November 23, 2004

Hollywood Shakeout

Michael Caulfield/WireImage
Leslee Dart, right, an entertainment publicist, with Nicole Kidman, a client.

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 22 - Suspicion simmered and confusion reigned in the palm-potted halls of the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, as the heated business of promoting holiday and Oscar-season movies was mixed with uncertainty over what publicist represented what movie star or filmmaker and for how long.

The firing of the publicity veteran Leslee Dart last week by her longtime partner, Pat Kingsley - chairwoman of the industry's leading publicity agency, PMK/HBH - set off an unusual scramble for position among filmmakers and their usually low-profile media representatives.

The directors Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols and Jonathan Demme, all of whom have movies opening soon or up for Oscar consideration, indicated they wanted to stay with Ms. Dart, even as the business of movie promotion trundled forward.

Mr. Anderson, director of the forthcoming Walt Disney Company film "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," said he would stick with Ms. Dart, though PMK/HBH publicists labored over the weekend at the press junket for his film at the Four Seasons. "Leslee is the person who I work with on all my movies," he said, reached at the hotel. "She's the only person I've got in the world in this area. I intend to stick with her."

Similarly, PMK/HBH publicists shepherded journalists around the hotel on Monday for the Sony Pictures Entertainment-sponsored press junket for Mr. Nichols's forthcoming film "Closer," though the movie's executive producer, Scott Rudin, said the director wanted PMK/HBH taken off the film.

Mr. Nichols, busy at the junket, could not be reached for comment, nor could his PMK/HBH publicist, Alan Eichorn. A representative for the director said he was "confused and concerned."

Ms. Kingsley said in an interview that her company hadn't, "to my knowledge," been fired by any clients. "There are still people working on those movies, still working with the studios every day," she said.

Responding to e-mail queries, Ms. Dart, declined to comment on details of her departure or any scramble for client loyalties. "I am passionate about what I do. I believe I do it well and plan to continue with the career I've spent the last 25 years building,"' she said in a brief e-mail statement.

The anxiety and confusion reflected the prominent position that a handful of publicists have come to play on the entertainment landscape, an importance once reserved for agents or moguls. With the explosion in media interest in celebrity over the last decade, publicists have become a power center in their own right. For many years, Ms. Kingsley, based in Los Angeles, and Ms. Dart, her New York-based partner in privately held PMK, were indisputably the most influential among them.

PMK was purchased in 1999 by the Interpublic Group of Companies, an advertising giant, and merged two years later with the publicity rival Huvane Baum Halls to form PMK/HBH.

While Ms. Dart hasn't spoken publicly of any plan to strip PMK/HBH of clients , some loyalists took action on their own. Jonathan Demme, who directed "The Manchurian Candidate" for Paramount, for instance, said he had sent the studio a letter asking that it make a deal with Ms. Dart as the film navigates the ongoing awards season. "I have no intention of working with a Leslee Dart-less PMK," he said.

The producer Brian Grazer, whose pictures include "Friday Night Lights" and "Cinderella Man," said he wasn't immediately firing PMK/HBH. But he added: "I just don't know anyone else there, really. It's not a punitive gesture, but I would think our movies would discontinue having a professional relationship with PMK."

An agent for Nicole Kidman, whom Ms. Dart had represented, said she had made no immediate decision.

Even clients who were staying with PMK/HBH, at least for now, expressed anger at the timing, and said there had been little follow-up by the publicity firm. At Miramax, a spokeswoman said PMK/HBH was still working on the forthcoming film "The Aviator," directed by Martin Scorsese - a client of Ms. Dart's - but voiced unhappiness with the situation, despite a reassuring call from Simon Halls, a PMK/HBH principal.

"Simon called to say, 'We're here for you,' " said the spokeswoman, Amanda Lundberg. "But it seemed a little chaotic. One would have thought during this time, if they were taking Leslee out of the equation, there would have been a little more organized chain of command."

To some in Hollywood, the current turmoil looked like a short-term power play by Ms. Kingsley, 72, who is expected to retire in the next several years. In the 1990's, Ms. Kingsley wielded considerable leverage over glossy magazines, entertainment television and even serious news outlets by limiting access to star clients like Tom Cruise and demanding signed waivers to avoid asking clients uncomfortable questions. But Ms. Kingsley's influence appeared to slip when Mr. Cruise left her, and Ms. Dart, 50, seemed to some as a likely successor at the firm.

Ms. Kingsley denied she had any such plans. "Leslee felt it was time for her to take over the company. I felt I was not ready to retire. I never gave any indication that I was ready to retire," Ms. Kingsley said. In an e-mail message Ms. Dart said the topic didn't come up in the conversation that led to her termination.

Publicists within PMK/HBH said they remained stunned by Ms. Kingsley's decision, and one former director of the company said it would hurt the company in the long term.

Lois Smith, a former PMK director who had previously retired from the company, said: "I was stunned. Appalled. I think it's a grave mistake. I think it will harm the company. I think clients will leave." Retirement, she added, wasn't an easy concept for hard-charging people like herself, and Ms. Kingsley.

"It did take me a long time to accept that I had to retire," Ms. Smith observed. "A lot of us get defined by what we do. If we don't do that, who are we? It's not easy."

Nat Ives contributed reporting from New York for this article.

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