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Company Town | REPORT FROM CANNES

PR Firm Dennis Davidson Still the Master of the Cannes Game

May 17, 1996|MARK SAYLOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANNES, France — At 9 a.m. Thursday, the first small crisis of the day arises for Chris Paton.

Kenneth Branagh, the star and director of an upcoming film version of "Hamlet" for Castle Rock, is scheduled for two hours of television interviews and his makeup artist hasn't arrived.

No problem for Paton and Dennis Davidson Associates, the powerhouse public relations firm that seems to have more influence over what happens during the Cannes International Film Festival than the movie companies they work for.

In five minutes, Paton lines up another makeup artist to meet Branagh at a new location so Branagh can start the TV interviews on time. (DDA flew in two makeup artists from Paris for the duration of the festival. When Rosanna Arquette's photo session was canceled Thursday morning, one was freed up.)

While little-known movies compete for awards at the well-known festival, and films are bartered like rugs in the Cannes marketplace, another kind of business ranks as perhaps the most important of all for the film world.

The central business of Cannes may be publicity. There are more than 4,000 entertainment journalists here--the largest such gathering in the world--and it is the business of an elite corps of publicists hired by the movie companies to figure out how to make the most of their presence.

A well-handled publicity campaign in Cannes can bring attention worth tens of millions of dollars in markets worldwide, particularly in Europe, where the festival and its attendant atmosphere are broadcast live day and night.

But the chaotic nature of the festival, with its huge crowds, disparate locations and great expense, makes Cannes both an opportunity and a nightmare for publicity agents.

DDA, a London-based public relations firm with offices in Los Angeles and New York, has become the acknowledged master of how to get things done in Cannes. Other publicity firms also operate in Cannes, but none quite at the level of DDA, whose 37 employees here work 18-hour days from a cramped warren of offices at the Majestic Hotel.

Competitors grumble that DDA, by locking up hotel suites, screening rooms and other venues, controls too much of the festival business. But in the end, they often come to DDA for help themselves.

Elizabeth Clark, Castle Rock's vice president of publicity, jokingly calls them the "DDA Mafia" and explains that Castle Rock hires DDA in Cannes because "you can ask them for anything."

Dennis Davidson, the founder of DDA, said wryly that his firm has become a sort of concierge to the independent film companies that dominate Cannes.

Davidson recalls renting rooms at the Majestic more than 20 years ago because he couldn't get any space at the Carlton, where the major studios controlled most of the rooms. At the time, the Palais du Cinema was next to the Carlton.

Two things happened over the years that tipped the geographic and economic balance of the festival in Davidson's direction. The Palais, which is the festival headquarters, was moved to a new building that's virtually across the street from the Majestic. Meanwhile, the independent film business grew like kudzu.

Today, DDA keeps a year-round office in Cannes to handle the complexities of Davidson's business here. During the festival, DDA leases about 15% of the Majestic and then sublets it to dozens of companies.

The company operates a fleet of cars that some days number 80 or more, bringing stars and directors to various locations. DDA blocks out hundreds of hotel rooms in the area and hundreds of cellular phones.

When director Robert Altman, here to promote his award entry, "Kansas City," decided he wanted to have a cell phone, Fine Line was advised to ask DDA.

DDA has dozens of clients at the festival, including Castle Rock International, Live Entertainment, Miramax and New Line, and works on nearly a dozen of the films in the various competitions.

Paton, 33, a Canadian who worked for years in DDA's Los Angeles office before moving to London, is the firm's senior vice president for international. He said Cannes this year has been smoother and more relaxed than in many of the seven years he has worked the festival, primarily because of the absence of huge stars. The most difficult event he remembers handling was in 1991, when Madonna arrived here with a party of 12, a visit "fraught with logistical and security problems."

Davidson begins each day with an 8 a.m. meeting during which he goes through everything coming up: arrivals, restaurant bookings, screenings, photo shoots, requests for tickets, parties that will run into early-morning hours. On Thursday he assigned about 15 people to various tasks for a nighttime benefit sponsored by Miramax for AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. One of those tasks was to be full-time "handler" for Cher, a necessity for most stars who come to the festival.

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