Forget all its A-list talent and Oscar campaigns: There’s even more drama behind the scenes at this top publicity firm as premier awards strategist Cynthia Swartz stages her exit away from Leslee Dart.
(The Hollywood Reporter, August 18, 2011.)
FOR THE TEAM BEHIND The Hurt Locker, it was time for a victory lap. As director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal accepted their best picture Oscar on Feb. 28, 2010, they launched into the requisite list of thank-yous, citing Summit’s Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger and their agents at CAA. But one name was conspicuously absent: Cynthia Swartz, co-head of the entertainment marketing division at powerful PR agency 42West.
In the morning-after analyses of how Hurt Locker managed to defeat the mega-grossing Avatar and capture six Oscars, including the first Academy Award for a female director, it was Swartz’s name that was most frequently cited. Summit had turned to her to help devise a winning campaign strategy, and she and her team spent months paving the way for the movie’s triumphal night. Even though the film had been released in June, Swartz shrewdly decided not to send out screeners until the critics’ awards started raining down in December — helping ensure voters would be curious enough to check out the little film that reviewers were raving about. Positioning the modestly budgeted $15 million contender as an upstart challenger, the 42West forces created a sense of inevitability as the movie conquered one guild after another. When it did encounter a setback — like losing the Golden Globe for best drama toAvatar — Swartz was immediately on the phone to journalists, insisting that the Globes, which had failed to predict the best picture Academy Award winner in four of the previous five years, should be discounted as an Oscar arbiter.
Among the tight coterie of awards consultants that fans out across Hollywood in the months leading to the Academy Awards, Swartz’s particular talents are universally applauded. “In a genius kind of way, she’s kind of like the Rain Man of the Oscars,” says one of her admirers. Swartz, who often comes across as something of a distracted grad student rushing to meet a deadline, prefers to downplay her contributions — it’s never a good thing to overshadow your clients. But with another Oscar season now on the horizon, she finds herself where she doesn’t like to be — at the center of attention: She has decided to break with 42West, where she has been a partner since 2005, to set up her own shop. And her next steps are being watched closely within the insular world of awards strategists, since the move threatens to shake up the status quo and perhaps even impact the race itself.
The breakup at 42West is just the latest chapter in Hollywood’s ongoing PR wars. The company is one of the many publicity firms whose roots reach back to the legendary PMK, where Pat Kingsley ruled with an iron fist through most of the ’80s and ’90s, only to see her firm merge, splinter, merge and then splinter again, its DNA spreading throughout the industry.
Leslee Dart and Amanda Lundberg, who created the New York-based 42West in 2005, and Allan Mayer, who joined them a year later to head the strategic communications division in Los Angeles, are in the process of finalizing a deal to buy out Swartz’s interest in the four-way partnership. Pending a final agreement, Swartz declined to outline her plans, and speaking for his fellow partners, Mayer would only say: “The separation is a very amicable one. We wish Cynthia well, and we know she wishes us the same.” Beyond that, both sides are keeping mum, but that hasn’t stopped competitors from obsessing about the situation.
The timing of Swartz’s departure, coming on the eve of the Telluride-Venice-Toronto film-fest trifecta, might have caught some off-guard, but for those who know Dart and Swartz, their eventual split seemed inevitable. “Leslee was never a big fan of Cynthia’s to begin with. They were never, ever friends,” says one publicist who has observed them both closely. “Cynthia just has a style that doesn’t fit in a corporate environment. Leslee is very imperious, very rigid, and she doesn’t like dissent. Cynthia can be maddening; she speaks faster than anyone can listen to, with an ADD-type personality.” Swartz’s casually intellectual New York style might have endeared her to many on the dressed-down indie film scene, but it’s far from the buttoned-up look corporate clients expect. A compulsive worker, she drives her staff just as hard as she drives herself, which might have created other problems within the corridors of 42West. Still, insiders insist that with four partners involved, the separation can’t be reduced to a story of two clashing personalities. As another observer suggests: “I honestly think there’s not a lot of drama to it. It’s just about people who outgrew each other.”
Other factors could have played a part. Swartz is widely recognized as one of the premier awards strategists in the business — a talent she honed during 13 years at Miramax, where, working under the Oscar-hungry Harvey Weinstein, she contributed to successful pushes for such movies as Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago. With Miramax headed for a messy divorce as the Weinsteins battled their corporate owners at Disney, she moved to 42West, where she had a hand in the campaigns for Oscar winners like Crash and No Country for Old Men. She put unlikely contenders like Hustle & Flow on the map, helping Terrence Howard secure a best actor nom, and raised the profile of Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, which scored two Oscar noms. Says David Fenkel, a partner at Oscilloscope, which released Messenger: “Films like ours need a certain level of strategy to navigate the byzantine awards world, and Cynthia really has her finger on the pulse. The end goal is always to get people to see the movie, but Cynthia really knows which elements of a campaign to push at certain times and when to change strategies when changes are needed.”
Even though the studios pump a lot of money into awards season — consultants can earn $10,000 to $15,000 a month on a movie, with bonuses for a win — it’s ultimately a niche, seasonal business. While Swartz worked on the releases of other films throughout the year, she tended to focus on indie pictures whose marketing budgets are much tighter than those on studio projects. And that, in turn, might not have resulted in the kind of revenue that 42West, which has grown to where it has about 50 employees in New York and 35 in Los Angeles, expects its top execs to generate. “Nine times out of 10, partnerships break up over money, and the 10th time it’s personality,” says one observer. “My guess is that Cynthia was probably creating more work for her staff than the company was getting paid for.”
42West insists it isn’t retreating from the awards business — after all, economics aside, there’s prestige involved. The company likes to proclaim the fact that during the past six years, it has contributed to four best picture winners. While Swartz could lay claim to Hurt Locker and No Country, she shares credit with Lundberg on Crash, while Dart herself can point to her role in The Departed‘s win. Other 42Westers such as Susan Ciccone contributed to the success of The Fighter. Although, arguably, without Swartz’s participation, the firm won’t be in the thick of as many battles.
As the situation sorts itself out, producer Scott Rudin’s influence appears to have come into play. Last August, he dropped Dart, who had represented him for years. A fan of Swartz’s — “She is simply the best, bar none. She has no competition,” he says — he kept her as an Oscar consultant, part of the team that led The Social Network through the most recent awards season. As she sets up her own shop, Swartz is expected to have a similar role on such Rudin movies as Moneyball and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, both from Sony, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from Warner Bros.
The divorce at 42West may not exactly represent history repeating, but it does hark back to Dart’s split from PMK/HBH seven years ago.
The lineage of many current Hollywood PR agencies can be traced to the old PMK, which Kingsley, who learned the ropes as a secretary at Rogers & Cowan, created in 1980 when she merged her firm, Pickwick Public Relations, with a rival company headed by Neal Koenigsberg and the late Michael Maslansky. In the heady days of the ’80s, Kingsley established herself as the dominant personality among Hollywood’s legion of personal publicists, and PMK became a training ground for some of the industry’s most nimble practitioners.
Back then, a seismic power shift was under way between celebrities and the media as mainstream magazine and TV outlets realized that public figures, and their personal lives, could boost circulation and ratings. Into that scene stepped Kingsley, with her stiff Working Girl jackets and broad Southern patrician accent, to act as a clipboard-wielding grande dame of Hollywood’s velvet rope. Working with newly minted stars like Tom Cruise and such established names as Sally Field and Al Pacino, she flexed a bullying authority, dictating terms to magazines like Vanity Fair and Vogue. “You could manage the message of an entire career or a movie back then,” Kingsley recalls today.
By 1999, corporate America had become as infatuated with celebrity as the media and public were. Kingsley sold PMK to Interpublic, whose strategic goal was to give its big-brand clients easy access to Kingsley’s A-list clientele. A year later, a competing talent agency, HBH, led by Simon Halls, also sold to Interpublic, which later merged it with PMK to form PMK/HBH. At the time, corporate firms were picking up PR agencies right and left: Interpublic also bought Rogers & Cowan, which had become one of the world’s biggest media consultants, while communications heavyweight WPP (which owns ad giants Ogilvy and Young & Rubicam) bought PR stalwart BWR.
Five years later, Kingsley’s bulletproof facade began to crack. In 2004, Cruise, her longtime client and power base, fired her. Shortly afterward, Dart, her protege and one of PMK’s brightest publicists who led the firm’s New York office, made a play for her job. Kingsley responded by firing Dart, who had already been irritated by Interpublic’s pressure to pull in corporate clients. “That was not something I was interested in doing,” says Dart. A petite and dark-eyed New York native, she often counterbalanced Kingsley’s icy rectitude with an aggressively friendly demeanor that disarmed journalists and won the lasting affection of clients. “We had different ideas,” she says.
Dozens of prestige clients — Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Weinstein — lined up on Dart’s side. Kingsley, in opting to maintain a stranglehold on power, had made a strategic error — and so Dart went on to found 42West, now among the biggest indie publicity shops in the business.
By the time Kingsley retired in 2008, she estimated that 40 percent of her business was brands, with their own publicists separate from the company’s celebrity handlers. Efforts to create synergy between the groups never really took root because talent specialists were under pressure from Interpublic to expand into corporate branding, and many bristled under that directive. Their corporate parents wanted the red-carpet handlers, who collect modest $5,000 monthly retainers even from A-list stars, to start reeling in $100,000-a-month brand deals, and the talent pros found the idea repulsive. “IPG is an advertising culture and does not understand talent PR,” says a former PMK executive who now runs a large publicity agency. “Their expectations are unrealistic. They promise to leave you alone, and for the first two years they do. But then it’s in your face about the bottom line and double-digit growth. You can’t use the ad model in the PR world at all.”
Halls says: “The first flaw is that agents make deals, not us. We create awareness for our clients.” He found himself at the center of the next chapter in the drama in 2009 when Interpublic decided to merge the star-heavy PMK/HBH with sister outfit BNC, another PR agency that largely focused on corporate branding. As the news reverberated through the hallways of PMK/HBH’s offices at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center, there was a flurry of anxious, closed-door meetings.
“The e-mails started pinging in like crazy,” says Halls. They all read the same: “Thank you for the opportunity, but I no longer work at PMK/HBH.” Within an hour, 12 celebrity publicists had peeled away. By the end of the week, 60 percent of the agency’s talent staff was gone. Depending on which side you believe, the departures cleaned out 125 to 350 clients, accounting for $3 million to $7.5 million of PMK/HBH’s estimated $11 million in annual billings. Halls himself left with several partners to join forces with publicist Ina Treciokas and form the new Slate PR shop.
It was an embarrassing exodus that battered PMK/HBH’s roster of top-tier talent and bled its bottom line. The firm’s highest-profile players — HBH founders Stephen Huvane, Robin Baum and Halls — walked off with the likes of Daniel Craig, Tom Ford and Gwyneth Paltrow. By contrast, 42West, with its own roster of A-list stars and directors, looked stable and more powerful than ever.
In the meltdown’s aftermath, Michael Nyman, the aggressive founder of BNC, and PMK’s Cindi Berger were elevated to chairmen and co-CEOs of PMK*BNC, which insiders say expects to do up to $30 million in billings this year. Even in the wake of the exodus from PMK/HBH, PMK*BNC has become an even more formidable player, with about 170 staffers in New York and L.A. representing some 650 clients, including the biggest — and most brand-affiliated — names in entertainment: Simon Cowell and his show The X Factor; tours for Justin Bieber and Glee; and Mariah Carey, who has her own fragrance, M.
Nyman and Berger reject the rap that they are too big to take sufficient care of talent. “It’s a pet peeve of mine that we keep getting called big and lumped into some idea of a corporate giant,” says Berger, a tireless networker. “I’m glad that there’s enough business for the boutiques and for everyone. But when you have the kind of scope and breadth and client roster that we have, which also includes multinational corporations, there’s no comparison to be made between us and them. We can provide better service and a grander offering for our clients.”
Amid the larger drama that has pitted personal publicists against more corporate-minded types, Oscar consultancy has emerged as something of a specialty of its own, with smaller firms like the Angellotti Company, which looks after Universal’s live-action movies and animated films from Disney and Pixar on a year-round basis, and Michele Robertson’s MRC, which focuses on Warners’ awards contenders, stepping to the forefront.
It’s in that territory that Swartz is now looking to stake out her own turf. Although she has yet to announce her full slate for the upcoming season, she’s handling the release campaign for the Weinstein Co.’s W.E., the Madonna-directed study of the Wallis Simpson affair, scheduled to open Dec. 9, which has led some to speculate that she’ll renew her ties to Weinstein.
But, counters one source in the Weinstein camp, “No. She’s Rudin’s girl now.”
And if one of Rudin’s upcoming movies breaks from the pack to make a run for the gold, Swartz will almost certainly be among those leading the charge. She’s also taking on other assignments like Oscilloscope’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, with hopes of guiding star Tilda Swinton to the winner’s podium.
In acknowledging their separation, both the remaining principals at 42West and Swartz herself have suggested that they could yet partner on individual projects in the future. Certainly, awards-season politics have made stranger bedfellows than that in the past. But the more likely scenario is that a new Oscar-season rivalry has just been born.