Publicist Down, Roth Up?

A shake-up in Sony Pictures’ New York public-relations division suggests the corporate giant may be one step closer to anointing

A shake-up in Sony Pictures’ New York public-relations division suggests the corporate giant may be one step closer to anointing Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth as chief executive of Columbia Pictures.

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Columbia, which is owned by Sony, got a new senior vice president of publicity on Nov. 6, when Cynthia Swartz–who’s had the job since June 2000–was suddenly replaced by former Walt Disney Pictures vice president of publicity Gigi Semone.

According to one source close to the situation, the move came as a surprise not only to Ms. Swartz, but to her boss, executive vice president of publicity Blaise Noto, and Columbia Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal. But a spokeswoman for Sony told The Transom that “Geoffrey Ammer [Sony Columbia TriStar’s head of marketing] had discussed Ms. Swartz’s dismissal with Mr. Noto extensively … and had told both Mr. Calley and Ms. Pascal face-to-face on a private company jet.” She added that Mr. Ammer had, in fact, asked Ms. Swartz to stay on, at the same salary, with an assistant and an office, to run Sony’s Oscar campaign. Ms. Swartz turned him down and left her office several days later. According to sources familiar with the situation, Ms. Swartz had a contract with Columbia that extended until next September.

Ms. Semone, described by one industry source as “part of that whole Joe Roth Disney-Revolution gang,” worked for two years as a senior publicist at the Peggy Siegal Company before joining Disney’s Buena Vista division in 1996. She worked there with Mr. Roth, who headed the studio at the time, and Geoffrey Ammer, a public-relations and marketing executive who has worked with Mr. Roth since his reign at 20th Century Fox.

When Mr. Roth left Disney to open his own company, Revolution Studios, Mr. Ammer followed him, and last summer was made head of marketing at Sony, which owns a 7.5 percent stake in Revolution. Through a Revolution spokeswoman, Mr. Roth insisted that he “has no impact on who Geoff Ammer has chosen to be a part of his team.”

Although Columbia’s current 71-year-old studio chief, John Calley, is not slated to retire until 2003, Mr. Roth has long been perceived as Mr. Stringer’s first choice when that happens. Mr. Ammer’s August appointment was heralded by the Los Angeles Times as a harbinger of Roth’s eventual reign, and a spokesman for the Revolution Studios chief confirmed that Mr. Roth recently joined the Sony Entertainment board.

The addition of Ms. Semone, who is seen as another Roth loyalist, only strengthens that perception. Indeed, when Ms. Semone’s former employer, Ms. Siegal, was asked whether she thought Ms. Semone’s appointment presaged Mr. Roth’s ascension, she said: “I think Helen Keller would tell you yes.” Ms. Siegal then quickly added: “I don’t know for sure. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

Ms. Semone’s appointment also has some industry observers envisioning an internal Sony power struggle over two Christmas releases: the Amy Pascal-generated Columbia Pictures film Ali, and Revolution’s much-talked-about military picture, Black Hawk Down .

The pictures will be competing for the attentions of both the Academy and Sony U.S.A. chief Howard Stringer.

The Harvard-educated Ms. Swartz, who toiled for 10 years as Miramax’s Oscar-campaign guru and garnered the Disney-owned company 122 nominations and 36 statuettes, had already launched a major Ali campaign. She’d screened the film for Rolling Stone ‘s Peter Travers and Time magazine editors. On the day she was let go, she had attended a special press screening of the film with its director, Michael Mann, and Mr. Ammer.

When asked why Sony had decided to change public-relations executives just as the Oscar race was heating up, a Sony spokesperson said, “Mr. Ammer wanted someone with a proven track record of great relationships with the press, excellent managerial skills, strong strategic ability and a strong New York presence. He felt that Gigi was best suited for the job.”

Other sources who declined to be named were blunter in their assertions that Mr. Ammer felt that Ms. Swartz’s relationships with the New York press were strained.

A week before Ms. Swartz was replaced, Mr. Ammer had announced that Black Hawk Down, which was directed by Ridley Scott, would have its 2002 release date moved up to Dec. 28 in order to make it eligible for Oscar consideration.

Ms. Pascal and Sony were banking heavily on the Oscar potential of Ali . With Ms. Swartz gone and Ms. Semone and Mr. Ammer at the helm, some guess that Ali will now have to take a back seat to the campaign for Black Hawk Down , which celebrates the bravery of the American military–a timely topic if ever there was one.

A Sony spokesperson vigorously denied, however, the suggestion that Ms. Semone would give Ali short shrift. “Gigi has a close and direct and specific film relationship with [director] Michael Mann, and Michael Mann has spent the last week in her office in New York working with her on the Ali campaign.” Ms. Semone was at Disney in 1999 when it released Michael Mann’s last film, the tobacco exposé The Insider , which had been produced by Joe Roth’s regime. Added the spokeswoman: “She is deeply involved, both professionally and emotionally, in the success of the campaign.” Both Ms. Semone and Ms. Swartz declined to comment.

Revolution has produced four features: Tomcats, The Animal , the Roth-directed America’s Sweethearts and the recent release The One . Though all were critical bummers, The Animal and America’s Sweethearts did well at the box office. Columbia had a rougher year after A Knight’s Tale , Final Fantasy and Riding In Cars With Boys all turned out to be disappointments.

–Rebecca Traister

Rumble at Bumble

Bumble & Bumble, the salon that shampoos and sculpts the hair of Hilary Swank and Gwyneth Paltrow, has gotten clipped by a $2 million sexual-harassment lawsuit.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, former Bumble & Bumble employee Dawn Dawson claims that she was unfairly dismissed by the salon in July 2000 because she’s a lesbian and didn’t conform to “gender norms.”

Court papers filed by Ms. Dawson’s camp allege that the 34-year-old former hair assistant in the salon’s coveted education program lost her job because certain senior stylists there had a problem with her “dyke attitude.”

“If I was a passable, feminine gay woman, I would’ve been much more acceptable,” Ms. Dawson told The Transom.

Ms. Dawson grew up in North Arlington, N.J., and has been cutting hair since her teens. She said that she wears her salt-and-pepper hair cropped close because she likes it that way and usually dresses in a white T-shirt, black leather jacket, biker boots and indigo Levi jeans, replete with a thick silver wallet chain dangling over her hip.

“This is how I’ve dressed since high school,” Ms. Dawson said. “It’s who I am.”

Ms. Dawson is being represented by Rick Ostrove, an attorney with Leeds, Morelli & Brown who specializes in bias cases. His firm handled the high-profile Christian Curry $1.35 million discrimination suit against Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. The case settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

Ms. Dawson said she spent months shampooing and sweeping hair at Bumble & Bumble’s headquarters on East 56th Street in the hope of being promoted to stylist. Instead of being rewarded for her hard work, the court papers allege, Ms. Dawson watched as male heterosexuals who missed more classes and brought in fewer models on whom to practice their craft were promoted over her to lucrative editorial positions and training classes. According to the complaint, when Ms. Dawson asked the salon’s manager, Connie Voines, about one such promotion, she was told: “He’s a man and he has an accent.” Another time, Ms. Dawson allegedly was told that a male colleague was promoted because he “would have a family someday.”

The complaint also alleges that top stylist Raymond McLaren and his brother Howard derisively referred to Ms. Dawson as “Donald” in front of customers. “They used the context of humor to let it be O.K., but it wasn’t O.K.,” Ms. Dawson said.

Ms. Voines said she couldn’t comment directly about Ms. Dawson’s suit, but added, “I’m very surprised and saddened…we’re the opposite of discriminatory.” Ms. Voines, who is a male-to-female transsexual, said that she’d been at the company for 17 years, over the course of which she’d moved up to senior-management level. “It’s a very, very liberal place,” she said. Asked if there were many openly gay employees who work there, Ms. Voines yelped in surprise: “It’s a hair salon!”

–Shazia Ahmad

Jack Attack

Don’t mess with Jack Nicholson when he’s watching the Lakers. That’s one of Hollywood lessons to be gleaned from Cut to the Chase , the memoirs of film editor Sam O’Steen, which will be published in January by Michael Weise Productions.

The late Mr. O’Steen cut such films as The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby and Silkwood, and before his death in 2000 he gave a series of interviews to his wife in which he dished the dirt about some of the most volatile personalities in Hollywood.

Cut to the Chase includes Mr. O’Steen’s account of an alleged altercation between actor Jack Nicholson and director Roman Polanski on the set of Mr. Polanski’s noir classic, Chinatown .

The year was 1973, and according to Mr. O’Steen, Mr. Nicholson was watching a playoff game between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. Just as the Lakers tied the game, sending it into overtime, Mr. Polanski sent for his leading man.

Mr. Nicholson, who remains one of the Lakers’ most rabid fans, “was having conniption fits” and refused to come to the set,” Mr. O’Steen recalled. “Roman was saying, ‘Where is the son of a bitch?'”

When Mr. Polanski learned what was keeping the actor from the set, he allegedly stormed into Mr. Nicholson’s dressing room and “tried to bash the set by swinging this heavy mop around.” When that didn’t work, Mr. O’Steen recalled that Mr. Polanski “jerked the TV out of the wall and threw it out of the dressing-room window.”

Then, according to Mr. O’Steen, a furious Mr. Nicholson “started ripping his shirt and pants off and threw them at Polanski.”

Both star and director then allegedly left the shoot, speeding side-by-side out of the Paramount lot. When the two men pulled up next to each other at a stop sign, “Jack looked over at Roman and mouthed ‘Fucking Polack,’ which somehow struck Roman as funny. Then they both burst out laughing.”

Mr. Nicholson’s representative did not respond to questions about the story. Mr. Polanski, currently in exile in Europe, could not be located for comment.

– R. T.

Bottom Line Massacre

On November 25–the day after he played Carnegie Hall with a symphony orchestra–Arlo Guthrie did a short set at the Bottom Line backed by his lissome daughter Sarah Lee and his pudgy son Abe.

It was a benefit for Dave Van Ronk, the grizzled folk and blues singer who has colon cancer. “I love Dave,” Mr. Guthrie said from beneath his gigantic rat’s nest of curly hair. The crowd cheered. In the back, Tim Robbins–who was apparently there alone–smiled. “That’s why I’m here,” Mr. Guthrie added.

He started playing. At 54, Mr. Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” sounded a little raspier than usual. “I lost my voice a little last night–not that many people noticed,” he said. He also noted that he has trouble playing “Alice’s Restaurant,” the monologue-like song that made him famous. “We were at home a little while ago, and I tried to do it,” he said. “I got halfway through. Couldn’t remember the rest. I looked over at Abe. He said, ‘It’s something about the draft.'” Mr. Guthrie shook his head. “I remember all my dad’s songs,” he said.

–Ian Blecher

The Transom Also Hears …

… Things were getting a little misty at the Paris Theater on Dec. 2, and it wasn’t because of the 60-degree temperature. The waterworks came at the premiere of Miramax’s Iris , the Richard Eyre film that chronicles Iris Murdoch’s debilitation by Alzheimer’s disease. Attended by a crowd of the city’s brainy celebrity contingent, including Glenn Close, Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, the screening caused a healthy amount of audience emotion over the fate of Ms. Murdoch, who was played by Miramax’s Lady of the Bed Chamber, Dame Judi Dench, as well as by the pillowy Kate Winslet in the part of young Iris. “There’s a lot of sniffling and a lot of crying at the end, and there’s laughter throughout,” said co-producer Scott Rudin, which pretty much sounded like the scientific formula for an Oscar horse, or a starring vehicle for Robin Williams.

Despite Miramax’s bottomless reservoir of appreciation for Ms. Dench–the poor woman gamely participates in the company’s pre-Oscar dress-up party every year–Ms. Winslet seemed to be the focus of everyone’s Oscar dreams. “Oh God, you were fantastic, ” bellowed a spiky, blond-haired woman as Ms. Winslet walked out of her bathroom stall. “I’m sure you’ll get an Academy Award for this one.” Cupping her breasts and adjusting their fit in her dress, Ms. Winslet moaned, “Oh God.” Then she put on lipstick.

“We’ll find out when she gets one. But I think she has a go at it,” Mr. Rudin said later in the evening. If he has his way, she probably will, as was made clear from an offhand comment executive producer and Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein made to another blond guest. “Yeah, Best Supporting for Kate–yeah, I told Scott to take care of that,” Mr. Weinstein told the woman. “He’s doing that. He listens.”

–Elisabeth Franck

Publicist Down, Roth Up?