A dozen press agents working overtime may indeed be able to do terrible things to the human spirit, as William Holden said in “Sunset Boulevard,” but not to worry: Flacks are cutting back.

Virtually every praisery in town is laying off execs these days. Veteran flacks blame the current economic climate, a retrenchment at the studio level, and the continuing paucity of indie film companies and film product.

“Every single agency in the business has had to tighten up,” says a senior exec at Rogers & Cowan, which with annual billings at over $14 million is the industry’s largest flatter-house.

Tightening up has meant not only pink-slipping publicists, but diversifying services and accepting smaller clients, and at rates they wouldn’t have accepted before, agencies say.

4 gone at R&C

Layoffs have hit Rogers & Cowan, which has lost four people, and rivals Clein & White and Dennis Davidson & Associates. Most recent to get the gate were DDA’s able veteran Mark Rosenthal and Stephanie Alexander.

While industry accountants, lawyers and technical support have kept their jobs in this time of strife, publicists are getting their walking papers. To borrow the title of another classic American film, they were expendable.

As a result, the very streets of Hollywood seem to crawl with flacks out of work. One studio publicity head says, “It’s wonderful for us, or it would be if we didn’t have a hiring freeze, because there are some very talented people available right now.”

DDA vice-chairman Mort Segal confirms layoffs at his company, though he notes that DDA probably will post best-year figures ever for fiscal 1990, despite the loss of clients MCEG (against whom DDA has filed a $150,000 nonpayment complaint), Weintraub Entertainment Group, BSB and Orion films. He estimates that 1990 will see a likely rise in billings from $3.2 million to $4 million but adds that “things do seem a little slower. Business is down.”

Film problems ‘hit home’

A Clein & White source says, “The ills of the independent film biz have hit home here. Things are tighter.” A Solters, Roskin & Freidman source says, “We lost Janet Jackson and the Grammys. That hurt.” A Rogers & Cowan source says, “We’ve all lost some business with the indies going down the tubes. It’s been a growing problem for at least three years. And the corporate clients are all cutting back.”

“The corporate area is critical,” a source who demanded anonymity says. “It may account for only 30% of the overhead, but it returns more like 60%. A client like Citicorp pays more than some celebrity does. So when corporate starts to go sour – because of poor leadership, as it has at R&C – it hurts the business a lot.”

Several sources at the smaller houses noted that some clients have asked to go off their retainers while promising that they’ll start up their (average) $2,000 to $2,500 a month service fees again when they have a new film or TV product to promote.

“We’re adapting,” says boutique praisery Bragman & Co.’s Howard Bragman. “We’re taking a lot of new business, and a lot of small business – business that we would not have taken before, at prices we would not have accepted.”

“We’re re-orienting,” says R&C’s Jeffrey Godsick. “We’re turning into a marketing-oriented publicity agency, as opposed to only a publicity-oriented agency. This is promotion, product placement and marketing, not just getting interviews on the radio and the TV stations.”

“We’re taking a horizontal approach to growth, not just a vertical approach,” says R&C’s Tom Tardio, who since prexy and CEO Richard Taylor’s ouster one month ago has been acting in that capacity. “We’re leaning towards offering our clients more financial and investor services.”

Replacements, too

Tardio stresses that while there may have been “five or six” layoffs in the last half-year, most of those evicted have been replaced. Maggie Begley was brought over from Mahoney Communications, as was Terry Wills. Jeff Matlock was moved in to work on product placement. SRF’s Eliot Sekuler arrived to work in the music department. More recently R&C added Sylvie Brown from PMK and Julie Polks from Fox. Deborah Nathan was added to the New York office.

But Kay Dangaard, ousted head of R&C’s troubled corporate entertainment division, has not been replaced. Tim Scerba, formerly second in command to Dangaard, currently holds the job, but R&C sources say the head hunt is on.

Oscar a boon

Several sources noted that the p.r. business has brightened over the last several weeks because of the seasonal Oscar push. A more accurate assessment of the overall picture will have to wait until the “For your consideration” and “MegaStudios congratulates its Oscar nominees” campaigns come to an end.

R&C’s Godsick and Tardio stress that their praisery is experiencing growth and good health. Their film division has increased from a staff of four, five years ago, to 14, and business for 1990 was up 65% over 1989. Annual billings are about $2 million a year. And DDA’s Segal insists that there is good news about, too. New clients include Cinergi, the (Thom) Mount Film Co., Penta Pictures, Spelling Films Intl. and Summit Export Group.

“As goes the independent sector, so go we,” Segal says. “We know the independents go through peaks and valleys, and if that sector is healthy, we’ll be healthy.”

But one source who asked not to be named, and who said his own agency was experiencing “a pretty alarming slow down,” says of those two agencies and other large houses, “The bigger you are, the harder you get hit. There’s a lot of overhead there, and even though it may take a while longer, the recession is going to hurt everyone.”

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