After a 23-year run, Leslee Dart was abruptly fired Wednesday evening from her post as president of the publicity firm PMK/HBH. The exit of Dart, one of five agency partners, came after a power struggle with CEO Pat Kingsley.
The move was stunning, not only because Dart is the most prominent film industry publicist in New York, but also because of timing. She was at the center of Oscar-minded launch campaigns for such films as the Mike Nichols-directed “Closer,” the Martin Scorsese-directed “The Aviator” and the Wes Anderson-directed “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”
Dart, whose contract was due to expire at year’s end, was fired after meeting with Kingsley at the corporate headquarters of Momentum, the agency’s parent company, which is a division of the Interpublic Group. Dart was asked not to return to her office Wednesday. She returned Thursday to personally inform her 40-person staff in the Gotham office she was out.
While rumors raced that the exit stemmed from long-running differences between Dart and Kingsley, Kingsley said it came down to one issue.
“Basically, Leslee felt her time had come to run a company,” Kingsley said. “I’m not ready to stop being the leader of this company and I felt that it was important for her to realize that. So while it may be her time to run a company, I didn’t feel it was time for her to run this company.”
Dart said she was proud of the agency and her contributions in building it. She said she would take a breather before formulating the next move. Presumably, that move will involve some of her stellar client list. In addition to Nichols, Scorsese and Anderson, she repped Tom Hanks, Woody Allen, Hugh Grant, Jonathan Demme, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Imagine partners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin, Anthony Minghella and Jessica Lange.
Rudin, who is producing “Life Aquatic” and exec producing “Closer,” was less than pleased about the timing.
“There is no comparable strategist working on the release of movies to Leslee Dart, and to take her out of the equation at the most delicate time in the life of these movies shows a rather remarkable lack of respect for the films and the filmmakers who are clients of PMK,” Rudin said. “You can’t name anybody in the business who has Leslee’s ability to put together all the aspects of a publicity campaign, including talent, studios and the media.”
Along with Lois Smith, Dart and Kingsley were partners in PMK before they sold to Interpublic. The agency merged Huvane Baum Halls, and Kingsley, Dart and Smith became partners with Stephen Huvane, Robin Baum and Simon Halls. Dart worked closely on that merger and the expectation was that she would be heir apparent when Kingsley decided to retire, as Smith did last year. That was not to be.
Dart’s ouster led to rumors that the agency was shifting focus from showbiz to corporate clients due to pressure by the parent company to increase profits. Kingsley denied that. She said the entertainment business, which comprises 75% of revenues, will remain the core business. Ongoing attempts to increase a corporate client list that includes XBox, Motorola, AOL and Reebok are unrelated to what occurred with Dart, she said.
“We have a great staff and we are not about to give up entertainment, which is the thing we grew up on and that we are best at,” she said.