Flacks aflutter over star PR war

Tensions are escalating between the powerful handlers of publicity-shy movie and music stars and the studios and record labels looking to use those stars to promote their projects.

On one side are the in-house publicity departments of studios and labels, which rely on the cooperation of stars to promote films and records — especially faced with the rising cost of traditional advertising. On the other side are the increasingly powerful outside PR companies employed by stars.

Studios say the outside publicists are in effect anti-publicists: gatekeepers who are paid to protect a star’s privacy, not promote films. At record labels, in-house PR workers complain that outside companies are paid fat bonuses by the label for doing what they could have done themselves — such as landing guest appearances on such TV shows as “Saturday Night Live.”

Studios are looking for cheaper ways to promote their movies, which often means using the services of the film’s actors. As a result, much of the strategy on how movies will be promoted has shifted to the outside PR agencies, which virtually control what kind of tub-thumping the actors will do for the sake of a film. Just as magazines trying to land celebrity exclusives feel increasingly at the mercy of star publicists, many studio publicity execs are seeing their chances to publicize a film evaporate before their eyes. And the bile is surfacing.

“The PR agencies have the control these days,” one angry studio publicity honcho said. “They control the star, and it’s the studio that needs them to help promote the project.”

A decade ago studios, with their massive publicity departments, usually called the shots in publicizing a movie.

But stars have increasingly aligned themselves with independent publicists like Pat Kingsley — who reps Tom Cruise, Jodie Foster and Al Pacino — Andrea Jaffe, who has since moved in-house to head Fox publicity, and Susan Culley, publicist for Christian Slater.

“There is a friction between agencies and studios,” said Jeffrey Godsick, a VP at Rogers & Cowan, a PR agency that has handled as many as 15 studio films at one time. “It’s especially true when the agencies force themselves on the studio because of their relationship with a star, director or producer.”

Cruise, for example, has it in his contract that Kingsley, who runs PMK, be hired to promote every film in which he appears. At an average agency fee of $ 7 ,000 a month for sometimes up to a year, that’s a nice piece of change for doing work that some say should be done by a studio’s PR department.

“When a star compels a studio to hire his agency to represent his picture, that is a grievous conflict of interest,” Universal marketing executive Bruce Feldman said.

Outside publicists counter that studios and labels are too busy to notice when stars are burning out.

“A studio will have 30 to 40 pictures a year to release, and we think we can concentrate our effort on certain pictures,” Kingsley said. “A studio cannot give the same kind of attention to all the films they release.”

Some studio staffers agree. “A PR firm that represents talent should be looked at as part of a team,” Imagine marketing head Michael Rosenberg said. “Why not look at them as partners?”

Ten years ago, only a handful of pop acts used outside PR, although Nashville-based country acts have long used such outside firms. The bone of contention, label publicists agree, is when an outside agency that is already getting a fat retainer scores a big-dollar bonus — sometimes as high as $ 10, 000 — for getting an act a prize TV booking. Label staffers believe they are just as capable.

Veteran music publicist Susan Blond, who reps Meat Loaf, EMI chief Charles Koppelman and Iggy Pop, routinely structures bonuses into her agreements, in addition to her hefty monthly fee, according to sources.

Outside PR firms say they can do a better job because, unlike a label, their roster is limited. “The sheer volume of acts on a label’s roster often prohibits staff publicists from doing a really good job,” said indie music publicist Ronna Rubin, who’s currently promoting Sawyer Brown. “And they’re caught up in that corporate structure, going to meetings all the time. There’s so little time left.”

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