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A Cast of Many on the Phone Lines

The headset protocol for Hollywood's movers and shakers: `My people will listen in on your people.'

March 19, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

In Hollywood, you're nobody till somebody listens in.

Forget the allegations of illegal celebrity wiretaps gone wild. In the trenches where the deals go down, it can fairly be assumed that any time an agent is on the phone with, say, a studio executive, four people, not two, will be on the line -- the agent, the exec, the agent's assistant and the exec's assistant. Anyone who expects a conversation to be private is either not paying attention or is hopelessly naive.

The unfolding scandal around jailed celebrity gumshoe Anthony Pellicano may be startling because of the number of high-profile names involved and the unsavory practices alleged, including rampant illegal wiretapping.

What's not surprising to anyone in the know is that even the most run-of-the-mill Hollywood business conversations are notoriously porous; someone is almost always listening in, and doing so legally. Movers and shakers have assistants; assistants are expected to listen in silence, take notes and follow up. While this might strike some as peculiar and possibly even unethical, in the entertainment industry, it is the norm. In this town, to paraphrase the old song, you'll never talk alone.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood phone calls -- In an A1 story Sunday about Hollywood phone conversations, Barbara Boyle was incorrectly identified as head of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She chairs the university's Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, one of two departments within the school.

Assistants listen in for many reasons: to learn how to be an agent/manager/producer; to make sure that when the boss says, "I'll get that script/contract/deal point memo to Disney/Universal/Paramount/George Clooney," the job gets done, posthaste. It takes a person who is important enough, busy enough and paid well enough to be able to have a staff member permanently on call for note-taking, promise-fulfilling and number-dialing. Hollywood, it happens, is full of people who fit that description.

The aspiring moguls who spend their days attached to a headset don't just handle up to 200 calls a day for a busy boss. They are sometimes exposed to crass banter or uncomfortably personal revelations. In some offices, taking a lunch hour is not possible; simply finding time for a bathroom break becomes a challenge. The reward, however, is the opportunity to become a boss one day ... and, presumably, to have an assistant whose job it is to listen in.

"There is a huge culture of listening," says veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman. "I don't think it's malicious. I think it's a timesaver. There is an efficiency to having someone listen in. And let me assure you that most of the agents and managers have call lists that would choke a horse. The assumption you should make is that someone is listening."

"Definitely, I presume with executives and agents that someone is listening," says producer Cathy Schulman, whose assistant listens in when she needs him. "Less so with other producers and talent."

Producer Tom Pollock, former chief of Universal Pictures, says he assumes that every agent he talks to has an assistant on the line. It is only because of a "personal idiosyncrasy" -- his training as a lawyer -- says Pollock, that he does not allow his assistants to listen to his conversations unless they walk into his office and overhear a call. Nonetheless, he understands the usefulness of the practice.

"It's normal," says Pollock. "It saves them time. If an agent says, 'I'll get that script right over to you,' the assistant just does it and doesn't have to be told, and then the agent can go right on to the next call."

Says Schulman: "The reason I have my assistant on the line is it lets me get twice as much done. Every single call is a transaction of sorts. Inevitably a call leads to an actor being called, a vendor being hired, a script being sent and our assistants -- who are executives- and producers-in-training vs. career secretaries -- can do the work and are trained to do the work that the call requires."

California has laws against eavesdropping on confidential conversations, but the Hollywood practice of listening in is so pervasive, says 1st Amendment lawyer Al Wickers, that it's "probably legal."

"The California Supreme Court has said that a confidential conversation is one you don't reasonably expect to be recorded or overheard," says Wickers. "In the entertainment industry, there is the expectation that assistants are monitoring calls as they are rolling calls for their bosses. Everyone I know in the industry works under the assumption that assistants are typically listening in."

At least one movie star never got the memo. In July 2004, when she was embroiled in a lawsuit over the sequel to "Basic Instinct," Sharon Stone professed to be shocked that assistants to her agent, Ed Limato, had been listening in -- and taking notes -- on their conversations for years, and that the film's producers had obtained the "conversation reports" under subpoena. In a deposition that was obtained by the New York Post's Page Six, Stone testified that she had no idea anyone else was on the line. When she questioned Limato about it, she said, he told her that "agents have been doing that for 30 years."

The path to the top often involves a stop at the assistant's desk.

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