N.Y. planner helps studios spread the word

As awards season kicks into high gear, studios often find themselves with three kinds of movies: Good films that are tough sells, dicey pics with negative buzz, or little films that need to be discovered.

Each film presents a different challenge, but all film execs have the same solution: Call Peggy Siegal.

With Hollywood pumping out a record number of specialty films in the fourth quarter, Siegal has an event almost every day. Over the past month, the Gotham uber-planner has been juggling “Kite Runner,” “Michael Clayton,” “Lions for Lambs,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Valley of Elah,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “American Gangster,” “There Will Be Blood,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Namesake,” “P.S., I Love You,” “Juno” and “Across the Universe.”

Studios hire her to attract Gotham glitterati and literati to screenings, cocktails and dinner parties. She’s a one-woman marketing department, the queen of New York buzz, especially for small, serious films that need it most.

She’s been at it for three decades, but this year, there are subtle changes. Despite her hyper-sniper reputation, this is a kinder, gentler Siegal, who gives much credit for the change to her soft-spoken business partner of two years, Bryan Bantry, a Gotham entrepreneur and sometime Broadway producer who runs a thriving agency repping models, photographers, hair and makeup artists, and stylists.

Siegal reckons she’ll put on 120 events this year, each hosting 100 to 1,100 people. Studios hire her for up to six screenings per pic (depending on their budget and the film’s momentum). She’s also the go-to girl when institutions like the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet seek a dash of Hollywood glamour.

Friends and clients attribute her longevity to her famous 20,000 contacts-strong database (it’s way beyond a Rolodex); her studious grasp of the overlapping social networks and seasonal rhythms of city life (i.e. who’s in town when); her love of movies; and the fact that she never stops working.

“My job is to provide the most prestigious group of people who will turn out and see a film,” Siegal tells Variety. “They don’t need me for ‘Spider-Man’ or ‘Superman.’ … When they give me a film, whether it’s a documentary like ‘Sicko’ or a difficult sell that is a marvelous film, like ‘Kite Runner,’ I know how to position them in New York and that’s why they hire me.”

At meals, she seats friends together, enemies apart, those who’ve made it next to up-and-comers. In a blink, she can scan Le Cirque for no-shows, scoop up folks at sparse tables and deposit them at livelier ones.

“People trust her, they know she will take care of them. It’s an intangible service she provides,” says Quentin Schaffer of HBO, who’s worked with Siegal since the days when Michael Fuchs gave her office space at HBO in return for planning their events. (Now her digs sit above the Paris movie theater, next to the Plaza.)

NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams says, “In another era, I’ve always thought she could have organized the civilian Stateside war effort for FDR … as long as FDR understood she’d need time for manicures and regular maintenance.”

Siegal, a slender brunette with a big smile and fabulous outfits (she sometimes changes three times a day), has spent most of her career in Gotham, save for a short stint in Los Angeles in 1982 when she started out doing “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” publicity for Steven Spielberg.

Back in New York, she and Lois Smith founded her first business, Smith & Siegal, financed by Siegal’s father, a New Jersey lightbulb mogul. (In high school she was known as the Lightbulb Princess.) Siegal found her niche in events as Hollywood studios consolidated their own publicity departments in Los Angeles, leaving New York wide open — even though most national media is based there.

“The girls in L.A. don’t know the city like I do. They don’t travel in the same circles I do. They don’t know the people I know, and they are not out seven nights a week,” Siegal says.

Over the years, Siegal has developed an eclectic group of contacts. She has a media list; a business list; a literary list; a political list; lists for directors, actors, producers. Her tastemaker screenings are sprinkled with writers, filmmakers, actors and anchors. Bennett Miller, Paul Haggis and David Hare are regulars, as are Frank McCourt, Dan Abrams, Darren Aronofsky, Bob Balaban, Mariska Hargitay and the “Law & Order” crowd.

Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Glenn Close, Randy Quaid, Dick Cavett and other marquee names came out in force for a recent “Lions for Lambs” screening at MOMA, flanking Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise. The A-listers drew a crowd despite negative buzz on the film.

Siegal “knows how to attract the perfect audiences for word-of-mouth screenings. … Filmmakers and talent trust her for her impeccable taste, creative ideas and consistent ability to deliver,” says Harvey Weinstein.

Siegal’s media contacts started as a sort of celebrity filler but turned into powerful allies. After all, Regis Philbin and Barbara Walters get more face time with the moviegoing public than any celebrity.

“The news people are all my buddies. Barbara, Jeff Greenfield, Campbell Brown. I watch TV and write down their names.”

Brian Williams has plugged both “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “United 93″ on air. Couric touted “Hotel Rwanda.”

“I only accept invitations to movies I plan on seeing anyway,” Williams says. “As good as Peggy is, she’s never getting me to attend a three-hour, experimental film from Europe with subtitles and no car chase.”

A self-proclaimed perfectionist and compulsive organizer, Siegal has weathered the snide profiles and snickers that come along with the accolades. She’s been called aggressive, demanding, a social climber, lacking interpersonal skills, and criticized for abusing assistants, kicking people out of seats, and pestering invitees with insistent emails.

There’s even a rumor that someone once set her coat on fire. It’s false, she says, explaining that a votive candle ignited the sleeve of her fox fur. Siegal says: “It’s not that I was mean-spirited. I can be short-tempered because I am impatient. I’m like a kid obsessed; if you don’t get an A you want to kill yourself.”

Her friend Jane Rosenthal of Gotham’s Tribeca Prods., says: “When you have to build something from nothing, pushy and ambitious are not bad words. It’s a testament to her constitution that she’s been able to just keep on going. The one thing about Peggy is she doesn’t know the word ‘no.’ “

Cynthia McFadden, co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline,” says: “Peggyunderstands that journalists seem to like to go places with other journalists. What better recreation for the chattering class than getting a first, or at least early, look at various films?”

Siegal, who went to her senior prom at Fort Lee High with CNBC’s Larry Kudlow, is trying her hand at writing, filing Oscar reports and an occasional column for tony Upper East Side magazine Avenue.

The late columnist Claudia Cohen and director Nancy Meyers grew up a few blocks from Siegal in Englewood Cliffs. At 16, she says, she used to sneak out in a Chanel suit and take a bus to Elaine’s to look at Jackie Onassis and Woody Allen.

At Syracuse U., she was pals with Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, which, she says, “came in very handy when they opened Studio 54.”

She has a standing lunch date with a group of women who call themselves the Harpies including Nora Ephron, Liz Smith and Barbara Walters. There’s another group for tennis. “Ninety percent of my friends have private planes,” she says with satisfaction.

Despite her high-flying social schedule, she says she doesn’t have many dates.

“I was one of thousands of women who had a ‘go-see’ with (New York Mayor) Michael Bloomberg. That means a drink. Not an evening. Not buying dinner. He was thinking of running and I said, ‘You should, and then you should get the film business really going.’ And he said, ‘I don’t like movies.’ And I said, ‘What about filmmaking in New York City?’ “

The mayor has helped revitalize NYC’s film biz — but the mini-date didn’t go anywhere. “He was so not interested in me,” Siegal says.

“I have this fabulous, fast life, maybe it’s intimidating. No one asks me out. I’ve filled up my life with great people.”

They came in force to Siegal’s 60th birthday bash last summer at the Hotel Plaza Athenee. She says she’d been to a wave of 60th birthday parties. “Not one of them was given by or for a woman. I thought, since I don’t look 60, I would step up to the plate for womankind and say it’s OK to be 60 and celebrate that you got there in good health.”

At her bash, she distributed booklets, “How to Look Like Me at 60.” It had the names of 30 doctors and handlers, her dermatologist, optometrist, nutritionist, and foot and ankle specialist. “People say, ‘Your skin looks fabulous,’ and I say ‘Thank you very much. Call this number, you can buy this skin.’ “

“In this homogenized industry of ours, Peggy is one of a kind. Chutzpah is her middle name, and she makes you laugh,” says actor Michael Douglas, who’s known her for years.

The mature Siegal says she’s calmer and more politic. Siegal says her reputation is a throwback to “the old Peggy” — the low point being when she ordered a Paramount exec, his companion and two friends to surrender their seats at a “Mean Girls” screening to Dan Aykroyd and his family.

She describes the incident in a new book by Charles Grodin titled “If Only I Knew Then … Learning From Our Mistakes,” a compilation of high-profile bloopers.

“In a moment of profound confusion, and, in hindsight, the dumbest decision I ever made, I asked the newly appointed Paramount executive to get up,” Siegal wrote. (She doesn’t name Par’s then-head of worldwide marketing Gerry Rich).

“The Paramount PR people began to plot my assassination.

“Why would I humiliate the very people who pay my bills? … This snap decision haunts me to this day.”

She blames the seating crunch on Lindsay Lohan’s father, who invited “half of Long Island” to the event. “He eventually went to jail, but not for sabotaging his own daughter’s event … which in my book of justice remains his biggest crime today.

“Do I now know who I work for? Have I become a little more empathetic to people’s feelings in an overbooked theater? You bet.”

Now Siegal is practically peerless. The only one who comes remotely close is Andrew Saffir, who started the Cinema Society several years ago and holds about 25 screenings a year. “One every couple of weeks is enough for me,” Saffir says. He figures there’s room for both of them, since “Peggy couldn’t physically do more than she does now.”

Siegal gives Bantry much credit, calling him her manager and “a genius with money” who has helped double her business and her rates. Siegal gets up to $25,000 for an event.

Bantry and Siegal have known each other for 35 years. Their collaboration has been less public than Siegal’s earlier forays with Lizzie Grubman and Harriet Weintraub, but Siegal calls it “life-changing.”

“He had me send cookies and flowers to everyone in Hollywood. He had me send them all thank-you notes for jobs. It was like a 12-step program,” she says.

Bantry demurs. “If anything, I am like a coach,” he says. “She lives and breathes the business and that is the secret to her success.”

Miramax spokeswoman Emily Baer, who once worked as Siegal’s assistant, thinks Bantry has “calmed her down. He’s taken the edge off. But she’s still tenacious and aggressive, and that makes her the best.”

“Mellowed?” another publicist burst out laughing. “Peggy has not toned down. She wouldn’t be Peggy if she did. You wouldn’t be writing this story.”

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