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.
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."