Posted on Wednesday 5 March 2014 by Ulster Business
Hilary Oliver with Gary Oldman at the London Critics Circle Film Awards
But that’s exactly what Hilary Oliver does on a daily basis with her company Cameo Productions, which provides media interviews with big stars for use on radio, offers media training to actors and directors, and also organises press briefings and events.
Born in Belfast and an alumnus of Queen’s University, Hilary jokes that she set up Cameo because she couldn’t think of another way to meet the likes of Clooney and Robert Redford.
In reality it was her creative and entrepreneurial drive that led her to form the business when she saw a gap in the market for providing such services.
After university Hilary taught English in a number of schools, including Ballyclare High and St Patrick’s College, before moving to England with her husband, a journalist, in the mid-1980s.
She found herself working on the local radio station 210FM Reading (now Heart) and with a background in arts and an interest in acting, went on to produce arts programmes, winning several awards. It was in 1990 that she decided to set up her own company to supply UK and Irish radio stations with top quality radio editorial, such as film clips and interviews with leading industry names.
“When I was producing my arts programme we used to get clips sent through on reel to reel tape and I just thought I could do them so much better. I sold the idea to various distributors that they shouldn’t just provide clips, they should also get people to do the interview,” explains Hilary.
“People were coming over to do interviews on Michael Parkinson or Michael Aspel’s show at the time, but radio seemed to be getting missed out.”
The idea took off and in a short space of time Hilary had replaced the competition and found herself conducting interviews with a dizzying array of stars, including Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Pedro Almodóvar, Cher, Angelina Jolie, Danny Boyle, Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson.
But her ambitions didn’t stop there. In 1994 she moved Cameo to London and built a studio to host ISDN interviews with luminaries directly to national and regional stations – including BBC Radio Ulster. The company also started hosting interviews from venues in the US and Europe for occasions when film junkets didn’t stop in London.
“What I wanted to do was not only get the interviews with people but actually get them in to a studio in London, build it into their schedules, and then we open the mic to do interviews with BBC Scotland or Northern Ireland or other regional broadcasters and commercial stations,” she says.
Cameo is now the market leader in this field and a measure of its success can be seen in the fact that it continues to work with Sony, the distributor who gave Hilary her first break 24 years ago. Her sons are also directors in the company.
Hilary also developed other strands to the business, including the media training arm of Cameo which she now heads. It helps train breaking or established talent who need a media refresher or need to be more “on message” about their film. Highlights include working on all the Harry Potter films and seeing stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint “grow into fine young people”.
She also chairs film launch press conferences, with recent examples including Ridley Scott’s film The Counsellor with Sir Ridley Scott, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender; Philomena with Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan; Labor Day with Kate Winslet; and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit with Kenneth Branagh and Keira Knightly.
If that were not enough Hilary has also become a leading freelance critic in her own right, appearing on Radio 4’s arts programme and Radio 2. She is a member of the London Critics’ Circle and organised the committee’s annual awards event earlier this month.
It is, I suggest, a long way from teaching at Ballyclare High.
“I suppose it is, but I retain very strong links to Belfast,” she says. “I helped launch Queen’s University’s media week last April, talking to students about getting into the media, and I co-financed a three month internship for a QUB undergrad last summer. I’ve also got involved in the university’s mentoring programme to guide students into a career they want to break into.”
She adds: “Because I came from background of education as a teacher and a mother I want to see young people get on so I try to offer help and support that way. It seemed like an obvious route to take.”
Having long taken in American students working abroad as part of their degree, she is hopeful of taking on another intern from Queen’s this year. Of course, when speaking to students about her role, being able to drop in the big names gives Hilary a big advantage in holding their attention and inspiring them about what they can achieve.
When I ask if she has any favourites among the list of stars she has met, it prompts a long pause.
“It’s a hard question but I have to say that Robert Redford is just an absolute gent. He had very little time, he came in for A River Runs Through It. I think he did one television interview, one radio, which was me, and one print. He was so courteous, and this was in the days when you got a half hour sit down with them, not just a couple of minutes. He was so gentlemanly and courteous. And he’s one of those guys who has put so much back into the industry with the Sundance Film Festival,” she gushes.
“There have been lots of lovely people over the years. I love Julia Roberts as well, she’s really funny and feisty and outspoken. And she’s not too big to come forward to you when you walk into the room and hold her hand out and say, hello I’m Julia. I think that’s lovely, that she’s not too big to give her name at the start. She’s a pro. It’s something I tell people when they do media training, introduce yourself and stand up to meet people when they come into a room because it creates a good impression.”
The day I catch up with Hilary she’s just finished organising a press briefing with one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sons, Kenneth Branagh, for his new movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. In one interview he gave, he talked about going to the old Capital Cinema in Belfast as a child, the same cinema she used to go to when she lived on the Antrim Road.
“I love meeting Kenneth Branagh,” she says. “He never forgets his roots and I was so delighted he got the knighthood. He has been such a great supporter of the arts generally.”
While her work doesn’t bring her home too often, Hilary says she’s delighted to see the local film and television industry booming and major motion pictures and TV series now filming here.
“It’s absolutely thrilling and if you get any of the producers to talk about it, they will tell you how good the craftsmanship is, how good the crews they can put together are, how friendly the people are. They talk about it very warmly. They come back saying it is a good work experience and that is great for Belfast.”
Hilary with the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, and fellow Critics Circle member Rich Cline.