Hollywood is a town where business is conducted over a meal. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks; this is the steady routine that has cluttered the daily calendar of any self-respecting agent, producer, or studio executive for years.
Then Covid arrived, and it all came to a grinding halt. Eighteen months later, amid multiple false starts and variants, many folks still won’t leave home. To me, this represents the loss of a great tradition. Sitting in my home office, microwaving Tikka Masala from Trader Joe’s, waiting for that next Zoom call, does not do the trick.
Back in the late ‘80s, while learning the business at Imagine Entertainment, I was encouraged to cozy up to lit agents with scripts, to any executive who could buy from us, and of course to nurture the talent. Geography landed me at several regular spots. In Beverly Hills, the industry commissary was The Grill on the Alley. In West Hollywood, there was The Palm and its sought-after four front booths. For breakfast, there were two main spots: The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel and Nate ‘n Al on Beverly Drive. Recently, The New York Times observed that the Polo Lounge is back. But, in this Covid era, the coveted seats are in the outside garden area, not in the booths fronting the bar inside.
The industry power dynamic usually dictated where and what meal you ate. The hierarchy was coffee for the newbie; breakfast for someone you wanted to meet but who was not a top priority; lunch for a peer or someone you were pursuing; and dinner for a director or big-name actor you were trying to impress. In general, if you invited someone higher up the food chain, you’d go where they chose on the day they could do it. The buyers at the studios, for example, often made you come to their lots for the mediocre food. The old-timers often wanted to meet at Le Dome on Sunset Plaza, Jimmy’s on Santa Monica Blvd, or maybe Hugo’s in West Hollywood. You always offered to buy if you did the asking. And if Jeffrey Katzenberg invited you to one of his two breakfasts at the Polo Lounge, that’s where you’d go, and you’d be on time.
If this business were baseball, a lot of easy runs would be scored on crossed signals. You would often say hello to someone at another table or a nearby booth. But you had to be adept at reading the room. A demonstrable wave coming your way certainly meant stop and say hello. But a casual wave was just to acknowledge, “I see you.” Scheduling could also get confusing. I employed the three-strike rule. If lunch was set, postponed, and then reset again by the other party, they were telling me something and I would decline.
There were often awkward moments. I was producing a movie in Shreveport, Louisiana that starred Sam Jackson and Bernie Mac. A couple ICM reps for Jackson said they were coming to town and wanted to have dinner with me. We went to a great little steakhouse in a converted train car. We had martinis and rib-eyes. It was a welcome respite for me from catering. But when the check came, it just sat there. And sat. Now, I had been invited, so my assumption was their employer (the agency) would pick up the tab. Awkward. I got stuck with a big check that night that ate up much of that week’s per diem.
There was (and always will be) a pecking order at these favored spots. Nowhere is this more clearly manifested than at the Palm, now in Beverly Hills, where the prized booths loom like thrones high above the dining room below. Sure, some of the big guns regularly greased the palms of gatekeepers like Gigi at The Palm, or Pamela at The Grill, but these people at the front generally had a better sense of who was who than Studio System ever will. There’s value in the public face time. I frequently ran into a studio exec or a producer who would call later that same day to see if I might be interested in some job that was about to open. It’s good to be out there. It’s good to be seen in the community. No one remembers you when you’re in your sweats on a Zoom call. (If they do look, they are likely checking the lighting on themselves anyway.)
One day, early in my career, I was working my way to the back of the Palm for lunch with a writer and I cruised by then ICM President Jim Wiatt’s table at the front. Later that afternoon, my boss, Brian Grazer, summoned me to his office. “Wiatt is pissed at you” he said. “Me?,” I sheepishly asked, “I did not think he knew who I was.” “Apparently you walked by his table without saying hello,” Brian said.
Later that afternoon, I drove over to ICM (then located on Beverly Blvd) and apologized to Jim with a straight face. Ironically, this helped to create a friendship and a cordial working relationship that would last decades. But, on that day, I wondered if I would be fired for this misstep. These guys all seemed to be taking their cues from The Godfather. If Wiatt had been wearing a pinky ring, I’d have kissed it.
I do hope the lunch ritual returns when Covid is finally defeated, er, managed. For maybe an hour (sometimes more), you could have a conversation with someone you might learn something from. Or, better yet, someone you might actually do business with. As a former journalist, I had some advantages in these situations. I learned a long time ago that people generally love to talk about themselves. Young executives often make the rookie mistake of pushing too hard to get their own story out. They think they need to justify their existence. It’s kind of a faulty instinct, though: In general, if you can weave in and out of that mega-producer’s oft-told anecdotes, they come away thinking you are the sharp one.
A final word about those studio dining rooms that none of us has seen in nearly two years. In the mid 2000’s, I was officed on the Fox lot. At lunchtime, it was easy to walk over to the commissary. But I was not excited about the cuisine. They did their best, but it all tasted like your high school cafeteria. One afternoon, I summoned the courage to email the studio head, Peter Chernin. “Peter: with all due respect, I think you could get a lot more out of the folks on this lot with better food. This way the creatives won’t leave the lot for a couple hours in search of a better meal,” I wrote.
His response arrived immediately: “Are you volunteering to cook?”
David T. Friendly is the Academy Award award nominated producer of Little Miss Sunshine. He recently executive produced Queen of the South for its 5 season run.