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Originally published Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Hollywood's new power brokers

If not for his relationship with a Hollywood headhunter, Dan Glickman might never have made the leap, as he puts it, "from soy beans to Spielberg. " Glickman, the former secretary...

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — If not for his relationship with a Hollywood headhunter, Dan Glickman might never have made the leap, as he puts it, "from soy beans to Spielberg."

Glickman, the former secretary of agriculture under President Clinton, first met executive recruiter Leslie Hortum a few years ago when she called him as a reference on another prospect. The two talked periodically after that. Once, Hortum had a job to pitch. Later, Glickman mused about a position he might want: the head of the powerful trade group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

"If Jack Valenti's job ever comes up, you can call me," Glickman told Hortum years before Hollywood's venerable white-haired lobbyist decided to retire.

So in February, when the MPAA hired Hortum's company to find Valenti's successor, she knew that Glickman was not only interested but also qualified. A movie buff with a son in the entertainment business, he had experience negotiating trade deals and could work across partisan lines in Congress to push Hollywood's agenda.

Several months later, the hunt was over: The former Cabinet secretary, who was teaching at Harvard, was named to the job, which pays a million-plus dollars a year.

The old school

Time was, nepotism ruled Hollywood hiring. For decades, the practice of promoting relatives to fill top executive jobs was so common that wags had a saying for it: "The son-in-law also rises." Who job candidates knew was at least as important as what they knew, and executive recruiters were viewed with suspicion. Why pay an outsider, the reasoning went, to assemble a list of insiders already in your Rolodex?

No longer. As movie studios and television networks have been gobbled up by global media conglomerates, and as corporate scandals have highlighted the importance of finding leaders with broad management experience and sterling integrity, professional headhunters have garnered a level of clout unthinkable 20 years ago.

"Recruiters have become in many ways the quintessential matchmakers in Hollywood," said Bob Pisano, a former executive at Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who landed his current position — chief executive of the Screen Actors Guild — after being wooed by a recruiter.

Cover and credibility

Increasingly, boards of directors are turning to recruiters to give them cover and credibility, shielding them from accusations of favoritism. The best headhunters combine the schmoozing talents of an agent, the discretion of a spy and the investigative instincts of a private eye. These days, it is the rare top-level job that gets filled without their input.

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In 2001, search company Spencer Stuart, which the MPAA later hired to find Glickman, helped recruit former Warner Bros. co-Chairman Terry Semel to head Yahoo Inc. In 2002, Heidrick & Struggles helped land Todd Leavitt, a former managing director of a television-show-packaging company, as president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Now, as one of the industry's most closely watched succession battles unfolds at Disney, the company's board has hired Heidrick & Struggles to search for a replacement for Chief Executive Michael Eisner, who is expected to retire sometime after his successor is named by June.

More than any other, this search — and Hollywood's reaction to it — shows how recruiters have become major players whose alliances with particular companies or executives can seem to influence where power will shift next.

One of the leading candidates for Eisner's job, for example, is Peter Chernin, president of News Corp. Some think that if Disney had tapped Spencer Stuart, which has conducted many searches for News Corp., it could have tipped the scales in Chernin's favor.

Instead, some prognosticators think that in-house candidate and Disney President Robert Iger got an edge when the company hired Heidrick & Struggles, which has worked with some Disney directors in the past. Eisner has endorsed Iger for the job.

Friend to all ...

Loyalties, however, are constantly shifting, in part because it is in every headhunter's interest to be a friend to all, enemy to none.

"It all comes down to relationships," said Stephen Unger, who over the years has been managing partner of media/entertainment at three of the largest executive-search companies and who now runs his own boutique business, KSMU. "It's an endless chain. If you're doing well, it feeds upon itself."

Top candidates can be deluged with inquiries. One former Disney executive said when word got out that he was looking for a new job, he got rushed by 10 recruiters from the same company. "You can get a call at any hour of the day, at your home, at work," he said. "It just gets old."


Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman took a post with the MPAA.

Headhunters, too, feel manipulated at times. Some companies hire recruiters simply to keep them from raiding their own ranks. Others use recruiters to spy on rivals.

One top media executive, for example, hired a recruiter to find CEOs for three of his companies. But after interviewing several strong candidates, he refused to take any of them on. The recruiter grew suspicious and confronted the executive, who confessed that he wasn't looking to hire. He just wanted to see how his management structure stacked up with the competition.

"He was literally using me and my company to do what I call the old looky-loo," the recruiter said.

Irritating? Perhaps. But this kind of cat-and-mouse intrigue is precisely what attracts a lot of people to the recruiting profession. To make a perfect match, headhunters must know more about Hollywood than the people who toil in it. And they must excel at ferreting out secrets that some candidates work hard to hide.

The truth is, people lie. Bill Simon, a recruiter at Korn/Ferry International who specializes in entertainment, has heard dozens of lame reasons why candidates fudged on their résumés. "There's usually some song and dance: 'Well, I didn't quite finish my thesis or my semester.' I've heard it all," he said.

One cable-TV executive, just days away from starting a new job, hesitated when Simon asked him to take a drug test mandated by his new employer. "There was dead silence on the phone," Simon said. Finally, the recruit said, "Bill, ... I smoke a lot of pot."

Simon was blunt. "You got a problem," he said. "You can take advantage of this opportunity to clean yourself up or do what you like." The executive delayed his start date by a few months and went into rehab and quit his habit, Simon said.

Sizing them up

The smart recruiter vets every candidate, no matter how highly placed. It's not just drug use they're looking for. It's insight into an executive's management style — or lack thereof. A key question, said Simon, is, "Are they yellers, screamers or throwers?"

Glickman of the MPAA remembers how recruiters called scores of references, including his former boss, Clinton, and evangelist Pat Robertson, whose past criticism of the Clinton administration made his praise for Glickman especially convincing.

"They must have talked to 100 people," Glickman said. "They investigated me as thoroughly as the FBI would."

That's no coincidence. By one recent estimate, former FBI and CIA agents made up nearly 10 percent of the employees at one major recruiting company. In fact, it's typical for recruiters to find their way into the business after a successful career in another field. Some have worked in management consulting and human resources. Others have been Hollywood executives whose experience and contacts make them particularly persuasive.

Their backgrounds may differ, but all share a knack for boring into people's pasts.

"If there's something sordid or even just a little off-center about your background, it's better to come clean about it," Brad Marks, a veteran entertainment-industry recruiter, recently told listeners of "The Hollywood Headhunter," a weekly talk-radio show that he hosts on the Internet.

Reminiscing

Marks, a former TV producer, has shelves crammed with fat three-ring binders, one for every search he has ever conducted. In one binder, there's a file on Carole Black, a former marketing executive at Disney he lured away to be general manager at KNBC-TV, the Los Angeles affiliate, in 1994. Now she's the CEO of Lifetime Television.

In another binder, there's a file on Al Jerome, who headed NBC's owned-and-operated TV division until Marks recruited him in 1991 to head hotel pay-per-view company SpectraVision. Jerome is now president of KCET-TV in Southern California.


Disney CEO Michael Eisner's imminent departure has spurred an intense search for his successor.

Marks has a million cloak-and-dagger stories. A few years back, he was hired to find a president for a New York-based television company. Secrecy was paramount because the current president didn't know he was going to be replaced. So when Marks found his first choice for the job, he arranged a clandestine meeting between his client and the candidate.

To avoid exposure, they met in a suite at the Century Plaza Hotel and closed the deal. They all shook hands and headed to the elevator. As they waited, the elevator door opened and out walked the last person anyone on this stealth mission expected to see: the recruit's current boss.

"He looks at me, steps out and ... grabs my candidate," Marks recalled. "He says, 'Can I talk to you for a minute?' " The boss tried in vain to get his No. 2 to recommit, but it was too late.

To this day, when Marks has a sensitive meeting, "I still brown-bag in my office."

Most everyone in Hollywood takes recruiters' calls. As Jules Haimovitz, the managing partner of Dick Clark Productions, sees it, there's no downside and plenty of potential payoff.

Haimovitz credits executive recruiters with placing him in two previous jobs that helped him rise in the TV world. He's happy to help the headhunters research other candidates as well, figuring that if he gives a positive review, "the person who gets the job may be thankful. If you have to do business with his company, it doesn't hurt. It just keeps the wheels of the industry oiled."

Warming and cooling

Sometimes, however, "front-burner" candidates don't want to be seen as being on the market, even when they are. In those cases, a recruiter will often go through third parties, putting out feelers and giving the targeted executive a level of deniability.

That's known as a "cool call," which is not to be confused with "keeping 'em warm," recruiters' parlance for stringing along a second-choice candidate in case their first choice drops out.

For proof that recruiters are in Hollywood to stay, one need look no further than the courthouse in Georgetown, Del., where Disney shareholders are suing some current and former board members over the 1995 hiring — and 1996 firing — of former Disney President Michael Ovitz.

No headhunters were involved in placing Ovitz at Disney — a fact that plaintiffs' lawyers have seized upon in attempting to prove that Disney directors acted carelessly. In November, asked on the stand whether he had considered retaining a search company, Eisner said no. When pressed, he explained, "I knew, I think, everybody in the entertainment business at that level."

These days, apparently, knowing everybody is not enough.

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