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Stand-In Shoppers Give Star Treatment

Show BizWhen giving presents to Hollywood's elite, some studios, talent agencies and producers rely on buyers to find the right gift.

May 29, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Oh, look at this bag," Marnie says. "The leather is really beautiful."

"They have some great totes too," says Cynde, pointing at another array of bags. "Maybe we should get something like that. It would be just right for Julia."

It's a sultry spring afternoon, a perfect day for two young women to do some shopping in Century City. When Cynde Cassell and Marnie Lerner finish checking out leather travel bags at J. Hambleton Ltd., they go next door to Signatore, where they eyeball an assortment of old-fashioned fountain pens and ink wells.

"We could get one of these for Julia," Cassell says, studying a handsome fountain pen set. "Remember, this is where we got those pens for Harrison."

This being Los Angeles, that would be Julia as in Julia Roberts; Harrison for Harrison Ford.

Think it's hard finding the right gift for your wife or husband or mother-in-law? Try buying a special something for Julia and Harrison, not to mention Jack (Nicholson), Eddie (Murphy) and Meg (Ryan), which is what Cassel and Lerner do for a living. Armed with a wad of credit cards and constantly beeping cell phones, the pair of high-energy twentysomething women are shoppers for the stars, the little-known gift-giving gurus of Hollywood.

In the past three years, their Star Treatment Gift Services has purchased presents for more than 75 films and innumerable movie stars. They're not hired by the stars; in fact, Julia and Harrison probably don't know they exist. Cassel and Lerner buy the lavish presents that movie studios, producers and talent agencies give actors to commemorate such milestones as the start-date of a new movie, the arrival of a TV pilot script, an Oscar nomination or special moments in a star's career trajectory, say an attempted raid by a rival talent agency, that would merit a "talent appreciation" package.

In a business where everything is personal, fussing over gifts is high art. Even a $20-million-a-picture star appreciates being pampered with that special something--a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes or a set of titanium golf clubs.

The culture of princely gift-giving has been an integral part of modern-day Hollywood since the mid-1980s, when Creative Arts Agency super-agent Michael Ovitz began sending out start-date gifts as a way of saying, "Who loves ya, baby" to agency clients. By 1993, the sky was the limit. After "The Firm" became a hit, Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing showed her appreciation to Tom Cruise by buying him a new Mercedes 500 SL.

Studios have been known to spend as much as a million dollars on gifts for talent during the course of a year, with much of the tab going for hundreds of splashy holiday presents. Cassel and Lerner say their budget for gifts runs from $100 up to $1,500, depending on the importance of the film or stature of the movie star. They don't do chintzy flower arrangements or Pink Dot liquor baskets.

When Ovitz was at CAA, he gave top clients first editions and modern art, saying "to spend $50 or $70 on champagne, which flows in Hollywood like water, is thoughtless."

"When you go into a star's trailer on the first day of production, it's so packed with gifts that it looks like a Sharper Image showroom," says producer Mark Johnson, who got a telescope from DreamWorks--picked out by Cassel and Lerner--as a start-date gift on his current film, "Galaxy Quest."

"Everywhere you look you see these incredibly costly presents, from palm pilots [electronic organizer] to video cameras. It's just one sign of how important relationships are in the movie business."

In fact, stars get so many gifts from so many people that one of Cassel and Lerner's biggest concerns is that the star hasn't already been given the same Armani suit or Prada bag on a previous film. Roberts' film "Erin Brockovich," which just started shooting, is co-financed by Universal and Sony, so both studios are sending top-of-the-line gifts to the actress.

One way to avoid duplication is to buy something unique. Amy Frankel Nau, who runs AFN, another company that shops for stars, often goes "trend shopping," flying to London or Milan to discover "what's coming next in the clothing and cosmetic industries." Nau bought a Swiss Zenith watch--still unavailable in the U.S.--as an "Entrapment" production gift for Sean Connery. The star liked it so much he wore it in the movie.

A good gift often gets great exposure. Drew Barrymore is pictured on the cover of the March issue of In Style magazine wearing a pair of earrings Nau bought for a studio executive who gave them to Barrymore as a Christmas present.

Cassel and Lerner try to pick start-date gifts that reflect the theme of the movie.

* For "Crazy in Alabama," which stars Melanie Griffith as a nutty Dixie diva who drives to Hollywood with her husband's severed head in a hat box, the actress received a hat box full of gifts, including mint julep glasses and a book about Southern women called "Hell's Belles."

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