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One-on-One with Michael Levine

by Tony Medley

Michael Levine is one of the best known names in the field of public relations in the world. Referred to as the “Michael Jordan of Entertainment PR” by the late Steve Allen, he has made his mark on the public relations world through his books, television appearances, and most of all through his extensive history of servicing the biggest names in Hollywood and the world. The author of 17 books, including his most recent titled, “Broken Windows, Broken Business” (Warner Books), he is also the creator of the LBN E-Lert (Levine Breaking News), one of the world’s premier online newsletters, feeding the latest insider breaking news to approximately 168,000 “influencers” in all 50 of the United States and 22 foreign countries including China, India, Japan, Australia, Russia, England, Israel, Germany, South Africa, Mexico, Canada and Korea

When I met Michael Levine for lunch at Kate Mantilini’s at Wilshire and Doheny, he was a long way from the penniless 18-year-old who dropped out of Rutgers University with virtually nothing to his name. No Sammy Glick, what sat down across the table was a dignified, distinguished-looking grey-haired gentleman dressed in a conservative navy blue pin striped suit.

TM: How did the LBN E-Alert get started?

ML: My friend, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote a best-selling book called “The Tipping Point,” in which he posited a theory – that there are certain people in the world who are disproportionately influenced.  They are the people who in your social group are always the ones setting up successful operations like E-Bay.  They’re not necessarily the wealthiest, but they are the ones who kind of influence others -- could be a maitre’d in a restaurant, could be a hairstylist or a CEO, or chairman of the board, or the mayor of a city.  So these influencers have a disproportionate kind of power, you and me for instance. People come to you in your social circle and say “Was the Woody Allen movie good or bad?”  So, the purpose was to influence the influencer.  Let’s take you, you were getting the E-Alert.  Have you ever told anyone about it?

TM: Oh yes, I have a friend who is a federal judge to whom I recommended the E-Alert and he is on your list.

ML: So now we’ve got you and federal judges reading it.  So its purpose is to influence the influencer and it’s been an overwhelming success.  One of the most successful internet e-mails in the world.

TM: But what I would like to know is how did you actually get it started?  What was your starting goal in getting started – I mean that’s a gargantuan project. . .

ML: We started it six years ago – I should also tell you that I’m not very technology savvy.  We started with 500 people on our first list.

TM: 500?  How did you get the list?

ML: The influencers that I knew in Hollywood and Washington, from politics and entertainment.  Those are my two passions.  From that 500, we now have a circulation of 300,000 people everyday, seven days a week in all 50 states and 23 foreign countries.


TM: So when you first started out, did you write it – who wrote it?

ML: Never been written – it’s a news advocator.  We now have six people working with us and we have to, of course, do it very fast, right?  We send from Los Angeles to Boston where we hire a company to send it out.  We couldn’t send it out ourselves. It’s too big. It would crash our server.  It goes from L.A. to Boston, out to the world 11 times over.  We frequently beat CNN, USA Today.


TM: Did you have any copyright problems?

ML: We re-aggregated, rewrite aggregate stuff from news sources.  I’ll see Tony and I’ll say “Hey Tony, I want you to write 100 words on ‘Who do you think will win Michael Phelps or Bart Flick.’”  You write 100 words, no payment.  Or I’d say to you “Tony, what book are you reading right now”?   I take the quote out and that’s it.

TM: Do they know that they’re going to be quoted?

ML: Yes.

TM: Where do you get the news?  You have a lot of news in there.

ML: We have a tremendous amount of news.  We aggregate it – people tell us stuff.  We get about 1,500 e-mails a day from people like you; scores of news that has to be checked. We get their information and write our own little blurb; 100 words.

TM: How did you get started?

ML: I was born in New York City.  I was born about two and half miles north of Ground Zero.  My mother was an alcoholic, my father was a gentle and kind man, but he was weak and passive.  So I had a very poor upbringing. I was also slightly dyslexic, but that wasn’t known at the time.  That wasn’t spoken about at that time, so dyslexia was unknown.  I was a poor learner, was a visual learner and I was always interested in the entertainment industry and politics.  So I went out – left the house at 17, never returned.  Went to college for six months and quit. So I’m 18 years old, I have no job, I have no money, I have no education and I have no parents. 

TM: You just wrote your parents off?

ML: I didn’t write them off – my mother was an alcoholic, so she was a negative influence.  I had to become successful – if I had any chance of living in air conditioning, which is something I really wanted to do because it was hot in the middle of summer. If I had any chance, I had to self-educate.  So I’ve been self-employed since I was 19 years old.  I didn’t work for anybody.

TM: What did you do – how did you find a job?

ML: I started promoting entertainment industry events.

TM: But how does a guy 18 years old with no prospects and no background do this?

ML: Somehow.  You know, if you’re motivated enough in life, you do a lot of interesting things.  You take any person working here, any person here and stick a gun in their mouth and tell them they’ve got an hour to do something creative, they’ll find a way to do it

TM: So, what was your big break.  How did you get started in the first place?

ML: My big break was to take my fear and my urgent necessity of wanting to eat and turn it into a kind of burning maniacal rage to work in the entertainment industry.  So, I started managing rock groups, I started promoting midnight movies.

TM: But how did you manage a rock group when you were a nobody? 

ML: I went to all the nobodies and I said I can manage you.  And I was audacious and determined and I’d work 100 hours a week if necessary.  In particular, I’d work 100 hours for free.  Just give me a chance.  I’d go into somebody at a company and say to them “look, let me work for two weeks – let me work for a month for free and show you what I can do.”  Very few people will say that.  Very few people.  In fact, most people don’t want to do that because they don’t want to work.  But I didn’t have anything to lose – I was happy to do that.

TM: Who did you go to?

ML: The first thing I did was work for a local rock group in New York and New Jersey.  Then I went to local movie theatres in New York and New Jersey and I rented them and paraded midnight movies.  This was 1972 and 1973 the idea of showing Marx Brother movies at midnight hadn’t really been done.

When you’re 18 and have no money and you’re scared, you’re audacious.  You’ll do anything.  You’ll call people – you don’t know any better not to. In 1972, movie theatres aren’t making any money with the Marx Brothers.  But you offer them 100 bucks.

Let me give you another example, after I did the midnight movies, I asked the movie theatre what they did when they started their first show on weekends.  He said, “We start at 2:00.”  I asked them what they did with the theatre until 2:00?  They said “nothing, we clean it.”  I said, “what if I wanted to rent it at 11:00 in the morning, how much would that cost?”  Then they would ask me “what do you want to do?”  And I said “none of your damn business, just what would it cost to rent?”  And so, he’d say “we’ll rent it to you for $200.”  And I’d say “Okay, I’ll give you $200 and I have the theatre from 11:00 – 2:00.”  Then I got the Yellow Pages out and I’d look at them and there was no internet then, so I’d look at the Yellow Pages and I’d look under “Children’s Entertainment.”  I found a bunch of magicians and animal acts and all kinds of stuff.  So I called up a couple of magicians and a couple of animal acts and I said “If you came to this theatre at 11:00 in the morning, how much would you charge me to do your magic act?”  Then they would tell me “$100.00”  And I say great, come to the theatre. Then I’d promote a live children’s show at the theatre and I’d hand $100 to the magician, $200 to the theatre, that’s $300, and I’d charge $2.00 a seat and I’d get 500 kids to come, that was $1,000.


TM: How would you get 500 kids to come?

ML: Create flyers, give them out to parents the night before, work tirelessly, go to every damned door.

TM: How did you open the PR Firm?

ML: First of all, I moved to California on September 16, 1977 because I wanted a new canvas.  I was doing well, very well.

TM: So you had a growing business back in New York and walked away from it?

ML: I took my entrepreneurial experience and expertise with me, moved out here, didn’t know anybody and in June of 1983 started a PR firm.  It grew to one of the three largest entertainment PR firms in the world.  I’ve represented more celebrities (as a publicist) than any human alive. I’ve represented many, many, many hundreds of very top rated celebrities including:  Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Charlton Heston, Nancy Kerrigan, Demi Moore, Michael Fox, Sandra Bullock, David Bowie, Prince, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, John Voight, Fleetwood Mac, Cameron Diaz, John Stewart, David Chappelle, Suzanne Summers, George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Sydney Sheldon, Sandra Bernhardt and a whole host of others.

TM: But how did that happen?  You’re out here alone, you don’t know anybody.

ML: It happened largely through the burning maniacal rage of desire and the desire was to be something, create something.

TM: But how did you start?

ML: Started by going out and trying to get clients, by talking to people, by trying to figure out how other PR firms did what they did, and then seeing who would be the logical candidate for a PR service.  Among my first clients were Joan Rivers and David Brenner and they were big stars at the time I had them.  I worked cheap, and I worked hard and I was very motivated. When people are real motivated, they learn fast.

TM: But, how did you contact the big stars?  You’re a nobody, why would they pay attention to you?

ML: I went out and learned to manage an agent’s firm and I wrote directly to celebrities.  I did anything I could to get myself started?

TM: And they responded? Joan River responded?

ML: First of all, you have to be at the right place at the right time.  Right?  If you walk down the street and it’s raining and you’re selling umbrellas.  You might just sell a bunch of them.  Joan Rivers and David Brenner were touring together and I approached them at a low price at the right time and they decided to give a kid a chance.

TM: But how did you get in to see them?

ML: I met an agent who pushed me in their direction and he recommended that they hire me and I must have talked well at the time because I got the job and I charged about a quarter of the price of anyone else.  Again, if a company charges $1,000 to clean your carpet and a company comes in and says it will clean it for $100, you get a lot or work.  You have to work hard.

TM: Didn’t you have to have a lot of expertise?

ML: I had at the time after 10 years a modest understanding of how to promote things because I promoted my own business.

TM: So when you started your firm, it was just you?

ML: On a borrowed desk, smaller than this.

TM: Where was it?

ML: In Sherman Oaks, California above what was then called “The Beehive Hair Salon” on the corner of Ventura and Van Nuys.

TM: And this was in 1982?

M: 1983.  And I stayed there about 6 months and then I got an offer.  And by the way, another reason that I won, besides good timing and hard work is that I was blessed with recognizing my competition. I wasn’t stupid and lazy. 

TM: You don’t mind me quoting that?

ML: Right, don’t be stupid and don’t be lazy. Most people are stupid and lazy.