A Stranger in a Strange Land Is Hollywood Pictures' New Player : Movies: Former publishing chief Michael Lynton has taken the reins of Disney's troubled film division.

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

Hollywood can be a tough and skeptical town--particularly if you arrive here without a Rolodex or a road map to the lay of the land. It is peculiar in that even an industry outsider can be both a stranger in a strange land and an instant "player," just by breaking into the business in the right job.

A month ago, Michael Lynton, 34, a Harvard-educated, ambitious executive from New York's literary community working for Walt Disney Co.'s book and magazine publishing unit, Hyperion, became president of Disney's troubled movie division, Hollywood Pictures. He replaced Ricardo Mestres, who had headed the label since it was begun five years ago.

Lynton--whose background is in corporate finance, publishing and marketing--is believed to be the first non-movie executive ever to be installed as head of production at a major studio. That high-level job typically goes to an executive who's risen through the ranks and paid some dues.

By virtue of how high and where he landed--Disney being one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world--Lynton automatically has player clout.

Since relocating here from New York and taking over the post in early July, he has naturally been deluged with calls and scripts from agents eager to get their actor, writer, director and producer clients in business with him.

"Agents love a new guy. They can pull out their old inventory that's already been rejected by the last guy and they can easily sell him new ideas and talent--they get a new lamb they can take to slaughter," says one cynical Hollywood filmmaker.

United Talent Agency partner Jeremy Zimmer, one of the few agents Lynton met before his move to Hollywood, says, "Politically, he's already making all the right moves."

Translated, that means he is having meals and meetings with all the right folks. He's had the quintessential power dinner at Morton's with Jay Moloney, one of CAA's most aggressive, high-profile young agents. He's played tennis with Jim Wiatt, president of ICM, another prominent agency. He's even had dinner with Warren Beatty.

On the surface, it all looks well-calculated. But Lynton, who is self-effacing and swears he won't be trading in his dusty Chevy jeep for a new Range Rover, insists, "I'm not aware these were the right moves." When asked if he had dined at Morton's on a fashionable Monday night, Lynton answered, "Yeah, I think so. Why, is that significant?" The dinner with Beatty, he claims, "was totally separate from anything--purely social."

Zimmer suggests that while Lynton's naivete may be genuine, one of the subtleties of Hollywood is "how seductive it is." While your tennis partner or dinner companion may appear to be your friend, "it's often just about people selling each other."

Sitting at breakfast at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in West Hollywood, dressed in a gray suit (he owns no Armani) and brown oxfords, Lynton seems remarkably calm and cool for someone who just became head of a movie label, recently bought and moved into a $1.4-million house in Los Feliz, and, along with his wife, Jamie Alter, vice president of Court TV, is about a week away from expecting his first baby.

"It's been hectic and I know I have a lot of balls in the air, but for the most part it's been invigorating," says Lynton, insisting that so far he's neither shell-shocked nor intimidated by the Hollywood crowd. "I may be naive and a bumpkin, but I haven't had this much fun in a long time."

Lynton never expected to find himself in Hollywood. He was in Colorado on a ski holiday in March when his close friend David Hoberman, president of motion pictures at Walt Disney Studios, called and asked if he'd be interested in the job. The two had become friends after meeting three years ago at a Disney corporate retreat in Aspen.

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Within days, Lynton called back to say he would consider it. He met with Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner and Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, both of whom he had known since his association with Disney began in 1987.

They were no doubt impressed with Lynton's track record. He began as manager of business development for the consumer products division and after a year was promoted to director of marketing. In 1989, he moved into publishing and helped launch several new book imprints including Hyperion, Hyperion Books for Children, Disney Press and Disney Mouseworks. Also established under his tenure was the monthly magazine Disney Adventures and the upcoming Family PC. Lynton, who received his MBA from Harvard in 1987, said initially he wondered how transferable his skills would be and how the industry would receive his lack of experience. Disney management expressed confidence in his smarts and promised to give him "adequate time to learn the ropes."

Hoberman says he hired Lynton "because he brings a new discipline and point of view to the job. He knows literary material, he knows what a good story is and he knows what appeals to him." He added that Lynton's mandate is to "make an eclectic group of films of a certain quality" at Hollywood Pictures, whose lackluster slate of inexpensive comedies over the years included such box-office duds as "Holy Matrimony," "Aspen Extreme" and "Super Mario Bros."

To his advantage, Lynton inherits the benefits of an experienced production staff and a year's worth of movies set up under Mestres, including Robert Redford's highly anticipated "Quiz Show," the Sarah Jessica Parker-Antonio Banderas drama "Miami" and "My Posse Don't Do Homework," starring Michelle Pfeiffer.

Lynton says while there are certain aspects of his former job that are similar to the movie business ("you have to trust your own taste, stand by your decisions and be able to spot a good story"), he also says he feels like "a stranger in a strange land."

Where dealings in the book world, he says, tend to be relatively straightforward, with only one author and one agent, there are "many more parties involved (in a movie deal) and each is willing to negotiate a variety of different arrangements."

Moloney, who has been a friend of Lynton's for the past two years, is confident the executive "will find his way through the maze (of Hollywood) very quickly. . . . He's a very elegant, sophisticated, intelligent guy who already has a good sense of the protocol and who to go to to make something happen. He's figured out rather quickly the general politics of the town."

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But that doesn't mean he won't have to navigate carefully.

United Talent Agency President Marty Bauer says, "This town is about ego and power. . . . I don't think Hollywood is open to outsiders normally, because people don't like change. It's very easy to be a player in Hollywood . . . but the question is, how do you become a successful player? And that depends on whether or not you can function with the power in an effective way."

There are some producers who wonder if Lynton's taste in movies might be too elitist and highbrow, given his literary background. "He seemed a little fancy," said a producer who met with him.

Lynton says, "My tastes are neither highbrow nor pretentious--quite the contrary--they're very broad and mainstream." He said that even at Hyperion, "by far the bulk of our (book) list was extremely mainstream and the magazines were mass circulation." The imprint has published several celebrity and entertainment-related books, from Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" children's book to Robert Evans' autobiography, "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

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He said that in his new post, the intention "is not to do art-house movies. We are a commercial studio. I recognize that and want to do mainstream, commercial movies of all genres."

A movie fan from childhood, Lynton was born in Holland to upper-middle-class German Jewish immigrants. "I've always loved movies," says Lynton, recalling his frequent trips as a young boy to his neighborhood theater, the Asta, "which was run by an old guy named Ben who sat at a card table in front and knew everyone by name." The cinema, he said, "had 10 rows of folding chairs for the kids and 10 to 15 small tables in the back where adults could drink and eat dinner." Some of his all-time favorite movies are "The Longest Day," "The Godfather," "American Graffiti," "Rocky," "Saturday Night Fever," "Chinatown" and "Shampoo."

Of this summer's stock, Lynton listed among his favorites "Speed," "Forrest Gump," "True Lies" and the British comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral," which he regards as "the perfect movie."

At least initially, Lynton is getting a warm reception from Hollywood. It was hard to find anyone who didn't say of him, "he's smart," "he's savvy," "he's well-read" and "he seems like a quick study." One literary agent even noted, "He's very much a politician."

But, in the words of one skeptical industry insider: "The personal politics take a long time to navigate in those ego-strewn waters."

"He has a lot of homework to do," insists a producer. "Hollywood is a whole other business. We trade on relationships and knowing people. This is not stoves or widgets."

Ron Mardigian, longtime head of the motion picture literary department at William Morris Agency, says of Lynton: "He seems very interested in learning about the business and what he could do to make things run more smoothly."

A Disney insider predicts, "He has a year and a half to get his sea legs and another year and a half to prove himself."

And a filmmaker in town suggests, "If he rubs enough butter on the bread of Mike Ovitz, Jim Wiatt and Jeff Berg, he'll do just fine. But, at the end of the day, he has to put himself behind some good movies."

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