'My Passion is for Movies'

Hollywood was rocked on Thursday by a surprise shakeup at the top of the entertainment industry's most powerful publicity company. Leslee Dart, managing director of PMK/HBH, was fired by her boss of 23 years, Pat Kingsley, the 72-year-old reigning doyenne of film publicity, after a protracted power struggle over the future of the firm. Several of Dart's clients, who include producers Scott Rudin and Brian Grazer, actors Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks and directors Ron Howard and Anthony Minghella, publicly expressed outrage at the news and vowed to follow Dart out the door. Since being acquired by the Interpublic Group in 1999, the firm has tilted its business more toward high-paying corporate clients and away from Hollywood talent, which is Dart's specialty. For years, though, it was an open secret in both the firm and the industry at large that Dart, 50, was the heir apparent at PMK/HBH once Kingsley retired. Dart spoke with Newsweek's Jeff Giles.

NEWSWEEK: Let's start at the beginning. Was this one of those firings where you're ushered out of the building, and told that your belongings will be shipped to you?

Leslee Dart: No. I was asked to go down to a meeting with Pat [Kingsley] last Wednesday. I was told that I was being terminated and I was asked to not go back to the office. But it was clear that later I'd be allowed to go back to tell the staff, and that I could do it alone or Pat could come with me. She said that there were two options: I could say I resigned, which she said that she preferred and she assumed I would prefer, or that they would say I was terminated.

Why did you pick "terminated"?

Because it's the truth.

Scott Rudin, who's a powerful producer and a friend of yours, called me today, obviously outraged. He said, among other things, that what's happened to you is a metaphor for the corporatization of the movie industry. What Pat Kingsley seemed to be saying in the papers this morning was, "Look, Leslee didn't have corporate clients and this company is increasingly not about the movie industry."

What's happened is that the corporate clients--of which I did have several--are much higher-paying. There's a greater upside to having a corporate client who pays maybe three, four, five times the monthly fee of a movie. So there was a lot of pressure to deliver more and more corporate clients, which was something that I was not particularly interested in doing.

Well, if corporate clients pay so much better, why are you wasting your time with movies?

The only reason Reebok, AOL and Motorola are interested in PMK is because of their movie-star relationships. Otherwise they can go hire Hill & Knowlton.

What's been going on since Wednesday? People have been calling you to voice their support, I gather.

Oh my god, yeah. Virtually all of my clients have checked in. I started to get flowers and champagne, and it's been not just clients, but press and studio heads and competitors. I mean, I've been getting calls from competitors in London. Oh, I just got another delivery of flowers--they're from my friends at Fine Line.

Is it fair to say that you've been frustrated on a personal level because, while you had many of PMK's biggest name clients, you weren't running the company?

Well, I was the president and COO, so I did have input--but it began to diminish in recent weeks.

Do you think that's because Pat Kingsley suspected that you were going to break away and start your own company?

No. It began to diminish because she knew what she was going to do.

Which was dump you.

Yes.

Some people think that you have been planning to start a company--maybe PMK heard rumors and just cut to the chase?

Completely and totally impossible.

Pat Kingsley also seems to be saying, 'Look, Leslee Dart may think she's ready to take my job--but I'm not going anywhere.'

Well, yes, she's said all of that. She's quoted as saying all that.

Was she right to perceive you as a threat within the company?

The only reason that I'm a threat is that I'm younger than she is by about 25 years--and still have a big future ahead of me.

What's going to happen to all of your clients?

I have no idea.

Rudin's already said in print that he'll follow you. Wes Anderson has said it.

I don't know that I'm gong to start my own agency so when you say these people want to go with me--truly, I might decide to sell widgets in Massachusetts.

Hmmm. Probably not, though.

Probably I wouldn't sell widgets.

My sense is that you like the rush.

My passion is for movies, and filmmakers and talent. That's always been my passion. That's what I excel at and I am going to find a way to make sure I can continue to do that. There are a lot of options.

Tell me what you did the minute that you knew you were getting fired.

The minute that I walked out of the building, my husband was waiting in a car for me and he took me out to lunch.

Did you call clients?

Not that minute, no.

So how did Nicole Kidman find out?

[PMK/HBH's] Catherine Olim told her.

Have you spoken to Nicole?

Oh, yeah. She's very upset.

She seems like she'd be pretty sensitive to who was representing her. I wouldn't think she'd settle for just anybody.

I can't speak for her.

O-kay.

I'm good at my job, right?

Yes. Have you thought about hiring a publicist? Who would you hire?

[Laughs] I would probably hire Michael Leon.

Who is that?

My husband. He is my biggest fan and my biggest strategist.

Let's talk briefly about your resume. You were Tom Hanks' personal publicist. You did campaigns for "The English Patient," right? "A Beautiful Mind," "Chicago," "Angels in America." You were also close to Woody Allen through his very public family problems. Are you still close to him?

Oh, yeah.

Have you talked to him?

Yes. He's upset and he doesn't know what to do and he wants to know what I'm gong to do--and I don't know.

OK, now that we've raved about your resume, do you have any faults as a publicist that we should know about? You do have a little bit of a temper. And you can get in people's faces. Is that fair to say?

Yes. I want what I want.

You don't suffer fools.

No, I don't have time for that.

Would a movie star or a director who's a client of PMK's be happy to read in the papers that the company that represents them is increasingly about corporate clients?

Again, I can't speak for them.

You might have a suspicion.

I don't think that that would be a particularly positive thing in their minds.

Why are you being so soft, Leslee?

[Laughs] Because.

Let's talk about personal publicity generally. Do you think that, since the Us Weekly-ization of America, it's been a somewhat less fun occupation?

Mmmm. I wouldn't say less fun. I would say that you have to react faster and that it's more demanding because there are more outlets now and news spreads faster. What's disturbing about the--what did you call it?

The Us Weekly-ization of America.

What's disturbing about all of that--and about tabloid "journalism"--is that truth isn't important. And that's what makes it an ugly part of my business.

You mean that truth isn't important to the tabloids?

Right.

OK, but publicists tell big fat lies all the time.

Not me.

Come on. You must have protected people: 'No, they're absolutely not dating.' Or: 'No, he wasn't in the car at the time.'

I got called about people dating. I got called about whether or not people were engaged. I got called about whether people were pregnant. I simply refused to answer. I just didn't take the call. 'I'm sorry she's not available. May I take a message?' If it was a journalist that I'm close to, and I would never want to not return their call, I would say, 'You know what? I can't answer that question.'

I'm sure many of your clients, like Kidman, consider you a friend.

No question. And when we talk and I tell them that I don't know what I'll be doing, the thing that I do know is that they're still going to be my friends--and whether our relationship exists in the professional world or not is a little irrelevant. I know that we'll talk and we'll care about each other.

But now that you're not representing them all is there anyone that you want to admit is absolutely crazy?

[Laughs] No.

You're sure?

I'm positive.

We talked about how filmmakers might feel about being represented by PMK/HBH in a corporate era. What about young publicists? Why should you go work for PMK if you love movies?

It's a very good question.

'My Passion is for Movies' | News