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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Recruiters Hold Star Power

Executive headhunters have become major players in Hollywood, where nepotism once reigned in filling top studio jobs.

December 25, 2004|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

If not for his relationship with a Hollywood headhunter, Dan Glickman might never have made the leap, as he puts it, "from soybeans to Spielberg."

Glickman, the former secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton, first met executive recruiter Leslie Hortum a few years ago when she called him as a reference on another prospect. The two talked periodically after that. Once, Hortum had a job to pitch. Later, Glickman mused about a position he might want: the head of the powerful trade group the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

"If Jack Valenti's job ever comes up, you can call me," Glickman told Hortum years before Hollywood's venerable white-haired lobbyist decided to retire.

So in February, when the MPAA hired Hortum's firm to find Valenti's successor, she knew that Glickman was not only interested but also qualified. A movie buff with a son in the entertainment business, he had experience negotiating trade deals and could work across partisan lines in Congress to push Hollywood's agenda.

Glickman remembers picking up the phone at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he was teaching, and hearing Hortum's voice. "I thought, 'Gee, this is great. I'm in the hunt.' " Several months later, the hunt was over: The former Cabinet secretary was named to the job, which pays a million-plus dollars a year.

Time was, nepotism ruled Hollywood hiring. For decades, the practice of promoting relatives to fill top executive jobs was so common that wags had a saying for it: "The son-in-law also rises." Who job candidates knew was at least as important as what they knew, and executive recruiters were viewed with suspicion. Why pay an outsider, the reasoning went, to assemble a list of insiders already in your Rolodex?

No longer. As movie studios and television networks have been gobbled up by global media conglomerates, and as corporate scandals have highlighted the importance of finding leaders with both broad management experience and sterling integrity, professional headhunters have garnered a level of clout unthinkable 20 years ago.

"Recruiters have become in many ways the quintessential matchmakers in Hollywood," said Bob Pisano, a former executive at Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who landed his current position -- chief executive of the Screen Actors Guild -- after being wooed by a recruiter.

Increasingly, boards of directors are turning to recruiters to give them cover and credibility, shielding them from accusations of favoritism. The best headhunters combine the schmoozing talents of an agent, the discretion of a spy and the investigative instincts of a private eye. These days, it is the rare top-level job that gets filled without their input.

In 2001, search firm Spencer Stuart, which the MPAA later hired to find Glickman, helped recruit former Warner Bros. co-Chairman Terry Semel to head Yahoo Inc. In 2002, Heidrick & Struggles helped land Todd Leavitt, a former managing director of a television show packaging firm, as president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Now, as one of the industry's most closely watched succession battles unfolds at Walt Disney Co., the company's board has hired Heidrick & Struggles to search for a replacement for Chief Executive Michael Eisner, who is expected to retire sometime after his successor is named by June.

More than any other, this search -- and Hollywood's reaction to it -- shows how recruiters have become major players whose alliances with particular companies or executives can seem to influence where power will shift next.

One of the leading candidates for Eisner's job, for example, is Peter Chernin, president of News Corp. Some believe that if Disney had tapped Spencer Stuart, which has conducted many searches for News Corp., it could have tipped the scales in Chernin's favor.

Instead, some prognosticators think that in-house candidate and Disney President Robert Iger got an edge when the company hired Heidrick & Struggles, which has worked with some Disney directors in the past. Eisner has endorsed Iger for the job.

Loyalties, however, are constantly shifting, in part because it is in every headhunter's interest to be a friend to all, enemy to none.

"It all comes down to relationships," said Stephen Unger, who over the years has been managing partner of media/entertainment at three of the largest executive search firms and who now runs his own boutique firm, KSMU. "It's an endless chain. If you're doing well, it feeds upon itself."

As long as there's movement -- or churn -- a savvy Hollywood recruiter can do very well, indeed. Typically, recruiters pocket one-third of the first-year compensation package (including salary, bonuses and stock options) negotiated for the person whose head is successfully hunted. Given Hollywood's monumental paychecks, a firm can make more than $600,000 on a single successful search.

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