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COLUMN ONE

The Hottest Seats in Hollywood

Tinseltown can track the rise and fall of careers by who sits where at gala openings. 'I've been hung up on, screamed at, threatened,' one premiere planner says.

August 14, 2000|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the kind of blistering Hollywood memo that sets fax machines humming.

"Be aware that the only thing separating my hands from your neck is the fact that there are 3,000 miles between us," it began. "Be aware that in 15 years of producing movies and running companies, I have never been treated so disrespectfully, rudely, insolently or been dismissed . . . by any low-level flunky as I have by you this afternoon."

Then, Scott Rudin, the prolific movie producer, got to the point: The seats he wanted but did not have. "By my count there are 671 people who, in your infinite wisdom, are more important than my guests on Monday night," he wrote. "Please forward to me a list of who they are. I am anxious to know."

Such vitriol might be understandable if the Earth were exploding and Rudin wanted berths on the last remaining space station. But all Rudin was seeking when he sent this flaming diatribe to Paramount's vice president of special projects, Allison Jackson, was better seats to the 1998 premiere of his movie, "The Truman Show."

Every four years, the Democrats' and Republicans' presidential nominating conventions spark battles over who deserves the best front-and-center access. But as Rudin's memo illustrates, seating wars are a way of life in Hollywood. Week in, week out, where studio executives, actors, producers and agents rest their haunches at movie premieres is widely seen to reveal their places in the industry's power structure. Quite literally, where you sit indicates where you stand.

"People's careers rise and fall on where they're seated," said Dale Olson, a movie marketing veteran, with utter seriousness. "People are scared that if they're not seated properly, somebody will let out the word: 'So-and-so has slipped.' And that buzz goes around this town."

Hollace Davids, a Universal Pictures senior vice president, is the dean of premiere planners in town, with 20 years of experience. "I've been hung up on, screamed at, threatened," she said. "You want to say, 'Wait a minute! Try to get a grip on what's going on here. You're talking about a movie. Not world peace. Not a cure for AIDS. A movie premiere.'

"You're dealing with people who wield a lot of power, and when they don't get what they want, they tend to overreact," she said.

"You're watching 'Gladiator' and you think you're going to see combat?" asked another veteran event planner, Carlotta Florio. "Combat is nothing compared to what goes on in the theater."

Don't be confused: Such misbehavior does not stem from a pressing need to actually see a movie. Many if not most of the people who sit in the coveted center sections at premieres have already seen the featured film--some of them more than once. Movie premieres, after all, are held mostly for industry insiders as a way of paying tribute to filmmakers--and, hopefully, whipping up buzz a few days before a new release.

Nevertheless, nobody wants to be spotted in the bleachers.

"It's like they're going to Spago and saying, 'Where's my table?' " said Murray Weissman, a longtime publicist who created a seating lottery for the annual Emmy Awards show a few years ago that, to some extent, minimized the bickering.

The quest for A-list seating can divide families. One seat had been "taped"--or reserved with masking tape--for Brad Pitt at Sony's premiere of last year's drama "The End of the Affair." But by the time Pitt (who wasn't in the movie, but is a friend of director Neil Jordan) showed up solo after the standing-room-only theater had already gone dark, the seat was occupied. Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake offered to give up one of his primo seats, and Pitt spent the evening sitting next to Blake's wife.

Adding to the confusion, people often show up unannounced. In 1998, Gwyneth Paltrow wanted Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein to be invited to the premiere of "Great Expectations," which had been made by a rival studio, 20th Century Fox. When he didn't get a ticket, the unstoppable Weinstein--credited by many with making Paltrow into a star--showed up anyway. After a flurry of anxious rearranging, he was given a seat.

'Where Are We Going to Put Them All?'

Many in Hollywood have their assistants spend hours each week trying to secure the particular reserved seats that they think befit their stations. For days leading up to a premiere, studio events planners field phone calls requesting, not just entry to the theater, but specific seats with proximity to (depending on the caller) either the stars of the movie or others with whom the caller feels competitive. One planner said she has fielded as many as 25 calls about a single person's seating needs.

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