covered the entire local music and arts scene in their weekly guide, but they soon shifted their focus to hard news, now that The Dallas Morning News had less competition.
In 1992 the Observer went from having local bands on the cover to covering the mayor and city hall. “Entertainment stuff got pushed to the back,” Kitchens says.
Suddenly it was clear that there was an opportunity knocking on Kitchens’ door. So in December of 1993, she became the first editor hired for a new, all arts and entertainment magazine called, The Met. In her role as calendar and film editor, everyone, including arts organizations and their publicists big and small, had to contact Kitchens to get into the paper. In no time, she became the person who knew everything that was going on in the visual, performing arts and film world in North Texas.
“I just loved it! That’s when I figured out that I loved working and talking to people more than I loved writing, which was weird because all my life I thought I wanted to be a writer.”
While at The Met, Kitchens’ ability to work well with others did not escape the notice of co-worker, Todd Johnson, hired on as the advertising art director within a few days of the paper’s launch.
“Kelly is a great communicator and has a great presence. She really knows how to make you get excited about the story she is telling!” Johnson says.
So when Kitchens’ editor wanted her to do more writing and less editorial work, she knew it was time to consider her next move.
“I called six of my favorite publicists and asked them if they thought I could do what they do.” Inspired by the willingness of each of them to take her under their wing and give her a shot working on some projects, Kitchens left The Met on March 31, 1995.
Unintentionally but appropriately, she says, she started her own business the very next day: April Fools Day.
CREATING KELLY J. KITCHENS MEDIA RELATIONS & ENTERTAINMENT PUBLICITY
It started with JoAnn Holt with the Dallas Summer Musicals (DSM). One of her very first projects was Hello Dolly starring Carol Channing. ” She was absolutely delightful,” Kitchens’ says with a smile. She worked with the DSM on more of their projects, and then some of the other publicists started giving her projects when they were too booked to work on them.
Other clients she helped early on were the Dallas Classic Guitar Society, Little Tuna Theater and Kitchen Dog Theater’s Hamlet. And a little later some of her first “solo” clients included: actress Morgana Shaw, actress and singer Denise Lee and Playwrights’ Project Fundraiser.
“Public Relations is such a huge umbrella. It can include crisis management, investor relations and much more,” Kitchens says. “I do media relations. I am the liaison between my clients and journalists.” And her clients are from the entertainment side, primarily film and theater.
While ninety-five per cent of Kitchens’ business has been referrals, many have come from the press she worked with during her time at The Met. Jane Sumner, a former film critic with The Dallas Morning News, was the first person to recommend her for a film.
“To have the press recommend me, that to me is the highest compliment,” she says proudly. “What a gift.”
So as it happens, Kitchens learned the media relations/publicity business from the other side – as a film editor and critic. “During those early years, I went to countless movies and screenings, and I knew everybody else (in the media) going. So I just started contacting them, and 20 years later many of them are still on my list. I didn’t have to network my way into it. We knew each other so they approached me differently.”
ONCE A JOURNALIST ALWAYS A JOURNALIST
Kitchens feels fortunate to have a background in journalism. And she takes the ethics of journalism that she studied at UNT, very seriously. She is careful to maintain professional boundaries with the media.
“That’s been my philosophy along the way, what I give them is what I would have needed as an editor. To know what they need is an important part of it. Pictures, the b-roll (broadcast quality footage for TV news), having access to the people they might want to talk to, things like that. My public relations training was being a journalist.”
And while many publicity firms that have an A, B and C lists of media contacts, Kitchens has only one. “I include everybody as equal because they might pick up a smaller film, which is great because then it can be pushed out on Facebook and Twitter. I’m a one-woman band so I try to do everything I can on the media side so my clients can rise to the top of their game.”
BACK TO BASICS
According to Kitchens, 2001 was her biggest and best year ever. Her client, the Angelika Film Center opened that summer in Dallas, and everything was wonderful. Then 9/11 happened and everything changed.
“People stopped leaving their homes and did not go back to movies or go out to eat,” she recalls. “Clients were saying we love you, and we want to work with you, but we just can’t afford it.”
So for a time she relied on her editing skills and went to work at ad agencies doing in-house editing and proofreading.
“I was really glad that I had those hard skills, and they were sharp enough for me to be able to go in and take on those high-pressure jobs,” Kitchens admits. Still, her most valuable lesson was learned during the post 9/11 lean times, when she approached Stan Levenson, with the Levenson Group, an icon in the public relations world.
“I was so honored when he responded back to me and asked me to work with him on growing the arts district (to what it is now). But the politics at the time (2004) were not her cup of tea, and it was challenging work. At one point she left Levenson a message letting him know that things weren’t going that well. Then he called her back and left a message for her, one she will always remember.
He said, “I think it’s important that I manage your expectations on this.” Meaning that when you’re dealing with things that you can’t control – the City of Dallas, politics, and all that back and forth, you have to be realistic about results, Kitchens explains.
“Those are the most valuable words that I have gotten from anyone, and I use those words all the time because it is my job to manage my clients’ expectations. Meaning if I have a client come to me and say, ‘Oprah would love to read my book or Ellen needs to hear my music.’ Those are usually unrealistic expectations.”
While Kitchens admits she too is a dreamer, it’s very important to keep her clients’ feet planted firmly on the ground. “While you want more than just your mom, your aunt and your best friend to read your book or come see your play or film, you want people who you don’t know, to talk about your work, and that is where I come in,” she says with a chuckle.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Some of Kitchens’ current clients’ include: Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas – DFW, the McKinney Classic Film Festival, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the Musical and Dallas VideoFest, the oldest and largest video festival in the United States and one of her oldest clients. It’s co-founder, Bart Weiss, has worked with Kitchens on several of the festival’s projects over the years.
“We at VideoFest are a small but loyal bunch, and Kelly is a prized and valued member of that team,” Weiss says. “When people make mistakes, there is a magic in her laugh that makes it hard to get mad at anybody, and I think that is important!”
“She has also helped us get more people to the festival by helping us transition to more alternative media than focusing on the major papers.”
What Weiss is referring to is Kitchens’ media round table events, which include bloggers and podcasters.
“I love to lean on the bloggers and podcasters, anyone working online, to cover the smaller films that wouldn’t see the light of day because the traditional media might only be able cover one or two of the 100+ films being screened at the festival.”
And continuing to find people who are interested in the smaller films and who like classic films, much like Kitchens and her husband Mark Wickersham, is paramount. That is one reason the couple has been attending the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood since 2010. She goes as a fan but makes the most of the business opportunities, too.
“I’ve become friends with the festival director and programmer and I get referrals to different films and events that happen at TCM that we try to bring here.”
Click on the clip below to watch Kelly and Mark being interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz!
PAYING IT FORWARD
When she started her own firm, six publicists brought her in to work with them. “They also passed clients on to me. To me, that was paying it forward and helping me create my own successful business.”
And the day before this interview, Kitchens had talked to a young woman who wants to go out on her own. “She asked if I could talk to her and I said yes, I always say yes,” Kitchens admits. “I think we live in a very abundant world, and there is room enough for all of us. If what I do is part of your dream, now please don’t steal my clients, but I want to help if I can.”
She also tells them they really have to want to do this because it’s hard work. “You have to be ok with the fact that it is very rare for a journalist to interview you; it’s not you getting the glory.” She adds that it’s important to find something in each client that can be appreciated.
And although Kitchens grew up hating her name, she admits that it has become her best marketing tool because everyone remembers it. And so, after 20 years of nurturing and growing her firm – Kelly J. Kitchens Media Relations/Entertainment Publicity – is something she is proud of.
“I love the process of what I do from beginning to end; from the meetings to creating a proposal (well, maybe not creating the proposal part!), to talking it through with a client and then actually doing the work. And what comes from it, whether it’s a grand success or a bust – all I know is that this is why I was put here on Earth, to be a cheerleader for other people’s projects.”
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