Taming the wildest Hollywood beasts
When stars go wild, who keeps them in line? Their publicists.
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"As long as there are magazines, publicists will have some influence, because we have clients that the magazines want to put on the cover. It's a give and take in that regard," Ms. Dart says. In a related example, she recalls working on the Oscar campaign for "Syriana" last year and trying to get The New York Times to do a story in advance of the film's release. The paper ended up running a story about movies with multifaceted plots, including "Syriana," with an opening paragraph that called it "one of the season's most eagerly anticipated movies."Skip to next paragraph
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The paper got an exclusive interview with director Stephen Gaghan, while Dart and her team were able to create some early buzz about the complex film. "We started out with a big, big piece that sort of set the tone for the movie," she says.
Stephen Farber, a freelance film writer who wrote the piece, recalls that Dart's office was "helpful in setting up and facilitating" the interview with Mr. Gaghan, though he says the story had been in the works before she contacted the paper.
Restricting reporters from addressing specific topics is another way publicists sometimes try to control coverage, according to Bruce Bibby, who writes a gossip column for E! Online under the name Ted Casablanca. At a press event promoting the Grammy Awards, Mr. Bibby says that he was warned by event publicists not to ask Madonna about her marriage to director Guy Ritchie. Instead, Bibby asked her a softball question about her fitness routine, then followed with an indirect one about romance that got him the answer he wanted. No one chastised him about it.
"To be a working member of the press in Hollywood, you have to choose your battles, and sometimes you have to be a little creative about it," he says.
The majority of today's entertainment publicists tend to be young and female with college degrees in public relations. Though the job often requires round-the-clock availability, many say they are attracted by glamorous perks such as accompanying a client to movie premières and A-list parties. "There are a lot of people in it now to perhaps get famous themselves – and who do live vicariously through their clients," says Bibby.
A small number even succeed. Hillary Swank thanked her publicist, Troy Nankin, in her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2005 Oscars. Sarah Michelle Gellar asked her publicist-turned-manager, Nicole King, to be a bridesmaid in her wedding. In one of the more famous examples of publicists making news themselves, Tom Cruise announced two years ago that he would replace PR powerhouse Pat Kingsley with his less experienced sister, Lee Ann Devette, then saw his public approval ratings dip as he talked more openly about fiancée Katie Holmes and his practice of Scientology. Earlier this year, he changed his strategy again by hiring Paul Bloch of Rogers & Cowan.
A decade ago, people barely knew what a publicist was, says Bragman. "We are in the era of spin, and perception has become much more important than just about anything else," he said. "When Tom Cruise fires his publicist and hires his sister, it's big news. It's news all over the world."
For Dart, who also made headlines when she was fired by powerhouse publicity firm PMK last year and went on to start her own company, the job has always thrilled her, no matter how much the media environment has changed. "It's definitely not a formulaic job. You're always evaluating and maintaining some flexibility to react to current events or attitudes and perceptions," she says. "I find it to be immensely rewarding."