Rumor mill distracts execs, destabilizes studios

The film biz, from Hollywood to New York to Sundance, last week was abuzz with talk of Sherry Lansing stepping down from her longtime job at Paramount. The rumor must be accurate, it was reasoned, because it was ubiquitous.

There was one small glitch: It wasn’t true. Lansing insists she’s happy with her job and doesn’t plan to go anywhere — not to UNESCO, not to the Red Cross, not to any of the places she’s reportedly being dispatched.

In Hollywood, gossip is a social glue that holds the town together; rumors are part of the deal-making process before, during and after the ink is on the contract.

But the phenomenon has vastly intensified in the last few years, thanks to email, cell phones and 24-hour-a-day Internet sites like the Drudge Report. And now the New York Post is publishing a West Coast edition, meaning Page 6 could hold even more sway.

A principal culprit is agency emails. Since agents don’t like to be blindsided by big shakeups, sub-agents and assistants are instructed to repeat everything they hear, no matter how far-fetched. They take their jobs seriously.

“The trouble is that all this keeps you from getting your job done,” says one top studio exec. “You’re too busy shooting down rumors and reassuring people. I think much of this stuff is started by people who are anxious to destabilize stable companies. It’s their revenge.”

The old friendly-rivalry, club-like atmosphere among studios and networks has become extinct in an era of corporate wars and raids. “Hollywood is more of a business than ever before,” says one manager. “It’s like the soap industry or the auto industry. It’s just a bunch of numbers.”

In a business that thrives on high drama, gossip also keeps the adrenaline flowing when nothing else is happening.

“There’s not a lot to talk about these days,” ICM agent Ron Bernstein says. “It’s a quiet time. Most of the congloms are doing badly but their film arms are doing fine.” So, to keep from being bored, many people will spread bad news about colleagues and enemies.

“We live on the grief of others,” says one studio vet. “In the past, where there was smoke, there was fire. Now people just make up rumors. It’s a blood sport.”

Gossip has various other functions in showbiz. It’s a currency that is bought and sold in return for more gossip. But it’s hard to separate fact from half-truth from fabrication. Discovering the truth is like panning for gold: You may find a few nuggets, but you have to sift through a lot of dirt.

There are various forms of rumors (see chart, page xx) and each one has a corollary: A conglomerate is either acquiring a major asset or selling one. (Investment bankers want to keep the possibilities alive.) A star is either joining a big project or dropping out. (Agents want to show they’re in on the action.)

The most prevalent rumors seem to involve the exit of an executive. MPAA topper Jack Valenti, who’s now 80, has been in his job for nearly 37 years. For 36 of those years, there has been the rumor that his departure is “imminent.”

Virtually every exec in showbiz has been subjected to the same rumor, sometimes only a few months after they’ve taken their job. John Calley, Michael De Luca, Michael Eisner, Toby Emmerich, Bob Iger, Stacey Snider, et al., all have survived breathless reports of their immediate exit.

Just as tabloids have their favorite subjects — Brad & Jennifer, Michael Jackson, Rosie O’Donnell — showbiz seems to have a few people who are rumor magnets. For various reasons, gossips don’t find Jean-Rene Fourtou nearly as fascinating as Jean-Marie Messier or Pierre Lescure, but they will.

Michael Ovitz used to be a rumor magnet, but he’s slipped below the radar. Gerald Levin, however, arguably has been the subject of more gossip since his exit from AOL Time Warner.

But unlike the stuff in the National Enquirer or the Star, most of the showbiz gossip does not focus on their sex lives or personal eccentricities. It’s their business moves: What will they buy, where will they go, what are they up to?

There were several variations on the Lansing rumor. One said she’s joining UNESCO. Lorenzo di Bonaventura would take her place, and MGM’s Alex Yemenidjian would replace Jonathan Dolgen. And about a month before the Lansing-UNESCO rumors, there was talk that she was leaving to join the Red Cross.

It’s easy to find the genesis of some of these rumors. Lansing recently joined the board of the Red Cross; when she was late in returning some phone calls, she apologized that she’d been meeting with the Red Cross board. Next thing she knew, people were congratulating her on the new job.

Some at Paramount feel these tales were an attempt to embarrass di Bonaventura, the Warner Bros. alum who came to Par with a production deal.

Some Hollywood figures take pro-active steps to shoot down rumors. After William Morris’ prez and co-CEO Jim Wiatt received phone calls about the Lansing rumors, he sent an email to all the company’s offices, quelling the rumor. “The speculation is hurtful to her, her company and everybody who works there. I sent out an email saying it was categorically untrue.”

It would be easy to dismiss rumors if all were false. But a percentage proved true: Steve Case is heading for the door; Vivendi is on the brink of bankruptcy; Ovitz is about to dismantle his company.

And when a piece of “truth” turns out to be false, is that because it was never true or because the rumor mill helped kill the deal?

Of course, sometimes rumors are about rumors themselves. Those who are determined to discover the source of the false reports tend to find themselves in a hall of mirrors. (A favorite rumor: Rupert Murdoch is starting some of these rumors for fun.)

And the ironic joke is that, despite omnipresent gossip, there are still mega-moves that take people by surprise. Nearly everyone was caught off-guard by Time Warner’s merger with AOL, and by Disney’s purchase of ABC. “The trick is to have as few people involved as possible,” says one head of mergers & acquisitions. “The more people involved, the more chance you have of leaks.”

It’s virtually impossible to keep it secret when a star is close to signing for a film. And the gossip mill enables people to attempt media manipulation. If Star A is interested in a project, the agent who represents Star B sometimes will call a newspaper or tabloid with an “exclusive” that Star B is ready to sign for the role. That’s in hopes that Star A will get furious and reject the role, clearing the path for Star B.

Of course, showbiz likes to think it’s unique. But all of the world seems to love gossip, particularly showbiz gossip. “The biggest change was when legitimate publications, which used to refuse to run unsourced information that’s negative, started quoting the National Enquirer,” says one studio PR person.

A film like the 1976 “All the President’s Men” is downright quaint, because it hinges on reporters trying to find two confirmations of a rumor they’ve heard so they can print it. Nowadays, they’d put the rumor up on the Internet and hope for the best. It’s questionable whether something like the Monica Lewinsky affair — which first surfaced on Drudge — ever would have been given such credence in any other era. In a media fun house in which major news outlets take their marching orders from the tabloids, the line separating gossip and news grows blurry.

“Gossip has the implication of something untoward,” says ICM’s Bernstein. “It has the implication of blind items, of who’s sleeping with whom. The sexuality of leading men is always a subject of gossip. But is it gossip or is it news?”

To reiterate, Lansing is staying at Paramount: She’s not joining UNESCO or the Red Cross. So far, rumors of Lansing assuming the papacy haven’t surfaced. But hold on, there’s time.

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