All the Young Dudes

RJ Smith last wrote for the magazine about Charlie Haden

In a counter top in Mike De Luca's office, a toy Darth Vader stands sentry. Push a button at Darth's feet and an imperial fanfare blasts, followed by the whoosh of light sabers in flight. Finally, Vader issues a harsh judgment. "Most impressive--but you are not a Jedi yet."

What do you have to do to get respect in this town? For Hollywood's junior Jedis, young men in their late 20s and early 30s, these are complicated times. They are old enough to throw their weight around--De Luca, for instance, is president of production at New Line Cinema and a producer of "Boogie Nights." But the old guard isn't going anywhere for a while, and so the young Beverly Hills ninjas must sit and wait. It's like they've given you this cool light saber, and then told you you're not supposed to use it.

What's a mogul-in-training to do? Every few months, about a hundred of them wage war on a battlefield strewn with wrecked helicopters and jeeps in Riverside County. Paintball is a way of finding the drama and release that haven't yet materialized in the lives of studio executives making a neat six-figure salary. Imagine: You can shoot your agent in the back, then flip-phone the firm with the body count.

"It's as close to war as I'll ever get," says Percy Zuletta, a 28-year-old director of development for Joel Silver's production company, who organizes the paintball wars.

"I don't think there's necessarily a correlation between working in the industry and wanting to kill somebody," Zuletta adds. "Not for me, anyway."

Most sensitive--but he is not a Jedi yet.

*

They don't hate their parents, they do hate the door policy at the Sky Bar. They are into yoga, rock climbing, the kabala, "South Park." They may be the first generation in Hollywood as influenced by television as by motion pictures. At the same time, they are heralded as a generation less riddled with MBAs--which is not to say they are less concerned with the bottom line, so much as that they've grown up internalizing it.

Across this koo-koo city, places as varied as Musso & Frank's, Dan Tana's, the Dresden Room and other outposts of guyville are humming with the suits-in-waiting. The new generation has somehow gotten the idea that "Ocean's Eleven" is a training film. They've helped shape the city's Arabian Nights revival, filling up tables at the upscale Kass Bah on Melrose and the low-fidelity Akbar in Silver Lake. In the meantime, they're mining the Zeitgeist of their salad days and turning it into, among other thing, Adam Sandler in "The Wedding Singer."

"All the people in their upper 20s and early 30s today who are executives, we grew up watching 'Caddyshack,' 'Ghostbusters,' all these wonderful movies of the '80s," says 32-year-old Warren Zide, who manages numerous in-demand writers and runs a production company. "I think it's changing the art."

Enter Zide's office. Walk past the bank of vintage video games--Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Defender. When he was 12 and adults asked Zide what he wanted to do when he grew up, he'd announce, "I want to run Paramount studios." They'd laugh, but he meant it. "Somebody has to do it," he says today.

Behind Zide's desk, hanging over his head, you'll find an autographed photo of the "Star Wars" cast. For many in this age bracket, George Lucas' trilogy is the original myth, the story from which all other stories grow.

"I think Lucas actually, ironically, has a lot in common with young filmmakers today," says De Luca. "He put up with a lot of abuse" from clueless studios. "Nobody really got 'Star Wars' until they knew it was 'Star Wars.' "

The lesson Lucas taught today's magnates isn't about sneaking art into the Death Star of commerce. It's about imagining a creativity expressed at all times, and simultaneously, in oversized economic and artistic terms. Lucas taught a generation the value of a buck. "Money equals freedom," says De Luca. "Things cost more for us than they did for previous generations."

If Lucas is the established icon, another is in mid-anointment. Like Lucas, he is celebrated as a lone visionary who held out for his ideals. He, too, is a master of the available technology, his face peering out from the cover of the February issue of Wired. To another generation, such as his own, James Cameron may seem an unlikely outsider. But now that "Titanic" has sailed past "Star Wars" as the most lucrative picture of all time, that's exactly what some young bizzers think.

"Seeing 'Titanic'--it was like a ginseng injection," says Craig Titley, a 30-year-old screenwriter. "I thought, this is what it's all about. It sums up everything: the fight against naysayers; don't compromise your vision.

"The lesson isn't about wild spending--because there isn't a wasted penny when you see it. It's about a guy saying, 'Yes, this is going to cost money, but trust me, it's gonna make money.' It made me think 'follow the passion.' " Titley pauses, then chuckles. "Follow the paycheck."

Parting with the paycheck, however, is a different matter. Hollywood's old guard is staunchly liberal, and until Clinton's second campaign, famously activist. But poll the young moguls and, even for many who consider themselves liberal, activism can wait. Sure, there's the writers group that picketed against Proposition 209, and many have a pet charity. But Hollywood's liberal consensus is fracturing along generational lines. There's a feeling that until they establish a few more credits, activism is somebody else's job.

"Our generation is more disillusioned with politics than any other," says Nick Styne, a 33-year-old agent with International Creative Management. Adds Titley: "I don't think there's the old-fashioned tried-and-true activism--I think there's a positive anarchy. There's a backlash against all the negativism, from grunge rock to all the guns. We all want to live in a John Hughes movie again."

But if membership in the ACLU is down among the young brethren, one organization is getting a youthful infusion. The Friars Club is a pat of menthol in the middle of the Beverly Hills hot zone. Here is one place where the smoking ban got vetoed.

Milton Berle holds court one weekday afternoon, a can of Dad's root beer and box of salt-free matzos before him, a dangerous-looking cigar in his hand. Across the room, flip phones are laid out at the table where five young moguls sit. Norm Crosby surveys the scene. "If you look around the room, I've seen younger faces on money," he says. "So we're happy to bring in young talent."

Crosby greets the kids, a thick gold watchband on his wrist. Brett Rattner, a 28-year-old director who owns a gold medallion formerly the property of Sammy Davis Jr., waves right back with an arm weighed down by an even fatter, not to mention phatter, band. Just one macher hailing another.

"We're all out there in the business fighting every day, but that's not the romantic vision of why we got into show business," says 33-year-old producer Bruce Charet. "The fact is, when I sit in a casting meeting with four 30-year-olds, that's my gig. But when I walk into a room and get to sit with Alan King and Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene, that's show business."

He'd go on explaining why the young magnates are joining this bastion of the old school, except Jerry Vale has pulled up a chair. All conversation stops. The kids are mesmerized.

The cigars, the martinis, the nostalgia for tummlers who were already old when the lions were even younger than they are now--this is definitely not their father's Hollywood. "The guys smoking cigars annoy me," says a young female executive formerly at the Ladd Co. "Martini-drinking is all very fun, but it ultimately proves we're as stupid as our parents." Last winter about a hundred of the guys, mostly in their late 20s, traveled in a bloated rat pack to Vegas. "I won a little money, a couple hundred bucks," says an executive on the Warner Bros. lot. "Didn't see any shows, except for what went on in the hotel rooms."

Norm Crosby, please cue the rim shot.

*

If there really is a city beyond the studioscape, few among the lions who didn't grow up here know much about it. They don't yet have the kind of roots that come with children, and the places many said they check out when they want to reach beyond Hollywood--the Getty, the County Museum, the Music Center--sound like "correct answers" rather than heartfelt replies. Excess has hardly evaporated--it's been said that cocaine is making a comeback--but many really don't get out.

"I don't go to premieres," says Warren Zide. "I haven't been to a Hollywood party in God knows how long."

"People aren't impressing each other by who they're dating," adds one of Zide's contemporaries. "They're impressing each other by how many scripts they've read that weekend."

Agent Nick Styne has discovered satellite music stations. "Forty or fifty channels of digital music sorted by genre. It's commercial-free, it's CD quality and it's great."

There are very good reasons this generation, doing this work, must focus enormous energy and attention on what it is doing and nothing else. It is, after all, the nature of the business. Yet some say it's getting out of hand.

"This crop doesn't go to the movies. They get screener tapes [of new releases] and watch at home," says a disgruntled young mogul-in-exile. "Everybody has a humongous television--I've never such huge TVs, like big-as-a-bed TVs. They'd rather watch TV, or talk on the phone, or take their pasta out of the microwave, than be in a darkened room, part of the community. Everybody's the lone wolf. They're getting their sex within their circles, spending beyond their means, they're all driving leased cars--that drives me crazy. They have these pimped-out cars, and the amount they should be paying on a house they're paying to lease a car."

He sneers like Darby Crash as he describes a female executive who would take 14 scripts to her weekly manicure. Every time she said "turn," the manicurist flipped the page. "They get it down to a really disgusting art form."

Perhaps the lions have an answer for what to do with Theodore Kaczynski's shack. Put it on a flatbed truck, move it from back lot to back lot, let every member of the "Caddyshack" generation pack a bagful of gorp and protein coladas, a stack of scripts to read by Monday, and give everyone a turn at the life of the shut-in. Just have the coverage in by Monday.

*

"The interesting thing about wealth accumulation," notes an independent producer in his early 30s, "is that if somebody becomes a successful business person over time, by virtue of having been successful you usually have to come into contact with an enormous number of people. You're a part of a community. By the time you're 50 years old, you've had the need to connect with lots of different people.

"But when you have very rapid accumulations of wealth by relatively young people, that connection to place doesn't exist."

What you have, in fact, is a lot like what has happened in the software business. In both Microsoft and Hollywood, young people from around the country flock to baffling new communities, boast of hundred-hour weeks in cramped environments, work closely with people they may not like but rely on to succeed. Marriage, reading poetry, collecting gum wrappers, anything but work can seem a sign of weakness.

"The founders of the microcomputer industry were groups of boys who banded together to give themselves power," Robert Cringely writes in "Accidental Empires," a history of Silicon Valley. "For the most part, they came from middle-class and upper-middle-class homes. They weren't rebels; they resented their parents and society very little. Their only alienation was the usual hassle of the adolescent--a feeling of being prodded into adulthood on somebody else's terms. So they split off and started their own culture, based on the completely artificial but totally understandable rules of computer architecture. They defined, built and controlled (and still control) an entire universe in a box--an electronic universe of ideas rather than people--where they made all the rules and could at last be comfortable."

The lions remember Vietnam, but many were taught on computers at school. You can't beat them at Space Invaders, you can only hope to contain them. Like the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley, they see themselves as outsiders, as doing combat with the suits--until the morning, long put off, when they wake up and find the suits hanging in their own closet. Half are ducking paintballs, and the rest are chasing highballs. They don't know whether to be 12 or 62, they just know that there's got to be some action, somewhere, that is theirs alone. Except not here. Not yet.

Back at the Friars Club, the afternoon eases on.

"Hanging out is an art form," observes Bruce Charet.

Around the table, the young moguls' heads nod in assent. Milton Berle holds forth in his corner, cigar poised, out of reach.

Someone's phone beeps, but for the moment, it goes unanswered.

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