The PR Wars at 42West: Fights, Money and a Breakup
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.
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.