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HOLLYWOOD NOW | LONG TIME GONE

The Hollywood Seven

Lionized in 1978 as the Industry's Brightest Hopes, Three Are Now Dead and None Ever Headed a Studio. What Happened to the Baby Moguls?

March 22, 1998|JAMES BATES | James Bates covers Hollywood for The Times' business section. He last wrote for the magazine about Edgar Bronfman Jr

In the summer of 1978, in such Hollywood haunts of the day as Le Dome, Ma Maison and Imperial Gardens, a button appeared on lapels that read "Free the Baby Moguls." It was an inside joke, or as inside as jokes can be in Hollywood, which is to say a few thousand people probably got it. The reference was to six studio executives and one agent in their late 20s and early 30s profiled in an article, "The Baby Moguls," in New West magazine.

The seven--Universal Studios executives Thom Mount and Sean Daniel, Warner Bros. executive Mark Rosenberg, Claire Townsend and Paula Weinstein of 20th Century Fox, Don Simpson of Paramount Pictures and agent Michael Black--were an arbitrary choice to begin with. Any one of 50 young executives--some of whom turned out to be true moguls, such as Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg--were percolating alongside them in Hollywood's farm systems at the time.

As portrayed by writer Maureen Orth, they were brash and cocky. Having just established a toehold in Hollywood, they vowed to bring to movies the kind of idealism forged 10 years earlier in protest of the Vietnam War. Working through nights and on weekends, they lived in modest apartments furnished with a few books and worn Beatles albums. They disdained traditional Hollywood--then reeling from the check-forging scandal involving Columbia Pictures president David Begelman--with the same fervor as they did the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The Polo Lounge, where Hollywood's establishment hung out, was to them "the Polio Lounge"; super-agent Sue Mengers' legendary parties were shunned, and they proclaimed the last thing they wanted to be was producer Bob Evans.

The "Baby Moguls" story was the talk of Hollywood, and the industry establishment hated it. Orth today recalls that one producer offered to bet her $50,000 that none of the seven would be in the business in five years. Still another executive called Orth to ask her to summarize her piece, because he hadn't read it and was heading to a party. Mengers told Black it was just as well the Baby Moguls didn't want to attend her parties, because it would be a cold day in hell when any of them were invited.

In the 20 years since the article was published, just four of the Baby Mogul seven survive. Simpson died from a drug overdose in 1996, Rosenberg of a heart attack in 1992 and Townsend of cancer in 1995. Daniel, Weinstein and Mount work as producers. Black last year quit the agency business to become a manager for such longtime clients as Tommy Lee Jones. The six who were studio executives left their jobs within a few years, weary of the politics and backbiting. A disillusioned Townsend dropped out of the business altogether. Although some of the Baby Moguls were involved with well-received films such as "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Bull Durham" "Top Gun" and "Dazed and Confused," none ended up a true mogul. None ranks today on any of the annual entertainment industry's "power lists."

Far from upsetting the studio system, the seven ran head-on into a Hollywood that was changing beneath their feet. Hollywood was on a cusp, but it wasn't entering a new, enlightened era. A year earlier, "Star Wars" smashed box-office records, ushering in the roll-the-dice, blockbuster mentality that dominates today. Soon, films weren't just movies but "franchises" that had to play as well in Sri Lanka as Omaha.

Filmmaker and actor Robert Redford, who befriended Townsend, calls that period "a transition between a period of ideology and hope to the reality of the '80s, when everyone moved into the market-share mentality." The more cynical voices add that the very things the Baby Moguls professed to disdain when they arrived in town--namely power and money--ultimately were irresistible. "They didn't want to be Bob Evans, but they wanted his home," Black says. "They didn't want to go to Sue Mengers' parties, but, trust me, they wanted her pool."

Orth's article may not go down with Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" or Budd Schulberg's "What Makes Sammy Run?" Still, it presaged the day when movie executives became celebrities in their own right, and magazines would have us on a first-name basis with Jeffrey, Steven and David. The Baby Mogul experience also serves as a reminder of how ephemeral power and status are in Hollywood--how one moment Michael Ovitz can be "the most powerful man in Hollywood " and the next all but forgotten.

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