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.
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 to Avatar -- 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."