TALES FROM TINSELTOWN: 'America's Sweethearts': latest source offlack for Hollywood PR

Billy Crystal describes it as "the second hardest job in the world

next to being the PR guy for Gary Condit." The comedian (Crystal, not

Condit) was referring to the task of being a Hollywood publicist - a

role he plays in his new film America's Sweethearts. The film takes dead

aim at the foibles of catering to the never-ending demands of a

Hollywood diva and the inherent insanities of movie publicity and

junkets. Having once done 78 junket interviews in a single sitting,

Crystal jokes about "making up stuff" after about the 60th interview or

so. That's when they get fun.

Junkets are a fact of life in Hollywood, which has in turn used them as

fodder in movies such as Notting Hill and America's Sweethearts.

And why not? Junkets are an easy target, and offer plenty of comedic

ammo. But the funniest thing about this current send-up of the Hollywood

publicity machinery is that the studio releasing the film, Sony, has

been in so much hot water lately for its own disreputable marketing

tactics. Remember the phony reviewer fiasco (mentioned everywhere,

including in this column) earlier this summer?

And the use of employees in "man-on-the-street" testimonial ads? That

was Sony.

During an interview with Katie Couric on Today, Billy Crystal also said

America's Sweethearts gives everyone (meaning Tinseltown types) "a slap

on the back of the head." So, in a sense, Sony is slapping itself on the

back of its head - an act of repentance it willingly administered in

exchange for the film's $31 million opening weekend.

It seems there has been an all-out flack attack in recent months. Even

Peter Bart, the noted publisher of Daily Variety, took a shot at the

recent consolidation of Hollywood praiseries. PMK, Rogers & Cowan,

Huvane Baum Halls and others have been purchased by a division of

McCann-Erickson and merged into an oligopoly with a very unimaginative

alphabetical moniker.

Owners of those respective agencies, such as Pat Kingsley and Robin

Baum, now oversee PR fiefdoms, concerning themselves with such dry

business things as synergistic leveraging, budget projections, and

operational logistics outside the strict realm of entertainment.

But despite the growing prominence and importance of these mega

entertainment PR agencies, the publicists who run them often find

themselves in a similar predicament to Crystal - reduced to an

embarrassing involvement in the personal lives of clients for the

purpose of damage control. Yes, these newly-crowned publicity moguls now

make huge corporate-oriented decisions effecting the financial

bottom-line of billion dollar conglomerates, but their bread is still

buttered by responding to questions about Tom Cruise's sex life or the

coloring of Gwyneth Paltrow's hair. Or, as in America's Sweethearts,

trying to save the marriage of two A-list Hollywood celebs. At least

until after the film opens.

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