Hollywood’s dark underbelly

<b>The Back Lot:</b> Industry dealmaking

I once worked for a studio that pursued some exotic deal-making initiatives. Its CEO, for example, routinely picked up worldwide distribution rights to films that had two budgets, one real and one bogus, and pocketed the difference. His cut ranged from $2 million to $6 million per project, an amount that he occasionally split with the producer or attorney who’d brought him the deal. When I questioned him about this practice, he retorted, “What do you think I’m doing, running a philanthropy?”

Hollywood has always been a tough town run by tough dealmakers, but now that giants like GE or Viacom own the studios, blatant examples of thievery are relatively rare. Cool-headed corporate types have supplanted rambunctious figures like Harry Cohn and Jack Warner. Still, the behavior patterns of Old Hollywood remain in the ether.

I was thinking about this the other day as I watched several episodes from the new season of “Entourage.” Created by a smart and prickly young writer-producer named Doug Ellin, “Entourage” is a very funny (and often quite nasty) show that relishes Hollywood’s dark underbelly, if not its scrotum. In “Entourage” characters habitually lie, most deals turn out to be fakes, dreams are routinely shattered and egos dashed. The four principal characters comprising the “entourage” faithfully stick together, but it is more a union of terror rather than loyalty.

On the surface, “Entourage” is aggressively hip, its lexicon brash, and stars of the moment like Scarlett Johansson keep appearing at unexpected places like the Ivy or at Lakers games. The action usually revolves around the inept conniving of Ari Gold (a suspiciously familiar name) and various other heavy-breathing hustlers and fringe types, but we rarely glimpse the corporate suits or digital dream-merchants who actually preside over today’s Hollywood landscape.

Nonetheless it’s downright hilarious to observe the cool but klutzy entourage scheming to close a deal or fire an agent or simply to get laid, only to encounter all manner of humiliation.

Ellin, the 39-year-old one-time standup comic who dreamed all this up, believes he is presenting the real Hollywood — that disappointment lurks behind every fleeting success. Ellin himself wrote and directed two small films before mounting his show — movies that got lost in the indie deluge.

It’s ironic that the inspiration stemmed from the real-life entourage of Mark Wahlberg, a tough kid from Boston’s Irish slums who has morphed into a fast-rising star — one who demonstrates Hollywood smarts both in terms of personal behavior and career choices.

The show’s ethnic tilt has definitely shifted, however, from Boston Irish to Semitic satire — witness one new show in which Ari frantically tries to close a deal during Yom Kippur services at temple.

Whatever its foibles, “Entourage” reflects the energy and edginess of a very personal show, not a corporate product. In that sense it falls under the HBO aura that has given us several scintillating seasons of “The Sopranos,” among others. The subtext of both shows is defeat and humiliation — but this is the sort of humiliation that most showbiz folk would covet.

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