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Hollywood's High-Powered Image Machine : In Pat Kingsley's Tough World of Celebrity Publicity, Less Is More, and Too Much Exposure Can Be Fatal

July 10, 1988|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Michael Cieply is a Times staff writer who covers the entertainment industry.

IN 1971, Kingsley formed her own firm, Pickwick Public Relations, with Lois Smith and Gerri Johnson. Johnson had a baby at age 40 and left. Pat Newcomb joined as a partner but then left to pursue another career, as did Smith in the late '70s. In 1980, Kingsley--who by then had married, had a daughter and divorced--merged her company with rival Maslansky, Koenigsberg to form PMK.

Michael Maslansky eventually suffered a debilitating stroke, and Neil Koenigsberg left to become a personal manager. But Lois Smith returned; today she's a partner in the New York office, along with co-owner Leslie Dart.

As the firm evolved, the client list grew less by aggressive recruiting than by word of mouth among the star community. Sean Connery and Teri Garr were referred by Creative Artists Agency, with which Kingsley has close ties, while Woody Allen was passed along by ICM's Sam Cohn, with whom the New York office is allied. (Talent agencies routinely refer clients to various prospective publicists, leaving it to the star to choose one.)

Occasionally, Kingsley's distinctly liberal political stance also becomes a drawing card. "She gets us out of the vacuum of Celebrityville," explains Garr, who was arrested with Kingsley earlier this year during a disarmament protest at a Nevada military base. Handcuffed and bused 150 miles to remote Tonopah, the protesters were released after a stern lecture from an imposing female guard.

"Now, are there any questions?" the guard demanded.

"Yeah, who does your hair?" asked Garr, according to Kingsley, who still giggles over the incident.

Others are attracted by what they say is Kingsley's sometimes brutal honesty in dealing with clients.

Sally Field, who had never worked with a personal publicist, recalls having met Kingsley, whom she had recently retained, on the set of "Absence of Malice" in Miami. "Back Roads," in which Field played an ex-hooker opposite Tommy Lee Jones, had been finished but not yet released--and Kingsley committed the unthinkable sin of telling Field that the movie simply didn't work.

"That's unheard of," Field says. But she chose to stay with Kingsley largely because the publicist's air of confidence overcame what she calls an "ostrich"-like part of herself that wanted to hide from everything frightening in the movie industry.

"With Pat, a sort of safeness came over me I'd never felt before."

THE COCOON THAT creates such safeness for stars is still much smaller than Rogers & Cowan, which has branched heavily into corporate work since all-but-inventing the business of celebrity PR in the 1940s. PMK has just 38 employees, 18 of whom are full-time publicists.

The Los Angeles office is headed by Kingsley. The New York office is headed by partners Smith and Dart.

Most of the firm's "press agents," a seemingly old-fashioned term that publicists often use for themselves, are in their early 30s. They are tense, smart and sharply focused, and roughly two-thirds, by Kingsley's estimate, are female. "(Publicity) is a very satisfying career for women," Kingsley says, "because so many women work in the magazine world they're dealing with. It's easy to communicate."

Some of the agents are college-educated. But others started as secretaries or in other low-paid positions in the movie hierarchy and moved into publicity as a way of getting onto the professional ladder.

Most are intensely proud of their work. "I think sometimes public relations is just brushed aside as fluff to a certain extent, or as something extremely self-serving," says Danish-born Annett Wolf Blach, a PMK vice president who studied PR in extension courses at UCLA. "But I see it applied on so many levels to so many issues," ranging from the arts to social causes.

In addition to personal publicity retainers, the company collects fees from studios, which have slimmed down their in-house PR departments. Recently, PMK was behind publicity campaigns for "Big," "Willow," "Colors" and "The Milagro Beanfield War," among others. In promoting "Big," says an executive involved with the film, PMK and Fox agreed to launch a high-profile campaign, in effect pretending they had no worries, even though the studio was worried about the movie's similarity to other recent comedies. PMK shopped for cover stories and helped set up lavish publicity parties on both coasts. It worked.

Often, star clients ask the studio to retain PMK on their films--a tactic that helps the client control how his or her image will be affected by the selling of a particular movie. Can that mean saying no to studio executives, who are paying the bills and may want to maximize exposure for a movie without worrying about individual careers? "Absolutely," says producer and director James Brooks, who asked Fox to retain PMK in marketing "Broadcast News" and "Big." "It would be wrong to take away anything from Fox. But Pat represents (my production company)."

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