The Hottest Seats in Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the kind of blistering Hollywood memo that sets fax machines humming.

"Be aware that the only thing separating my hands from your neck is the fact that there are 3,000 miles between us," it began. "Be aware that in 15 years of producing movies and running companies, I have never been treated so disrespectfully, rudely, insolently or been dismissed . . . by any low-level flunky as I have by you this afternoon."

Then, Scott Rudin, the prolific movie producer, got to the point: The seats he wanted but did not have. "By my count there are 671 people who, in your infinite wisdom, are more important than my guests on Monday night," he wrote. "Please forward to me a list of who they are. I am anxious to know."

Such vitriol might be understandable if the Earth were exploding and Rudin wanted berths on the last remaining space station. But all Rudin was seeking when he sent this flaming diatribe to Paramount's vice president of special projects, Allison Jackson, was better seats to the 1998 premiere of his movie, "The Truman Show."

Every four years, the Democrats' and Republicans' presidential nominating conventions spark battles over who deserves the best front-and-center access. But as Rudin's memo illustrates, seating wars are a way of life in Hollywood. Week in, week out, where studio executives, actors, producers and agents rest their haunches at movie premieres is widely seen to reveal their places in the industry's power structure. Quite literally, where you sit indicates where you stand.

"People's careers rise and fall on where they're seated," said Dale Olson, a movie marketing veteran, with utter seriousness. "People are scared that if they're not seated properly, somebody will let out the word: 'So-and-so has slipped.' And that buzz goes around this town."

Hollace Davids, a Universal Pictures senior vice president, is the dean of premiere planners in town, with 20 years of experience. "I've been hung up on, screamed at, threatened," she said. "You want to say, 'Wait a minute! Try to get a grip on what's going on here. You're talking about a movie. Not world peace. Not a cure for AIDS. A movie premiere.'

"You're dealing with people who wield a lot of power, and when they don't get what they want, they tend to overreact," she said.

"You're watching 'Gladiator' and you think you're going to see combat?" asked another veteran event planner, Carlotta Florio. "Combat is nothing compared to what goes on in the theater."

Don't be confused: Such misbehavior does not stem from a pressing need to actually see a movie. Many if not most of the people who sit in the coveted center sections at premieres have already seen the featured film--some of them more than once. Movie premieres, after all, are held mostly for industry insiders as a way of paying tribute to filmmakers--and, hopefully, whipping up buzz a few days before a new release.

Nevertheless, nobody wants to be spotted in the bleachers.

"It's like they're going to Spago and saying, 'Where's my table?' " said Murray Weissman, a longtime publicist who created a seating lottery for the annual Emmy Awards show a few years ago that, to some extent, minimized the bickering.

The quest for A-list seating can divide families. One seat had been "taped"--or reserved with masking tape--for Brad Pitt at Sony's premiere of last year's drama "The End of the Affair." But by the time Pitt (who wasn't in the movie, but is a friend of director Neil Jordan) showed up solo after the standing-room-only theater had already gone dark, the seat was occupied. Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake offered to give up one of his primo seats, and Pitt spent the evening sitting next to Blake's wife.

Adding to the confusion, people often show up unannounced. In 1998, Gwyneth Paltrow wanted Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein to be invited to the premiere of "Great Expectations," which had been made by a rival studio, 20th Century Fox. When he didn't get a ticket, the unstoppable Weinstein--credited by many with making Paltrow into a star--showed up anyway. After a flurry of anxious rearranging, he was given a seat.

'Where Are We Going to Put Them All?'

Many in Hollywood have their assistants spend hours each week trying to secure the particular reserved seats that they think befit their stations. For days leading up to a premiere, studio events planners field phone calls requesting, not just entry to the theater, but specific seats with proximity to (depending on the caller) either the stars of the movie or others with whom the caller feels competitive. One planner said she has fielded as many as 25 calls about a single person's seating needs.

"We get, 'Listen, we are the star's agency and 10 of us work on his account and we all need to be next to him,' " said one executive who asked not to be named for fear of getting even more calls. She noted that actors usually arrange to sit with spouses, parents or co-stars, so there are few star-adjacent seats to dole out. "I mean, where are we going to put them all? In a hammock hanging from the ceiling?"

Desire for superior seating is nothing new in Hollywood. The legendary columnist Florabel Muir, who wrote about the movie industry for Daily Variety and other publications from the 1930s until her death in 1970, once arrived early to a screening and found every seat available in the theater but two. The seats had been roped off in the back for MCA President Lew Wasserman, who liked to be able to get up without causing a stir. But Muir was not to be denied. She plopped down in one of the studio chief's seats. Wasserman sat elsewhere.

While this game of musical chairs is time-tested, in recent years three factors have made it even more competitive. Studios are co-producing more movies, meaning often two sets of executives must be accommodated at a premiere instead of one. The number of credited producers on each movie has skyrocketed (the recent hit "Scary Movie," for example, had a dozen). And large theaters continue to be replaced by smaller multiplexes, meaning there are fewer venues that can hold the 1,000-plus audiences that premieres require.

Even with a huge house, things get crazy. Last month, the premiere of "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" was held at the Universal Amphitheater, which has 3,400 seats. The week before the event, Universal's events planner described the seating chart as still in flux. "I never rest easy," Davids said, "until the movie is on the screen."

In this every-man-for-himself atmosphere, actors who have enough clout have gotten smart and demanded so-called "premiere clauses" in their contracts that ensure them, not only several choice seats, but also first-class travel (or, for megastars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, subsidized private planes) to the events. But studios have found a way around such stipulations, sometimes unveiling their movies at "red carpet screenings" (essentially premieres without the title).

When relentless kvetching doesn't achieve one's seating goal, there are several fallback strategies. One is to call a highly placed executive at whatever studio is releasing the film and try to get that person to apply some muscle. Another--and this happened at a recent Universal Pictures premiere--is to counterfeit, using a color copier to turn a single reserved seating pass into enough for all your friends.

Once inside the theater, invited guests with less-than-ideal tickets often try to push aside the young studio employees who stand guard at the end of each reserved row.

"I've watched bands of black-clad marauding hipsters--the agents--elbowing Robert Altman to get a seat!" said one studio executive, who used to plan premieres but asked not to be identified. In a world where people have been fired for misspelling one name in a press release, this executive was loath to speak on the record, but was eager to share the memory of one overbooked premiere where she watched director Oliver Stone yelling expletives at an intern. The underling's crime: He had asked Stone to enter his row from the other aisle.

Given this kind of conduct, one studio's longtime premiere planner advises her employees to make up pseudonyms to use at events in case someone demands, "I want your name!" That way, if anyone complains later that the support staff was unsupportive, officials can assure them: "Oh, you mean Scarlet? Yeah, we've had to let her go."

Premieres play a role, not just in affirming one's star status, but in creating it from scratch. Publicists hound the movie studios to admit their youngest, no-name clients to premieres in the hopes that a walk down the media-clogged red carpet will boost an actor's profile.

Five months before Disney's babe-empowerment movie, "Coyote Ugly," opened in theaters, for example, executives there launched a campaign to make their mostly unknown ensemble cast look more familiar. At nearly every Disney premiere between March and August--"Mission to Mars," "High Fidelity," "Keeping the Faith" and "Gone in 60 Seconds"--a few of the camera-friendly female cast members walked the carpet, dressed to the nines.

"We had to make movie stars out of a model, a TV actress and three unknowns," said Geoffrey Ammer, Disney's co-president of marketing. "What better exposure do you have than your own premieres?"

The smart premiere planner is prepared for anything. Some do "hard ticketing," or assigning a particular seat to a particular person. Others put VIPs in a first-come, first-seated reserved section, but tape off whole rows for the stars and makers of the movie. Many use young assistants as human placeholders to fend off bandits. It makes for a stressful evening.

"The back lot could be burning down and Steven Spielberg's plane could be missing, but all you'll care about in that moment is, 'Where is [producer] Joel Silver sitting?' " said Bruce Feldman, a marketing consultant who used to plan premieres when he was head of publicity at Polygram Pictures. "Of course, you could have worse problems. Like nobody wants to come to your premiere."

'She's More Famous Than You'

Meanwhile, Hollywood itself lampooned the seating-as-power-symbol phenomenon in an episode of "The Larry Sanders Show," when talk show host Sanders (Garry Shandling) invited a movie star date (Sharon Stone) to a benefit for President Clinton. But when he learned he'd been seated at Table 20, while she was at Table 1 next to Bill and Hillary, he felt emasculated.

Shandling's producer, played by Rip Torn, finally told him the bitter truth: "She's more famous than you."

One former studio publicist, worn down by the huge egos and childish tantrums, said she would "rather stick a hot poker up my nose than [plan premieres again]." To read the memo that Rudin, the producer, sent to Paramount's well-respected events planner (and copied to several executives at the studio) is to begin to understand why.

A source close to Rudin says he was moved to write the scathing memo on behalf of his staff, 20 of whom had peripheral seats that he felt undervalued all the work they'd done on "The Truman Show." (Rudin, who is based in New York, rarely attends Los Angeles premieres).

Whatever triggered it, Rudin's fury was withering.

"Be aware that this is the last movie of mine you will have anything to do with because the prospect of having to go through another one of these events with you makes my skin crawl," Rudin wrote to Jackson, whom he derided as "a hostess, nothing more; you create nothing of value except hors d'oeuvres and guest lists. You're not even smart enough to know who not to offend. You may have kissed enough ass to get you to where you are but . . . you've got a lot to learn."

But in the end, bluster--however mean-spirited--is only bluster. Rudin made good on his threats for awhile, refusing to work with Jackson. But when it came time to hold the premiere for this year's "Shaft" (a Rudin project), Jackson was again making the seating charts.

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