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The hole truth: How the industry's elite conducts business by tee shots and two-putts--and keeps it all on the QT.

The first hole at Bel-Air Country Club, a downhill par 4, affords a sweeping vista of a lush, creek-lined canyon and the neighboring UCLA campus. It's here, flour a grassy stage, that a tee shot is not so much hit as performed, most often before an audience of industry members at prime vantage points.

Overlooking the tee is a restaurant/bar with floor to-ceiling windows. Nearby is the 10th-hole putting green, where industry golfers gather and kibitz. Even as players greet each other--dozens of them on a weekend morning--their eyes are trained on the first tee. The spectators' query: Who is playing, with whom and how well?

The area is so conspicuous and daunting that club member Michael Ovitz, according to local lore, often began his round on a later hole so that he could play No. 1 only when completely warmed up.

"There is a lot of pressure and a lot of banter," says Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios who plays at Bel-Air but belongs to El Caballero in Tarzana. "'Golf is a gentleman's game, but in this town, people are talking in your backswing."

In entertainment, golf is much more than a gentleman's game, but a shadow culture that reveals much about the industry itself. It is an elite within all elite.

Nonplayers sec the game as uninvitingly simple (read: boring).You swing the club. You hit the bail. You walk after the ball. You swing the club. Et cetera.

These industryites who are less likely to take up the game--production executives, directors or publicists, say--are barred from a realm where the fate of many is determined.

Scripts are set up. Roles are cast. Equity financing is secured. And the strategic direction of a studio often is affected.

"Everything results from what happens out there," grumbles one veteran marketing executive and nongolfer. "You suddenly wonder, 'Why are we making this movie?' And you realize it all stems from a round of golf."

Players (in every sense of the word) fork over six-figure sums each year for the privilege of walking venerable courses like Bel-Air, Riviera, Lakeside, Brentwood, Los Angeles Country Club, Hillcrest, North Ranch, Sherwood and El Caballero.

A few noted public courses draw some Hollywood interest, venues like Malibu Country Club, Lost Canyons in Simi Valley, Ocean Trails in Rancho PalosVerdes and the PGA of Southern California Golf Club in Beaumont. Relative to their private counterparts, however, these courses are like festival films: Though widely admired, they are not where the money is.

It is at the private links where, in exchange for rich sums, club members get access to an unmatched network. They get out of the office. They get to judge those who would join their ranks.

And they make deals.

"A boss of mine once said, 'Golf, golf, golf. All you guys ever talk about is golf' "says Mike McCartney, all L.A.-based film buyer for theater chain Famous Players. "I asked him what his thing was. He said he owned a boat. I said, 'I don't remember any deals having been completed on a boat.' Out here, films are booked by who makes a putt."

It isn't as if checks are written on the 18th green. AOL, did not buy Time Warner on the front nine. But the gradual, incremental decision-making and relationship-building that is tire fiber of show business is remarkably well served by the golf course.

"It is a great license to do business in a wonderful setting," says one veteran at a top-five agency. "You're going for a walk in a park. In a way, it is probably the most important kind of business you can conduct in that it is a commitment."

That said, the agent adds that he has vowed not to rely on deals struck on the course. "Twice, I came away believing I had made a deal, only to be told, 'No, that doesn't count. It was on the golf course.'"

Bruce McNall, former L.A. Kings owner and film backer who has resumed setting up projects since his release front prison on a tax evasion conviction, says tire amount of time spent on the course is crucial. Having survived prison, he is co-chairman of Seven Arts Pictures, overseeing creative decisions and marketing tot films like "Asylum," with Ian McKellen, and "The Swedish Job," a comedy with Harvey Keitel and Freddie Prinze Jr.

"A lot of times you're out there for 4 1/2 hours with somebody, and that's enough time to get to know them a little bit," he says. "There is a certain element to their personality that comes out. Are they helpful? Are they cordial? Are they patient? Do they curse? Do they cheat?"

Golf ball or blackball

The most consequential transaction that a Holly wood golfer engages in occurs off the course. It is the unscientific and rigorously selective process known as joining a club.

The process is so infamous that it has become part of the lore of Los Angeles, dating back to the start of talking pictures and the days when the city's elites segregated themselves into blue bloods and new bloods. Even in the heart of the Westside, the Los Angeles Country Club historically took exclusivity to an extreme and was widely known for shutting out members of show business. In one famous exchange, a club official once told Victor Mature, star of films like "The Robe" and "No, No, Nanette," that LACC did not accept actors. "Take a look at my movies," he reportedly insisted, "and you'll see there's no problem there."

Jewish golfers viewed that posture as a euphemistic move that left them out in the cold, so they migrated to clubs like Hillcrest, where such legends as Groucho Marx and George Burns held court.

Even today, money or, strangely enough, golf acumen, matters little when it comes to gaining en trance. Members of Bel-Air for example, say the club has nixed applications by Steve Tisch, Wolf-gang Puck and Sylvester Stallone (twice--and we're talking pre-"Judge Dredd").

Each club has its own methods, but generally prospective members must be nominated by some one in the club. As a memhership committee deliberates, often with a more skeptical eye than a New York co-op board, a photo of the prospective member is posted in the locker room.

Even one dissenter on the membership committee can rum an applicant's chances. Their reasoning does not have to be articulated. It essentially comes down to a high-stakes popularity contest.

It goes without saying that members at these courses live lives of wealth in posh surroundings. Stars like Lana Turner and Elizabeth Taylor lived alongside Bel-Air and Riviera, respectively, but special attention is paid to the homes of the mega-rich. Few players at Bel Air-even former studio bosses or producers with jets--fail to take note of disgraced telecom CEO Gary Winnick's $90 million mansion or David Murdoch's palatial Casa Encantada, former residence of Conrad Hilton. At Sherwood, the towering residences of Wayne Gretzky and others line the course.

Even more than tire surroundings, much of the appeal of membership is being able to invite VIP guests to the club. Certain actors command special attention, even if they don't always know what they are doing.

In the late 1980s, long before hitting the campaign trail, Arnold Schwarzenegger took an interest in golf, but he was never a very polished player. He once showed up in a T-shirt for a round with producer Larry Gordon at Brentwood Country Club, according to one of his other playing partners that day.

As the pair waited to tee off, a nervous member of the Brentwood staff told Gordon that the future governor could not play without a collared shirt. "Well, maybe you can tell him," Gordon replied.

The bodybuilding thesp played that day in a T-shirt.

Actors are the industry's toll stars on the links, performers such as Bill Murray, Kevin Costner and the late Jack Lemmon.James Garner has long been one of the best shots on the lot. Soap star Jack Wagner is a scratch player. Luke Wilson's handicap is a 5.9 at Bel-Air. Samuel L. Jackson has it written into his contracts that he can play golf wherever he is shooting a film.

Through the publicity given to pro-arms and charity events, even nongolfers know about Bob Hope and subsequent generations of stars who've taken to the game. What they probably don't grasp is the film industry's Hatfields and McCoys: exhibitors and distributors. Perhaps in no other area of the industry is business and pleasure as interwoven as when these two segments of the workforce play the links. It is the clubbiest sector of the golf subculture because the buyers and sellers remain constant, unlike in other arenas.

They might be at each other's throats when it comes to negotiating terms, but on the course "everybody has a chance to get together on neutral ground," says Sherak, who headed distribution at Fox after years at General Cinemas.

"It's nice to get out there because it's not just who screwed who on what picture," McCartney agrees.

Antitrust issues (rules that prevent companies From "block-booking" a movie wholesale to a theater circuit) are always a concern in these groupings. Even so, on the links, exhibitors savor the chance to hear about which film looks good for the upcoming season. Distributors use the opportunity to try to secure favorable terms.

Anti privately, they will tell you about another perk, which reflects a certain frat-boy exuberance that is rarely on as bold display in other segments of the industry.

One Regal Cinemas golf tournament in the late 1990s featured kegs of beer along the course and strippers on the 18th green. A participant recalls one vivid detail: One of the strippers touted herself as the Human Ball Washer.

Considerably more staid among this crowd is the AFI Tournament, held in September, or the annual golf tournament held on the first day of Sho West in Las Vegas. Or there's the golf fest that erupts during ShowEast, held in Orlando, Fla., where the high rollers can readily ditch the digital demos and screenings for alligator-enlivened loops. Tournaments are a big draw for this crowd, though sportsmanship is not always the top priority. Sherak recalls one tournament in Las Vegas, held by United Artists Theater Circuit (since acquired by Regal), in which a film executive with a 10 handicap had taken the day off to play.

As he got ready to tee off on the back nine, his competitors informed him that he had a phone call. Cell phones are not allowed on most courses, but this seemed important. A club employee put the call through on a mobile phone. It was the executive's boss, who ripped into the exec for taking the day off without proper notification.

It didn't matter to the crowd that had gathered to watch their colleague's woes unfold. Survival of the fittest. His loss was their gain. Unbeknownst to him, his golfing partners had set the whole thing up and got the boss to make the call.

"Sure enough, he hit Ins tee shot into the water on the left side," Sherak recalls. "Everybody else loved it."
GOLF COURSE SCORE CARD

                         Industry Members           Designed

Bel-Air                  Tom Cruise, Don            George C.
Country Club             Ohlmeyer, Michael          Thomas Jr.,
Bel-Air, CA              Ovitz, Les Moonves         1924

Brentwood                Roger Birnbaum,            Gary Roger
Country Club             Barry Hirsch               Baird,
Brentwood, CA                                       1903

El Caballero             Tom Sherak,                William
Country Club             Frank Mancuso Jr.,         Johnson,
Tarzana, CA              Gary Barber                1953

Hillcrest                Dan Fellman,               Willie
Country Club             Sidney Poitier,            Watson,
Los Angeles, CA          Albert Brooks              1921

Lakeside                 Ray Romano,                Max Behr,
Golf Club                Kevin Costner, Jack        1924
Burbank, CA              Nicholson, Dick Cook

Mountain Gate            Sylvestor Stallone,        Ted
Country Club             Kurt Russell               Robinson,
Los Angeles, CA                                     1975

Riviera                  Larry David,               George C.
Country Club             Jim Griffiths              Thomas Jr.,
Pacific Palisades, CA                               1926

Wilshire                 Bob Harper,                Norman
Country Club             Ray Romano,                MacBeth
Los Angeles, CA          Kevin James                1919

                         The Skinny

Bel-Air                  Originally just a nine-hole course, it grew
Country Club             when a board member decided to see if he
Bel-Air, CA              could hit a ball over the bottomless canyon
                         beside the clubhouse.
Brentwood                O.J. and Judge Ito were members here at the
Country Club             same time ... enough said.
Brentwood, CA

El Caballero             Renovated in the late '60s by the famed
Country Club             Robert Trent Jones, "El Cab" is by far the
Tarzana, CA              most prestigious track in Tarzana.

Hillcrest                This is where Groucho Marx, George Burns and
Country Club             George Jessel famously held court. Hillcrest
Los Angeles, CA          underwent a complete rebuild in 2001.

Lakeside                 Built around the lake that gives Toluca Lake
Golf Club                its name, the layout served as a backdrop for
Burbank, CA              legend Bobby Jones' instructional films, as
                         well as some Golden Age features.

Mountain Gate            Built on a solid-waste landfill, the club is
Country Club             surrounded by multimillion dollar homes.
Los Angeles, CA

Riviera                  Riviera originally had a polo field that
Country Club             attracted members of the Hollywood elite,
Pacific Palisades, CA    including Walt Disney.

Wilshire                 It will figure into Martin Scorsese's 2004
Country Club             biopic of Howard Hughes, "The Aviator,"
Los Angeles, CA          Hughes famously landed a plane on the
                         fairway with passenger Katharine Hepburn.
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Author:Hayes, Dada
Publication:Variety
Date:Nov 3, 2003
Words:2208
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