WHEN YOUR DAY consists of light reading, watching movies, taking long lunches and saying “no” most of the time, how hard could the life of a movie executive possibly be?
Obviously not as hard as the labor intensive, back-breaking drudgery performed by someone operating a drill press, standing at an assembly line or, for that matter, writing a column for Daily Variety.
But after dropping into the recent Disney Christmas party, I had a change of heart. It was here that I discov-ered that not all Hollywood exex are a bunch of pampered goldbrickers who don’t know how to put in an honest day’s work.
For one evening a year, in a tradition that dates back many years, many of the studios highest-ranking executives, including Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Ricardo Mestres, take jobs working at Disneyland — running the rides, serving food and selling candy. The thought of seeing highly paid executives working for Mickey Mouse wages was just too alluring to pass up.
My first stop was Coke Corner, a turn-of-the-century hangout on Main Street featuring hot dogs, soft drinks and, so rumor had it, Katzenberg and Eisner rustling up grub behind the counter this one night. I’ve always wanted to meet them and I figured this would be my chance.
After waiting 20 minutes in line, however, I was disappointed to find neither one there. Where were they? In their cars, on the phone? At a screening? A power dinner at Mortons? Disappointed, I left, thinking that my suspicions about studio executives were right all along.
My next stop was Space Mountain, where I was told the Hollywood Pictures gang would be. As I snaked my way through the line toward the waiting vehicle that would send me hurtling through space, I indeed spotted numerous Hollywood Pictures exex, including president Ricardo Mestres and creative executive, Jim Wedaa, toiling away. Fittingly for the head of a studio, Mestres was manning the controls of the ride.
MESTRES AND CREW WERE DRESSED in polyester jumpsuits, presumably Disney’s prediction of what we’ll be wearing in the 21st century. The only thing out of place were Mestres’ expensive Italian loafers. He was also wearing a telephone headset, the kind that most CAA agents wear. I wondered if he was expecting a call from Mike Ovitz.
I asked him how his new job compared to running a studio division.
“This is a lot harder,” he insisted. “This takes real eye-hand coordination. It takes real concentration.”
Mestres explained to me that he was in charge of launching the space vehicles. On a control panel was a button that he was supposed to push when it turned green.
“I’ve given more greenlights tonight than in my entire career,” Mestres admitted.
Next, I made my way to the Star Tours ride, where I found more gleeful Hollywood Pictures exex, including senior production veep Charles Hirschhorn and director of creative affairs Gail Lyon, herding passengers into the ride.
One exec, looking slightly maniacal, had to be told to stop playing with buttons on the control panel.
“They make me come down here and do this,” he shot back. “I want to play with the stuff.”
Once inside the ride, another Hollywood Pictures creative exec, Henry Huang, explained to the passengers how to fasten their seat belts.
“You are going to Seattle, aren’t you?” Huang joked. If things don’t work out at the studio, he’s got a great career with an airline.
AS I RETURNED TO EARTH, I decided to give Coke Corner one more try. Bingo. There was Katzenberg — in a uniform of red shirt, red and white bow tie and a badge that read “Jeffrey”– taking food orders from a hungry crowd. And he was doing it with the same professionalism as any other $ 4.25-an-hour employee.
I decided to get in line with the others. I was finally going to get my chance to meet one of Hollywood’s most important players. I nervously approached him.
“I’ll have a Cherry Coke,” I told Katzenberg. I wondered if this would be an appropriate time to pitch a script. I decided to skip it.
“Seventy cents,” he said. I handed him a dollar. I was finally making my first business transaction with Katzenberg. I asked him where Michael Eisner was.
“He was here,” Katzenberg assured me. “He’ll be back.”
I wondered if Eisner had possibly opened a booth on Main Street explaining the advantage of exercising stock options early.
Or maybe he was off buying the Matterhorn — not the one at Disneyland, but the one in Switzerland.
After all, it’s a great place to sock away $ 196 million for the winter.
Although Katzenberg assured me Eisner would be back, I couldn’t wait any longer.
I had to hurry home and start spreading the word that I had just had my first business transaction with Katzenberg.
The fact that it only involved him giving me change for a dollar didn’t matter.
And I went home consoled with the fact that studio exex, like everybody else, really do know how to put in a hard day’s work.
Even if it is for only for a night.