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An Editor's Hollywood Ties Pay Off

Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter strikes business deals with some people his magazine covers.

May 14, 2004|Claudia Eller, Michael Cieply and Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writers

In all of Hollywood, no magazine cover is more coveted than that of Vanity Fair. The publication is filled with pages of high-end ads and glamorous photo spreads. Its famed Oscar party has made pretenders of the rest.

The editor, Graydon Carter, has long luxuriated in his own kind of celebrity while sitting atop the masthead of Vanity Fair. But increasingly Carter has crossed into the world his magazine chronicles, striking business deals with Hollywood executives whose films are covered by Vanity Fair.

Among other things, Carter received a "consultant fee" of $100,000 from Universal Pictures, which financed the Academy Award-winning film "A Beautiful Mind." Vanity Fair had earlier published excerpts from the book on which the movie was based.

Carter approached the film's producer through an intermediary, Bryan Lourd, a friend and partner with Creative Artists Agency, according to sources familiar with the discussions. Carter told Lourd he deserved the money for recommending that the book be turned into a movie.

The sources said "Beautiful Mind" producer Brian Grazer, who also is a friend of Carter's, was uncomfortable about the approach but ultimately authorized the money. When Grazer accepted the Oscar for best picture, along with director Ron Howard, he thanked Carter.

Neither Grazer nor Lourd would comment.

Carter also declined to be interviewed for this story. But Vanity Fair spokeswoman Beth Kseniak confirmed by e-mail that he received a $100,000 payment. Sources said Carter got the money before the movie's 2001 opening, but Kseniak said the payment came 1 1/2 years after its release. Kseniak also said the payment was disclosed to a person "in authority" at Vanity Fair's parent company, Conde Nast Publications.

Asked whether Vanity Fair's ethical guidelines permit the editor to accept payments from people or companies covered by the magazine, Conde Nast Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Maurie Perl said:

"Graydon Carter is a great editor in chief. Chuck Townsend, president and CEO of Conde Nast Publications, and Graydon are completely on the same page regarding Graydon's editorship of Vanity Fair."

Others, however, say there should be a firewall between publications and the subjects they cover.

"When you're running an important magazine, there's an ethical line you just can't cross," said Ed Kosner, who has been the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine and Esquire, discussing the ethical responsibilities of magazine editors in general.

"You don't do any business on the side with people you're covering. You don't pitch projects to people your magazine is covering. You don't accept gifts," said Kosner. "This is not a personal decision one makes as an editor. It's a journalistic code, something that's very well known."

Carter also received money from another studio frequently covered in the pages of Vanity Fair. He and three former colleagues shared a $1-million advance from the book division of Miramax Films for the rights to publish an anthology of material from the now-defunct Spy magazine, of which Carter was a co-founder and editor. Miramax, run by brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, is one of the industry's most successful movie companies.

The size of the advance for "Spy: The Funny Years," due out next year, surprised some in the publishing industry because books about magazines and anthologies seldom become bestsellers. What's more, Spy had not attracted a broad national audience.

Still, Jonathan Burnham, Miramax Books chief, predicted the book would do well "because there's a strong market for retrospectives. The 'Saturday Night Live' book was huge." Others agreed, noting that the $1-million price tag, though steep, was not flagrantly out of line.

"The amount of money paid for this book may be a lot, but it's not unusual for Miramax," said veteran New York literary agent Lisa Queen.

Kurt Andersen, a Spy co-founder who shared in the book deal, defended its value -- and the notion that magazine editors should be permitted more latitude.

"Undoubtedly, there are deals that shouldn't be made by journalists," Andersen said. But, he added, "the obligations of a reporter for the Los Angeles Times or New York Times are different from an editor at a magazine or other media entity."

He did not elaborate.

Vanity Fair dealt closely with Miramax on at least two occasions within months of closing the Spy book deal.

Last fall, the magazine published an excerpt from a Miramax book by former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and shared the tab for a party at New York's Four Seasons.

Later, in its February issue, the magazine ran an excerpt from "Down and Dirty Pictures," a new book by its own contributing writer Peter Biskind. The excerpt was a less-than-flattering portrait of Harvey Weinstein, but appeared under the relatively gentle headline: "The Weinstein Way."

On Thursday, Weinstein said Carter did him no favors by running the excerpt.

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