Industry shocked by death of untiring publicist

As news of veteran publicist Ronni Chasen’s death from multiple gunshot wounds spread through Hollywood Tuesday morning, those who knew her — and few people didn’t — expressed shock and dismay at the violent end to the life of a woman known throughout the biz as a force of nature and a tireless advocate for her clients.

In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Chasen made her mark as a champion of film composers, and her efforts on behalf of such clients as Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore and James Newton Howard helped to dramatically raise the profile of composers’ contributions to film. She was also respected as a top award-season strategist and a loyal supporter of many clients who had been with her for decades.

Chasen, who turned 64 on Oct. 17, was found with five gunshot wounds in her chest about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday in Beverly Hills,where her Mercedes crashed into a lightpole on Whittier Drive just south of Sunset Boulevard. She was believed to be returning home after attending Monday night’s premiere of “Burlesque.” She was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center less than an hour later.

“I’m profoundly sad, devastated, mad, incredulous and lonely,” Zimmer said in a statement that reflected sentiments shared by many of Chasen’s friends and clients.

Zimmer recalled spending time with Chasen on Saturday during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Governors Awards ceremony.

“She was radiant,” Zimmer said. “She knew everybody in the room. She took Chris Nolan over to the next table and introduced him to George Lucas. I was watching her standing there listening to them and I thought, ‘There’s my friend Ronni, introducing two great directors to each other. She’s on top of her game.’ ”

Her current roster of clients at Chasen and Co. shingle include helmer Jim Sheridan, producers Gale Ann Hurd, Irwin Winkler, Ian Sander and Kim Moses, Richard Zanuck and Dean Zanuck. Although she had worked on numerous Oscar campaigns for studios and individual clients, her main focus was representing top film composers, with Zimmer, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Carter Burwell and songwriter Diane Warren among active clients. Other notable composers, including Shore, Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman and James Newton Howard, had been previous clients.

“She laid the groundwork for so many others on how to be a top publicist in the film music industry representing top composers and songwriters,” said Laura Dunn of the Society of Composers and Lyricists. “She was tenacious, a force of nature, working tirelessly for her composer clients. She will be sorely missed in our film music community.”

Danielle Heynickx, a coordinator for the Ghent Film Festival, which annually spotlights film composers, credits Chasen for putting the festival and its World Soundtrack Awards on the map. It was at Ghent in 2000 that Zimmer performed live in concert for the first time, opening up the door for composers like Goldenthal, Shore, Stephen Warbeck, Gustavo Santaolalla and Dario Marianelli to perform their music in front of an audience.

“What we’re doing now with film music, it’s Ronni who made the contacts and had her crazy way of dealing with things and she brought everybody to Ghent. She knew not only the Oscar winners but knew who the young talents were that we should pay attention to,” Heynickx said.

Goldenthal, who’d worked with Chasen for some 16 years, said that in Ghent, “I remember going to bed and leaving her at 3 in the morning and I said, ‘Good night,’ and she said ‘Good night. I’m just going to go up to my room and think about my clients; that’s what I do when I go to sleep.’?”

The Hollywood and Palm Springs film festivals, among other events, relied on Chasen to coordinate talent as honorees, tying their appearances into the awards season. And as the studios transitioned from inhouse teams to handle Oscar and Golden Globe campaigns, Chasen was one of the in-demand publicity consultants. Among the films she’d worked on for awards consideration in recent years were “Alice in Wonderland,” “Crazy Heart,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Doubt,” “The Wrestler,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” At the time of her death, she was also working with 20th Century Fox on the Oscar campaign for Michael Douglas in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

“She was the go-to person for all Oscar and Golden Globe campaigns and really created a business for it,” said Hanna Pantle, head of PR for the performing rights org BMI. “(Chasen) had this innate sense of what it took to get an (award) voter to get connected to your work as a songwriter and composer and get them to vote.”

But her relationships with clients went beyond her professionalism.

“Ronni was a loving and caring person who treated her clients like they were her own family,” said her brother, screenwriter-director Larry Cohen. Friends noted that Chasen took a maternal and protective approach with her clients.

Petite and always perky, Chasen was known for sporting a poufy blond blowout and for her distinctive fast-talking, New York-accented style. She was among the last of a breed of old-school Hollywood press agents who politely but persistently refused to take “no” for an answer. She’d often send volumes of material to reporters to underscore why her client or was worthy of coverage. She often seemed to have the energy of a person half her age.

A shrewd judge of talent, she acted as a mentor to a generation of publicists and other biz execs.

Born and raised in New York, Chasen got her start doing PR for the theater. After moving to Los Angeles, she headed publicity for Samuel Arkoff’s AIP from 1978 to 1980, coming up with exploitation publicity stunts.

“For ‘Love at First Bite,’ we sent George Hamilton to 12 cities where he appeared in his vampire outfit. We had him pulling up in front of the Plaza Hotel in a horse-drawn hearse,” Chasen told Variety in 2000.

From 1979 to 1989, she headed the motion picture department of PR powerhouse Rogers & Cowan and remained close to Warren Cowan until his death in 2008. In 1993, she was named senior VP of worldwide publicity for MGM. She launched her own firm, Chasen & Co., nearly 20 years ago.

“Ronni was loved and respected by everyone. She was part of the fabric of an industry that meant everything to her,” said Vivian Mayer-Siskind, a publicist and longtime friend who had Chasen as the maid of honor at her wedding. “Her work was her playground. Ronni loved every minute of what she did and in return, her clients were equally dedicated to her.”

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in L.A. Donations can be made to the Tower Cancer Research Foundation in Beverly Hills, towercancerfoundation.org.

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