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All the Young Dudes

Why Hollywood's Junior Male Executives Worship George Lucas, 'Titanic's' Grosses and the Gang at the Friars Club.

March 22, 1998|RJ SMITH | 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."

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