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Eat or Be Eaten

Nicole LaPorte is writing a book about DreamWorks, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.

Doing business over food is sacred in Hollywood, with lunch as the most stalwart form of schmoozing. Or is it?

Though nobody is predicting empty 1 p.m. tables at the Grill on the Alley anytime soon, there’s reason to believe that Lunch as We Know It may be approaching a tipping point, what with the looming writers’ strike and the eclipse of dining institutions such as Morton’s, which will close later this year.

Veteran talent manager and producer Bernie Brillstein says, “I don’t think lunch is as much of a ritual anymore. I think it’s lessened over the years. Agencies and studios and networks are so much more cost-conscious. A lot of them say, ‘Why do we have an office if you have to go to a restaurant?’ ” (Brillstein still has a regular booth at the Grill, though.)

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Worse, even, than the thought that lunch may disappear is the prospect that a shrunken, bastardized version of the daily rite may push old ways aside. According to Albert Berger, a producer of “Little Miss Sunshine,” lunch has become a “more modest enterprise. People are often forgoing starters. It’s very humble what you end up ordering. No one wants to push the limit.”

Indeed, in this decidedly un-go-go era, when agents are flying coach and text messaging has replaced drinks at the Peninsula, a three-hour, multicourse lunch lubricated with gallons of Perrier (midday martinis haven’t been seen in Hollywood since “Wall Street”) can seem, dare we say, excessive. “People are in and out in about an hour,” says Pamela Gonyea, who recently took over as the Grill’s lunch maitre d’.

Today’s lunch often happens in places such as M Cafe de Chaya on Melrose Avenue, where the most expensive menu item is $14.95 (teriyaki rice bowl with fish). Dessert? Pinkberry is next door.

“Modest” also can mean off the radar. Swanna Macnair, a production executive at Misher Films, says when she wants to avoid Ammo on Highland Avenue--where industry types are wedged in elbow to elbow--she heads to a “weird little Lebanese hole in the wall” in a seedy pocket of Hollywood.

And when CAA wants to poach an agent from a rival firm, the meal is often scheduled at Acapulco on La Cienega Boulevard or at the Olive Garden in Westwood. (Free refills never hurt the game of seduction.)

Of course, there’s been a flurry of power lunch activity in Century City, where CAA and ICM have relocated from Beverly Hills. (Hello, Craft.) And Hollywood insiders still flock to some clubby, hallowed haunts, including Spago and Mr. Chow.

So with the Hollywood lunch in as much transition as the industry itself, knowing a little protocol can make the difference between Deal or No Deal. Take notes, people:

The lunchee of lesser rank travels to a location convenient to the person higher in the pecking order. One former agency assistant recalls a recurring bellow from her boss: “I am not going to drive all the way to the Valley for a VP!” But the agent would drive anywhere to meet a producer.

Agents and studio executives always pick up the tab. Talent, never. Otherwise, the person who wants something (i.e. a script, a “yes”) generally pays.

One-upmanship opens doors. An agent recently used his connections at Cut, Wolfgang Puck’s Beverly Hills steakhouse, to help him land a meal with an elusive studio executive. When the agent said he could get a table, suddenly the date was green-lighted.

When all else fails, reschedule, reschedule, reschedule--an entirely acceptable, and even expected, act. “I’ve had lunches, I’m sad to admit, that have been pushed over the course of a year,” says George Heller, a manager at Foursight Entertainment. “It’s like they’re trying to wear you out so you won’t eventually reschedule, and then the lunch goes away.”

Of course, sometimes not having one is the biggest treat of all.

“On days people cancel, you probably get more work done,” says Russell Hollander, a production executive at Buckaroo Entertainment. “It’s almost like a godsend.”

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RULE #1

Agents and executives pay for lunch. Talent, never. Otherwise, the person who wants something picks up the tab.

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Chat with Nicole LaPorte and Pamela Gonyea, lunch maitre d’ at the Grill on the Alley, at 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20. Go to chat.latimes.com


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