PR pros ply skills amid shifting sands | Chat show puzzle pieces in play
It used to be a cozy little fraternity consisting of publicists and assorted celebrity acolytes, with guest bookers at the nexus. The publicists’ cause: enhancing the fame and fortune of the superstar clients they humbly served. The bookers’ cause: getting the top stars onto their show and keeping them off rivals’ shows. The only occasional static came from the clients themselves, who were dependably egomaniacal and demanding.
The “fraternity” these days has grown more quarrelsome than cozy. Many of its members agree that the care and feeding of celebrities isn’t much fun anymore.
The dilemma in turn reflects the changing nature of that curious sub-stratum of society that has come to be called “the celebrity culture.” In Hollywood’s banner years, superstars were carefully nurtured, groomed and protected by the studio publicity machine. The PR protectorswere not modest about their power: Howard Strickling, the PR pooh-bah of MGM, once responded to an interview request for a superstar by saying, “I can certainly get him to sit down to lunch with you; after all, I kept him out of the slammer last week.”
Today’s paranoid superstars feel like they’re under siege. There’s no Strickling-like figure to run protection for them. At a time when they have product lines to protect and franchises to guard, their privacy is aggressively invaded by gossip bloggers and storm troopers from TMZ. And the faux celebrities from reality television hover nearby, eager to grab whatever corners of turf they find available.
Believing they’re an endangered species, some superstars have come to avoid nearly all interview requests from mainstream media or to pre-impose so many constraints that interactions are futile. Even casual red-carpet encounters or junkets are becoming rare in some cases. “A few of my top clients feel they look stupid on the red carpet and they don’t see how these things help their movies,” says one of Hollywood’s most important agents. His clients, he says, prefer to tweet and pray to the gods of the social media.
The upshot is that celebrities have become less active in their own rescue. A few, ranging from Brad Pitt to Robert Pattinson, abjure hiring publicists. Some even duck the once-safe latenight talkshow circuit. Some stars, like Daniel Craig or Vince Vaughn, have found themselves in arguments with their studios over promotion or lack of it.
All this steps up the pressure on the humble bookers, who are trapped in their bunkers between paranoid celebrities and frustrated producers and journalists. On the one hand, the demand for celebrity talent to be out promoting is increasing: To a studio, a celebrity interview is a lot cheaper than a TV commercial.
The proliferation of latenight shows — the Kimmels, Fallons and Fergusons — has heightened not only the demand for celebrities but also the intramural competition. Going back to the days of Johnny Carson, publicists have respected the unwritten rules about double-dipping — you can’t do Leno and Letterman within the same time cycle. The Ferguson-vs.-Fallon rules are even muddier.
Last week I invited five working bookers to come together for an off-the-record tell-all session to find out how they were coping with the new world order. Their analyses were very much in synch.
“The process has become chaotic,” says one veteran booker, “The studios have lost control of the publicists, the publicists have lost control of their clients and the clients have lost control of themselves.”
Bookers occupy a unique perch in the celebrity business — they see themselves as the connective tissue between the celebrities and the media. Some have elevated their titles to talent executive or segment producer, but their basic job is still to orchestrate the talkshow interviews, the set visits and the other rituals of self-promotion.
Their relations with other sectors of the celebrity community have become frayed, most admit. “It wasn’t that long ago that we held each other in mutual respect,” says one. “Now we rarely talk on the phone. We just exchange mean-spirited emails.”
Some islands of relative calm still exist for bookers, to be sure — the ever-expanding awards circuit, for example. “You can always find a star for an award ceremony,” observes one booker. “All you have to do is guarantee that he’ll get an award.” And it’s never that hard to rig the vote if the “name” is glossy enough.