The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: Showbiz

'Smurfs' producer's other job? Film school dean

'Smurfs' producer Jordan Kerner, right, with director Raja Gosnell. Credit: Mark Renders / Getty Images

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

Veteran movie producer Jordan Kerner spent nearly 10 years finding a way to make “The Smurfs,” which earned $35.6 million in its U.S. opening last weekend. But it’s not his long track record in Hollywood, which includes producing everything from “Less Than Zero” to “The Mighty Ducks,” that interests me most. It’s his other job: dean of the school of filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

I went to film school myself at Northwestern University, back in the stone age, when we still shot with 16mm cameras, lugged around Nagra sound recorders and edited footage on ancient Moviolas. We'd occasionally be treated to lectures from visiting filmmakers, who'd regale us with tall tales about their exploits. But if you wanted any real-life experience, you had to move to Los Angeles and find a job. Thanks to Kerner’s innovative ideas, undergrads at UNCSA are getting an education not just in theory and production, but in the often less-than-glamorous aspects of life in the trenches of Hollywood.

Kerner has recruited a host of faculty members who still have their day jobs, which helps give students a grounding in the kind of pragmatic problem-solving necessary to survive on a film set. Through a shadowing program, students get to spend weeks at a time on movie sets, seeing their professor (or in the case of Kerner, their dean) in action. Nearly 80 students spent time on “Smurfs.”

“We set it up as part of our internship program, but not just to get coffee, but to see how movies are really made,” he told me the other day, sitting in his office on the Sony lot. Every two weeks, a new group of students would establish residency on the film, listening to budget discussions he would have with the studio or sitting in on script revision meetings among Kerner, the screenwriters and director Raja Gosnell.

“During the shoot, if Raja went up to talk to an actor, our kids would be right there with him. They also got to spend time with our editors, visual effects supervisor, sound designers and other crew members. Sometimes the discussions were difficult, but that was the whole point--it's a way to learn the whys and why nots of filmmaking.” (It being 2011, students had to sign release forms promising not to blog about what they saw.)

From the point of view of Andrew Porter, a 2010 graduate of the school's screenwriting program, the shadowing experience on “Smurfs” was an eye-opener. “It was pretty amazing to watch the drafts of all the scripts come through, and see what stayed and what was replaced,” he recalls. “The script really evolved a lot. In one draft you'd see some part of the story that you thought for sure would stay, and then it would be gone. But after you got to hear all the discussions, you'd realize why they'd made the changes.”

Tom Ackerman, a veteran director of photography on such films as “Anchorman” and “Balls of Fury,” has been teaching cinematography at UNCSA for three years. He's also a big believer in the shadowing process, having brought a flock of students to spend time with him on “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked,” which will hit theaters this Christmas. He also has his students listen in on his conversations with his agent so they can develop an understanding of the demands of the marketplace.

When he was back in Los Angeles, doing a quick music video shoot, Ackerman had students sit in on his production meetings, via Skype, so they could follow the flow of the production. “It makes their teacher more relevant, because you're teaching something that you're still practicing,” he says. “It's great to teach theory, but the students need to see that theories often evaporate under the pressure of trying to get a movie made. Everyone knows that cinematographers try to create great images, but you also have to exercise leadership and be able to manage the resources that you're given.”

Kerner2 Kerner never imagined himself being a film school dean – in fact, he never went to film school himself. But after surviving a freak staph infection and enduring the disappointing showing of a pet project, 2006’s “Charlotte’s Web,” Kerner was looking for a new challenge. He became dean in 2007, agreeing to split his time between Los Angeles and Winston-Salem, where his wife and three daughters now live.

UNCSA, a state school with 270 film students and tuition far below institutions like USC or AFI, has its share of prominent young alums, notably director David Gordon Green (“Pineapple Express”), writer-director Jody Hill (“Observe and Report”) and screenwriter Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), who often return to share their experiences. But Kerner felt the school needed more outside professionals on the faculty, so he recruited a host of industry pros, including producer Bob Gosse, who co-founded The Shooting Gallery and Peter Bogdanovich, who teaches a freshman film class.

Eager to broaden the students' horizons, Kerner has everyone taking art history, which he believes will help students “see the world composed in a way that stimulates individual expression.” Students in the producing program will soon start studying Mandarin since Kerner is convinced that China is “where much of the funding for film is going to come from.”

My biggest concern with today's film schools is that they tend to offer students far more instruction in technique than in actual ideas, which is perhaps one reason why we see a generation of filmmakers who seem to value box office success far more than artistic accomplishment. The star directors in today's studio system, from Todd Phillips to Michael Bay, operate more as careerists than auteurs.

But the student films I watched from UNCSA were loaded with strong ideas, wit and imagination – which may come as a bit of a surprise, given that the dean is the guy producing commercial fare like “The Smurfs.” Kerner, though, sees his work as dean as contributing to enhancing the business more than any one movie he might make.

“When I arrived, we had way too many student films that were full of close-ups of smoking guns, employing the imagery of video games,” Kerner says. “Filmmaking isn't just about coolness and pose--you need bigger subjects to tell.” So Kerner started an American Immersion project, where students gain a deeper understanding of character and story by spending several weeks at places like the Veterans Artificial Limb Hospital in Philadelphia and Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.

“They can't take cameras or recording devices--just a pad and pen,” says Kerner. “The whole idea is to go out and get to know people, hear their stories and get under their skin. The whole idea is to find ways to take what they've learned and adapt it to their work.”

As much as Kerner would enjoy seeing his students make lofty art, he is enough of a realist to realize that they also need what it takes to actually land a job. Since much of the job market today is geared toward the web, animation and TV commercials, Kerner is a proponent of short-form storytelling.

“Our kids are going to have to think clearly in short bursts, because that's where the action is,” he says. “But we want them to have their own voice, because having a unique voice is what sets you apart from everyone else.”

[For the record, 12:55 p.m. Aug. 5: An earlier version of this post used a photo of "Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell but identified him as Jordan Kerner.]

RELATED:

Movie review: 'The Smurfs'

Set Pieces: The Smurfs' New York digs

'Cowboys & Aliens' narrowly beats 'Smurfs' to top the box office

-- Patrick Goldstein

Top photo:  "The Smurfs" director Raja Gosnell, left, and producer Jordan Kerner. Credit: Mark Renders / Getty Images

Lower photo: Jordan Kerner in New York City in July. Credit: Cindy Ord / Getty Images


Schwarzenegger child: How Gawker named wrong 'baby mama'

MariaShriver The story of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the household worker who bore his child more than a decade ago has created something like the Fog of War, I suggested the other day.  When fact, fiction and journalistic standards blur, you’ve gotten lost in what might be called the Fog of Celebrity.

In a week in which TV stations and other news outlets tripped over themselves to chase the story, frequently looking a bit foolish, the gossip website Gawker stood out. The website helped expand the noxious cloud with a story that combined extra-thin reporting and mistaken assumptions, leading to the misidentification (though with great bravado) of Schwarzenegger’s supposed mistress and "love child."

Reporter John Cook made the faulty identification in a post that also included photos of the  purported mistress and supposed out-of-wedlock child. The basic problem (though there were many others) was that the individuals named by Gawker bore no meaningful resemblance, literal or figurative, to the illicit partner and child Schwarzenegger acknowledged Monday to the Los Angeles Times.

I emailed Cook Thursday about his foul-up and he told me Gawker would pull down the post and issue a “statement.” The statement followed, actually under a heading called “CORRECTIONS.” It was headlined “Arnold Schwarzenegger's Love Child: A Retraction.”

“I'll just say I whiffed and I'm obviously quite embarrassed about it and wish we hadn't published the story the way we did,” Cook said in his email to me. He went on to acknowledge that he had relied on an almost eight-year-old story in Britain’s Daily Mail, which identified a woman who purportedly had a child with the one-time movie star.

The woman denied it back then, as Schwarzenegger attempted to replace Gray Davis in the recall election for governor of California. She said she had taken a paternity test that proved the child was her husband's.

Reporter Cook used what he called “circumstantial evidence—as well as common sense” to reach the conclusion that the long-ago Daily Mail report was about the same woman who became the center of this week’s furor. That “common sense” included assuming that the flight attendant Cook identified as the other woman was one and the same as the mistress described in The Times as a “longtime member” of Schwarzenegger's “household staff.”

Cook said via his email that he thought a “personal stewardess ... conceivably fits under the rubric ‘household staff’ in the same way a chauffeur would.” I don’t recall seeing in those aerial photos over Brentwood that—despite its massive size—the Governator’s mansion includes a landing strip. But I digress.

The shoddy reporting didn’t end there. Cook's story claimed that The Times' report said the love child had "the same distinctive name as one of Schwarzenegger’s film characters.” It added, parenthetically: “That detail has apparently been scrubbed from the current version online.”

Only problem: None of that was in The Times' story. Ever. Times lead reporter Mark Z. Barabak purposefully never named the mistress or child, in a bid to protect their privacy. In a follow-up email, I asked Gawker’s Cook to explain how he conjured up that one. But he said his bosses had told him not to get in a back-and-forth and to let his original response to me stand.

It appears Cook was unsure about the juicy Schwarzenegger-named-his-illegitimate-child-for-a-film-character angle even before he posted it. In an email to Barabak, before the posting, Cook wrote: “Am I crazy, or did an early version of your Schwarzenegger story say that the child shared a distinctive name with a character that Schwarzenegger once played in a movie? Did you report that? Was it taken out? Or did I see it somewhere else?”

Cook did post an UPDATE acknowledging that he got that one wrong.

The woman Gawker pointed to in its reporting was investigated by a number of news organizations, including The Times, back in 2003. The paper reported back then how Schwarzenegger had groped and humiliated more than a dozen women during the time he was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. But The Times ran nothing about the case of the flight attendant because the paper couldn't corroborate that she had an affair, or child, with Schwarzenegger. (Cook said The Times "sat" on the story. Again, wrong.)

Gawker has gained a large following for its scorched-earth pop culture missives, heavy on snark and contempt for many figures in the public eye. I will not deny that the site can be a fun read, though not exactly the place to look for balance or fairness.

I asked Gawker Editor-in-Chief Remy Stern how the error came about.  Stern said the reporter is one of “the very best.” He called the Schwarzenegger story an anomaly.

“I discussed the story with John and reviewed the piece before it was published,” Stern wrote in an email, “so ultimately I bear responsibility for the error. The punishment for John and me is a little wounded pride this weekend.”

Gawker celebrated Cook last year when he made a brief exit for a job at Yahoo! The site praised his  “posts [that] were compelling and thoughtful,” adding: “He's an almost too-smart guy who isn't willing to go for the shallow dive on anything.”

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: Maria Shriver appeared with Oprah Winfrey as the talk show doyenne recorded her farewell special. Shriver recently separated from husband Arnold Schwarzenegger after learning he fathered a child with a woman who worked for many years in the couple's Brentwood home. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

 


The Oscar box office mystery: What brought adult moviegoers back to the theaters?

Natalie_portman For years, everybody has had a field day taking potshots at the Academy Awards, saying that the Oscar-nominated movies had no mojo with American filmgoers. Conservative critics said liberal Hollywood was woefully out of touch with rank-and-file movie fans. Indie producers said the Academy was picking perfectly good movies, but the films couldn't compete with the studios’ costly, wall-to-wall marketing of their comic-book franchises.

In any case, damning evidence of the disconnect was there for all to see. “The Hurt Locker,” last year’s best picture winner, earned a paltry $17 million in the theaters, the lowest box-office take for a best picture winner in modern history. In 2009, three of the five best picture nominees couldn’t crack the $35 million mark in domestic earnings. In 2007, the best-picture winning “The Departed” was a hit, but none of the four other nominees even made $60 million.

This year is different -- very different. There are now 10 best picture nominees. Two of them, "Inception" and "Toy Story 3," were big summer blockbusters. And if you look at the five best picture favorites -- meaning the five films whose filmmakers are also up for the best director Oscar -- they have something remarkable in common. The films (“The King's Speech,” “The Social Network,” “The Fighter,” “True Grit” and “Black Swan”) have all made more than $85 million at the U.S. box office, with three of the five films having passed or on track to pass $100 million.

Talk about unprecedented. According to Paul Dergarabedian, the box-office guru at Hollywood.com, there have never been five best picture nominees that all made that much money in any Oscar season. In fact, in 2006, the year “Crash” won best picture, none of the five nominees made $85 million.

It's worth offering a few comparisons to illustrate just how impressive this showing is. “Black Swan,” which was co-financed by 20th Century Fox’s specialty Searchlight division and only cost $13 million to make, has just passed the $100 million mark -- putting it on track to outperform all of big Fox's 2010 releases. “True Grit” has made $160 million, outgrossing such high-profile studio comedies as “Little Fockers” and “Jackass 3-D.”

“The King’s Speech,” which cost $12 million to make, is nearing $100 million in the United States, meaning it has outgrossed “The Green Hornet,” the biggest commercial release of 2011. Sony’s “The Social Network,” which has made $96 million, is a much bigger U.S. hit than either “The Tourist” or “How Do You Know,” the studio’s two star-studded, end-of-year releases.

This is great news for adult moviegoers, who proved that they will come out to support films that get good reviews and remain in theaters long enough to capitalize on great word of mouth. But is it a happy accident? Or could it be a sign of a commercial rebirth for quality films?

According to Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, this was all about good filmmaking. “These were just good movies, the way Oscar movies used to be decades ago,” she told me. “They weren't fringy art movies. They weren't made to win prizes and nominations. They were made because they were good commercial bets. You have to remember that in the old days, it was Warner Bros. that made ‘All the President's Men,’ not a speciality division. I think it's really encouraging because it’s a reminder that what’s good should also be what’s commercial.”

It's important, however, to remember that good movies don’t exist in a vacuum. Just as young moviegoers have been trained to expect a deluge of special-effects driven superhero movies in the summer, adults realize that Oscar season -- which now stretches from October through February -- is the one reliable time of year when they can actually find a well-made drama at their local multiplex. Thanks to the Oscar hoopla, serious films can enjoy the kind of long theatrical run they are denied at any other time of the year.

This year's Oscar-nominated films have benefited from the absence of stiff competition from the studio behemoths in January and February. Business in 2011 is down 24% from 2010, with the weekend box office off for 13 straight weekends from the previous year. Some of that can be written off as early 2010’s “Avatar” effect, but not all. When this year’s Oscar crop was building steam in December and early January, there were only two decent-sized hits to compete against, “Tron: Legacy” and “Little Fockers.”

The lack of competition carried over into 2011. Only eight films have been in wide release so far this year, compared to 12 a year ago at this time, allowing the popular Oscar best picture films to make millions more and hold on to their screens.

“It's been great news for us, because the Oscar films are the films we provide at our theaters,” said Ted Mundorff, whose adult-oriented Landmark Theaters chain is enjoying a 13% bump in business from a year ago. “This holiday season, when people wanted to get out of the house, they went to see the story-driven films, not the special-effects pictures.”

Michael London, a producer who’s made awards-season films like “Sideways” and “The Visitor,” said “even if it is a fluke, it could still become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“When you see all these movies made by gifted filmmakers do so well, it's bound to embolden producers, writers and most importantly, distributors, knowing that if it happened once, it can happen again,” he said.

Though most of the studios gave up on their specialty divisions in recent years, that might not be such a bad thing; as long as they were around, their parent studios were less likely to be emotionally involved in the kind of risk-taking necessary to make quality-driven adult films. If there's any bad news, it's that we won't see any immediate impact from this season’s Oscar box-office bonanza.

In the outside world, change comes remarkably fast. In just a few weeks, demonstrations demanding democracy spread like wildfire from Tunisia to Egypt, toppling governments, spurred by in part by social networking. In Hollywood, it takes far longer to recognize a populist, moviegoer-driven revolt. Even if studios are scrambling now to find a host of story-oriented films, it could easily be two years before we'll see results in the theaters. For all its fascination with fads and trends, the movie business is far more open to evolution than revolution.

--Patrick Goldstein    

Photo: Natalie Portman, best actress nominee in "Black Swan," at the Academy Awards nominee luncheon this month.

Credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


Perez Hilton's fans seem OK with Mr. Nice(r) Guy

When gossip asp Perez Hilton went on "Ellen" seven weeks ago and promised to lose some of his bite, predictions flowed about how it would hurt his nasty brand. But ratings agencies suggest the newer, nicer perezhilton.com has held its own.

PerezHilton In the five weeks leading up to Hilton's announcement (he said he would back off the bullying and outing of gay celebrities), comScore measured his unique audience at 962,000, 1,048,000, 1,040,000, 954,000 and 920,000. In the five weeks that included the announcement, and since, the audiences have numbered 984,000, 892,000, 880,000, 1,087,000 and 930,000.

Hilton said he wants to be less insulting because he would like to be more respected by the gay community and by young people who make up his core audience. He said in an interview that he's willing to lose audience to maintain his new, higher standards.

My column goes after the raft of discussion about whether Hilton will really reform.

Gillian Sheldon, vice president for programming at the website Celebuzz, said she believes Hilton really has changed and that the "pendulum is now swinging" toward kinder and gentler for many celebrity sites.

Sheldon said that's the directive to writers at Celebuzz, one of more than 40 sites in the BuzzMedia empire. "We report the news if someone gets arrested or if there's some sort of scandal or allegations of cheating," said Sheldon, who previously helped found the celebrity site TMZ. "We want to have personality but not be mean for mean's sake."

Sheldon, who has known Hilton for years, said she thinks the same approach will work for him, regardless of his past nasty.  "There is still a little bit of an edge. That is his personality," Sheldon said. "I don't think he will lose a lot of readers, because people feel close to him. They feel they know him."

--James Rainey

Photo: Perez Hilton is the celebrity blogger, the self-designated Queen of All Media who also has a syndicated radio show. He told Ellen DeGeneres in mid-October that he planned to be nicer on perezhilton.com. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times.

 


Cubs fans: It's been 100 years. Lift the curse!

Why are there so many Cubs fans in show business? I mean, the list is so long that if I listed a few names--starting with Bill Murray, Vince Vaughn, John Cusack, Jim Belushi, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt and Joe Mantegna--I'd just be scratching the surface. (And don't even think about asking why so many Cubs fans end up being, well, comedians.) My theory is that after 100 years of futility, curses and belly-flops, when a team suddenly turns it around and starts to play like a winner, with the whiff of World Series glory in the air, if you're in showbiz, you go: I get it. From adversity to redemption. Whadda great third act!

Last month, Jim Belushi reminisced with us about how he became a Cubs fan. But he was a Chicago boy. How do you grow up in Southern California, listening to the great Vin Scully, and still become a die-hard Cub rooter? That's what happened to Chris Thile, the 27-year-old bluegrass mandolin player who spent years playing in Nickel Creek before striking out on his own--he's now playing in Punch Brothers, who among other things do a pretty great rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Thile was born in Oceanside. When he was 4, his family moved to Idyllwild. There was no TV in the house, so he didn't get hooked on Vin's baseball rhapsodies. But on Saturday morning, he'd go to a friend's house, where they'd watch Cubs games on WGN. The first team he really remembers was the 1991 squad, which featured future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson and Greg Maddux, who's closing out his career with the Dodgers this year. Instead of getting hooked on Scully, Thile got hooked on Harry Caray, the colorful Cubs announcer, who was known to say anything in the later innings after he'd had a little liquid refreshment.

Thile's favorite player was Sandberg, the Cubs second baseman who was a clutch hitter with a great instinct for the game. "I have about 250 Sandberg baseball cards," Thile told me. "He was so smooth and professional in the way he played the game. I could hardly watch a game without seeing him do something notable. With him, Dunston and Grace turning double plays, for us kids, they were like Tinkers, Evers to Chance."

Now that he's a master craftsman himself, Thile has an ever greater appreciation for Sandberg's play. "It really had a huge impact on me as a musician," he says. "When he made his Hall of Fame speech, he said he was never the most naturally gifted player, but he worked as hard as anyone. That applies to anyone playing music. You want to be a team player, not just in performing well under pressure, but by performing in ways that help your band mates. Whether you're an athlete or a musician, there's a danger that you see yourself as being so naturally gifted that you're willing to let the talent do all the work. But the really great ones don't take their talent for granted. They mold their talent into something extraordinary."

Thile didn't make it to Wrigley Field for the first time till he was 18. He's seen plenty of Cubs highs and lows since, but one favorite Wrigley pilgrimage stands out in his mind. And guess what? It involves lust, romance and a mystery woman:    

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Bernie Brillstein: The happiest man in showbiz

Bernie Brillstein, who died yesterday, did a thousand things in show business, but he was one a kind: agent, manager, producer, executive, raconteur, confidante, great source for lowly reporters in search of a good quote or a great tip. I first met him years ago on the set of a movie that was going down the drain, but you'd hardly know it from Bernie's demeanor. Brillstein He always had an easy smile, a funny remark and the attitude that whatever was going wrong couldn't possibly spoil his day. When I started writing a column, he'd take me to lunch or call me with suggestions, quips and encouragement, as in: "Hey, you haven't written anything bad about Mike Ovitz for weeks. What are you waiting for?"

For years, Bernie had a regular monthly lunch at Hillcrest Country Club with two old pals, Jerry Seinfeld's managers George Shapiro and Howard West, who got their start, with Bernie, in the William Morris mailroom in the mid-1950s. I was occasionally invited as a guest. Everything was off-the-record, although, ironically, they had a tape recorder on the table, saving everything for posterity. As Bernie joked: "We're getting so old that soon this will be the only way we'll be able to remember all the stories." I hope the tapes are being well preserved--they'll be a treasure trove for some future showbiz historian.

At lunch, Bernie always had plenty to say about the current state of affairs, firm in his opinion about which studio chief was a total moron, which agency was in total disarray and what network chief wouldn't know a hit show if it bit him on the tuchis. But I especially loved hearing tales from the Morris mailroom, which for decades was the launching pad for all of Hollywood's kingpins, from David Geffen to Barry Diller to Ovitz to current CAA barons Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane. (With loads of help from Bernie, David Rensin wrote a fabulous book in 2003, "The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up," that is an oral history of the chicanery and escapades that occurred on the premises.)

Every day in the mailroom was an adventure, whether you were delivering a package to Zsa Zsa Gabor's apartment (she would often come to the door in a negligee) or rushing across the street--as Bernie once did--to buy the young Elvis Presley a sweater when he was stuck in a chilly dressing room waiting to appear on a variety show. Back in the 1950s, WMA mailroom flunkies made $40 a week, but somehow Bernie lived like a prince even on a pittance. When I heard this morning that Bernie died, I called up Irwin Winkler, producer of "Raging Bull," "GoodFellas" and dozens of other great films, and also a mailroom graduate from Bernie's era. "Bernie was a guy who knew how to live." Winkler recalls. "Even when we only had $40 a week, let me assure you, Bernie spent all $40 and more. We were poor, we'd both just gotten married, but when our checks would come every other Friday, we'd go right out and splurge."

Winkler remembers that Brillstein somehow had access to tickets for every hot Broadway show in town. "He's say, 'Let's go see a show,' and take me to 'My Fair Lady' or 'Gypsy,' whatever the great show of the moment was. He always had tickets. And he never let you put your hand in your pocket. He'd pay for everything. Bernie taught me a lot of things, starting with knowing how to laugh at everything, even adversity. He just knew how to live."

Everyone has a favorite Brillstein story. Here's one he loved to tell that perfectly captures Bernie's wry take on the showbiz life:

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The Israel Lobby, Hollywood style

In Hollywood, a town full of Jews, there's a long-standing tradition to be in denial about being Jewish. Asked once why he never made films about Jewish characters, Louis B. Mayer complained: "Rabbis don't look dramatic." When Hitler was killing Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, Hollywood studio chiefs kept quiet, rarely giving money to Jewish refugees or, God forbid, making movies about the subject until long after all 6 million Jews were exterminated. Times haven't changed so much. When The Times went to Hollywood bigwigs for a reaction after Mel Gibson let loose a volley of anti-Semitic slurs after being arrested in Malibu on suspicion of drunken driving in 2006, Sony Pictures' Amy Pascal was the only studio chief willing to publicly respond.

Hollywood's attitude toward Israel has been nearly as standoffish. There have been untold dozens of films made about the Holocaust, but almost none in recent years about the Jewish homeland, unless you count the gaggle of hummus jokes in Adam Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," where the comic plays an Israeli commando who comes to America to become a hair stylist. But one industry figure has made it a crusade to raise industry consciousness about Israel. For the past two years, the respected William Morris agent David Lonner, whose clients include Alexander Payne, J.J. Abrams and Jon Turteltaub, has been taking groups of Hollywood tastemakers -- both Jews and Gentiles -- on tours of Israel.

The trips, co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, have attracted a host of A-listers, including Pascal, such writers and directors as Payne, Turteltaub, Brad Silberling, Michael Tolkin and Audrey Wells, along with producers Nina Jacobson and Donald DeLine. The event-packed five-day itinerary includes meetings with Israeli artists, high-tech tycoons, soldiers and politicians; a walking tour of historical sites; a helicopter ride across the country; a trip to gay bars (for gay members of the group); and an evening of Torah study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

Even though the trip is organized by a Hollywood agent, it hardly sounds like an episode of "Entourage." What gave Lonner the idea for such an unlikely odyssey? And how did all those denizens of Hollywood, the holy land of situational ethics, fare in Torah study?    

 

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CAA still the biggest star in talent agency universe?

If you can't get our film reporter John Horn on the phone today, it's probably because he's checked into one of those swank Malibu rehab centers for a few hours of seaweed wraps and sauna massages. That's what happens to reporters when they spend a week on the phone with very, very tightly wrapped talent agents trying to nail down a bragging rights story about which Hollywood agency has the most top clients in this year's most high-profile summer films. His story, which runs in tomorrow's Calendar section, offers an intriguing glimpse into which agencies wield the most clout in today's film business.

Angelina_jolie_in_wanted_2 Want to know how insanely competitive the agencies are these days? When Horn was reporting the piece, one rival agency exec argued that CAA couldn't claim credit for Heath Ledger's starring role in the upcoming "The Dark Knight" since the actor was, well, dead. John's story was such a hot topic among nervous agency chiefs that Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke, who considers the agencies her exclusive preserve, felt the need to badmouth the story before John had even finished writing it. It's true that it's hardly a news flash that CAA has the most clients in the summer films, but seeing the pecking order--laid out in black and white--was pretty interesting stuff. The real eye-opener for me was how many high-profile Hollywood types are managing to survive without an agent at all, an A-list that includes "Indiana Jones" producer George Lucas, "Hancock's" Charlize Theron and "Wanted's" Angelina Jolie.

John has been tracking the agency wars for a while. But this new story raised a few questions for me. Here's a look at some of John's inside analysis:

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