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From Captain America: Civil War’s dominance to Legendary’s $3.5 billion sale to the future of the Olympic Games, many of this year’s biggest Hollywood business news stories have been shaped by the same behind-the-scenes duo. Paul Pflug and Melissa Zukerman have carved a niche as communications consultants focused solely on showbiz executives and companies. Their eight-employee Principal Communications, celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer, counts as clients Marvel, Live Nation, Imax, indie distributor A24, Peter Chernin’s Chernin Entertainment and sports executive Casey Wasserman. Their role puts them at the center of the industry’s most hot-button topics and political causes and has turned them into confidants of such moguls as Thomas Tull, producers Mark Gordon and Gail Berman, and top Disney executives (Zukerman is one of the few people in Hollywood who actually has met reclusive Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter in person). “There’s a personification in this business that is unlike any other industry,” says Zukerman of repping execs. “The face of the business is so much more accountable and visible, and their role is so much more dramatic and overplayed.” The duo, both 46 and married (not to each other; Pflug has a teen daughter), met in 2004 when their paths crossed on a movie marketing campaign (Pflug has held positions at Universal and Miramax, Zukerman at E!, iFilm and her own PR shop). Now, along with partner and chief administration officer Hans-Dieter Kopal, they are moving into China with new client Wanda and helping Wasserman bring the 2024 Olympics to L.A. (and elect Hillary Clinton via an Aug. 22 fundraiser).
Why do top Hollywood executives need a communications consultant like you?
ZUKERMAN Well, we’re a fully fledged communications agency, so if you compare it to a law firm, you have the benefit of scale and perspective. We have a perspective on their business’ place in the industry, and candidly, we also have leverage. It’s like a high-profile investment bank: When you work with them, you have a complete industry profile. And we know Wall Street as well as box office. That’s rare.
What do industry executives tend to do well in the media and what do they not do so well?
ZUKERMAN [Some] look at it as “us versus them.” That’s a big mistake when you go into it already in an adversarial position.
It’s been my experience that people who work with an outlet tend to get better coverage than those who ignore or obfuscate. Is that your experience?
ZUKERMAN Accessibility is usually nine-tenths of the law when dealing with the media. The other golden rule is: The cover-up is always worse than the crime. So if we have a client who comes to us and says, “That’s not true!” or “Tell them that’s not true!” …
PFLUG … You need to [put] the cards on the table. The media has evolved over the past five to 10 years in that anybody that thinks ignoring a request from a journalist is going to make it go away is …
ZUKERMAN … Delusional. This is a 24-hour news cycle. There’s no more, “Tell them we’ll give it to them as an exclusive later.”
Can you kill a story these days?
ZUKERMAN You can kill it but only if it’s not a story. You actually have to prove it isn’t true now. Quid pro quo [exchanges for not running a story] isn’t as pervasive, and the truth finds its way out. So “kill” has taken on a new meaning. You can amputate a story.
What’s the state of the media that covers Hollywood? Good? Bad? Vindictive? Ill-informed?
ZUKERMAN It’s bifurcated. Just like the country, the middle ground has been broken up. You get either really great stories or really bad stories.
You do a lot of media training for industry executives. Walk us through your process.
ZUKERMAN First, we do a stark analysis of their performance. From messaging to announcements to the way they talk to the press, we put it through a filter and we analyze it.
So, “Hey, Executive X, you’re terrible on TV”?
ZUKERMAN It really is helping a client find that zone where they can be authentic and credible, but they’re not spinning a tale over lunch at The Grill.
When was a particularly challenging time to spin a box-office result?
PFLUG I’ll never forget the morning we did the numbers on Blair Witch 2, because Blair Witch was a phenomenon. There were such high expectations, and when we saw the numbers come in well below any tracking or expectation, we had a lot of nervous executives [at Artisan].
Who is someone you don’t represent who does a great job with his or her own press?
PFLUG Bob Iger is a guy who is able to communicate clearly what his company’s objectives are without seeming like he’s spinning.
ZUKERMAN The Netflix guys have done a really great job, Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos both. They managed price changes to their consumers. Managed the Street in terms of earnings. The way they’ve managed their international rollout. The CES speeches they’ve given. Sarandos‘ political stuff. They’ve both done really well to create their own identities.
You represent difficult people like Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter. How do you deal with a crazy client?
ZUKERMAN When you’re dealing with people who are operating at the highest end of their industry and they’re that close to the sun, they are going to have complicated personalities.
He once wore a disguise to a movie premiere and gets into fights with his neighbors in Florida.
ZUKERMAN OK, well, you know … We always tell a client before working with them that this is going to be an intimate relationship. It transcends the difficulty because we have this passionate, loyal relationship, and I guess we’re in tune with dealing with those people.
PFLUG You have to understand their business. If you don’t, they’re not going to trust you or want to hear something negative from you.
How do you explain the American media to Wanda?
PFLUG There are some stories that run in the Chinese press that seem like [both the subjects and the readers] knows it’s not correct and they don’t care. We have started to communicate an understanding that the Western media, especially the American press, they have access to CEOs, they have access to high-net-worth individuals — you have to engage them.
When do you drop clients?
ZUKERMAN We represented ICM. And when [ICM chief] Chris Silbermann was going through his management board struggles with Jeff [Berg], we felt that it was becoming a huge conflict. As a rule, we’ll never, ever represent a talent agency ever again.
You rep many political donors. How strong is the fundraising for Hillary, given the Bernie factor?
ZUKERMAN We’ve seen heightened organization and unity behind this candidate. [In 2008], there was a lot of bifurcation about who was voting for whom. But we didn’t experience the Bernie support on our roster [of clients].
What is a crisis you handled particularly well?
ZUKERMAN The worst crises are the personal. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We’ve had to play Ray Donovan without the guns and the blood.
PFLUG The text messaging [client].
ZUKERMAN (Laughs.) He had an affair and the woman tried to blackmail him, and we were able to go to the social media [outlet] where she was [threatening to out] him and get a detective involved. We don’t represent the client anymore.
How about some advice for executives in the news whom you do not represent. Roger Ailes?
ZUKERMAN Lay low. He’s showing up in his pajamas at New Jersey diners? That’s not a good look! If I were him, I’d be advising the GOP on a unification strategy against Donald Trump.
PFLUG Be a hero there.
How about Ryan Kavanaugh? He just joined Twitter.
ZUKERMAN That’s the worst thing he could have done! He’s like Donald Trump though — he can’t help himself. Move to New York. Go to Brooklyn and do some philanthropic advisory work for a film school.
Do you have Google Alerts for all of your clients?
ZUKERMAN And reporters.
Individual reporters? You have one for me?
PFLUG Hmm. Maybe.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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