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Dangers of the dating game

Work and play on H'wood's social circuit

Is there any romance left in Hollywood?

Not fairy-tale romance of the soft-focus onscreen variety, but real-life romance between young industry pros whose personal and professional lives are a nonstop carousel of meetings, schmoozing and deal-making.

In the jaded era of “Sex and the City” and “Ally McBeal,” the idea of a date persists — whether it’s a blind date, a set-up or a more traditional tryst.

But in the social circulatory system of Hollywood — a fiercely competitive circuit stretching from Moomba to the Four Seasons to the Avalon Hotel — the normal dating etiquette doesn’t seem to apply.

Showbiz has always been deeply seductive, especially to those who don’t work in the entertainment industry.

As one exec says, soon after landing his first job in the biz, “I realized the name Miramax is the greatest aphrodisiac ever invented.”

But in a town where every relationship is colored by money, power and status, a date is never just a date: It’s a pitch meeting masquerading as a date, or a date masquerading as a pitch meeting, or an all-out search for a mutually beneficial business alliance.

As one exec puts it, “You walk into a room in Hollywood and you’re immediately sized up as to where you stand on the food chain.”

That leads to twisted relationships where the line between business and romance is often impossible to pinpoint, and ulterior motives are all but inevitable.

What single woman in Hollywood hasn’t been invited to “work drinks” by men whose salacious intentions are only revealed by the strength of the cocktails and the personal tilt of the conversation?

One female manager recalls meeting an exec at L’Ermitage, pulling out her buck slip and client card and launching into a pitch before realizing the tone of the evening had nothing to do with business.

“It wasn’t even a real date,” she says. “It was a secret date — only he knew about it.”

Work your way through the Hollywood pecking order and abuses of executive power — in the guise of work or not — grow far more audacious.

In a town where matchmaking has been elevated to a high art, agents don’t just broker deals, they also broker dates; conflict of interest is a fashionable inconvenience; and the casting couch is still a reality.

Producer Sherri Cooper and screenwriter Ellen Rapoport describe pitching a sexy feature to a studio exec.

“I got stuck doing all the disgusting, sexual parts of the pitch,” Rapoport says.

The exec offered to buy the project if they’d call him back later that night to pitch Act Two.

“I didn’t feel harassed,” Rapoport says. “I thought, what a stupid way to spend $ 200,000. You can get a hooker on Hollywood Boulevard to pitch it to you for about 50 bucks.”

That sort of executive behavior doesn’t help dispel Hollywood’s image as “high school with money,” complete with petty tyrannies, cliques and hurtful exclusions.

It’s especially taxing for those on the industry’s lowest rungs.

“Whoever has the power in the relationship is the person who is more successful in the film business,” Cooper says. If you’re a writer and the prexy of a studio asks you out for drinks, you’re not going to say no.”

Cooper, who wrote a column on the travails of Hollywood dating for Hamptons magazine, is philosophical about the blurring of work and romance.

“The language of Hollywood,” she says, “can be a great metaphor for dating. You want coverage of your date and you give notes on your evening. You can even be in turnaround with your boyfriend.”

In a business so incestuous that many people’s history — professional and sexual — is an open secret, a little research can pay big dividends.

Rapoport remembers a director who flirted with her as she boarded a plane at LAX. “He was working the American Airlines lounge, on the phone loudly talking about a deal with (Universal production co-head) Scott Stuber,” she says.

“I called my agent’s assistant and said, ‘Tell me everything about him.’ He turned out to be married. It was right there on IMDB.”

But the Hollywood gossip network, which permeates every sector of the industry, also fuels a deeper alienation that’s an intrinsic part of life in L.A. — from its traffic-choked streets to its air-conditioned bungalows.

It’s an environment where the closest relationships often are forged on the phone.

That gives rise to awkward dating rituals, says one studio exec, who notes it’s not uncommon to arrange a dinner with a colleague he’s never set eyes on.

“You get jazzed. You go to it and you’re a little bit groomed,” he says. “And the second you sit down, you realize you’re not attracted to each other. It’s brutally depressing. You either end it quickly — or get sloshed and end up ‘hooking up.’ ”

But miracles do happen.

Somehow the rituals of power dating give rise to power couples, such as Sherry Lansing and William Friedkin; Walter Parkes and Laurie McDonald; Richard Donner and Laura Shuler Donner; Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

Ivey Van Allen, VP of media relations for Twentieth TV and Fox TV Stations, and her husband of four years, CBS West Coast research department head Eric Steinberg, say the fact that they both work in the TV biz means they can relate in short-hand about work.

“There’s a certain relief at the end of the day that we don’t have to go through a whole big explanation,” Van Allen says. “We get what each other is talking about off the bat.”

However, when they worked for competing companies, things occasionally got tricky. Although the couple first met while both worked at Paramount, Van Allen eventually left to work for Twentieth, which at the time owned “Access Hollywood” — a fierce competitor with Par’s “Entertainment Tonight.”

“The ‘ET’-‘Access’ stuff was always the funniest to me,” Steinberg says. “It got a little awkward — her big show competing with our most successful show.”

Now that the two work in different areas of television — he in network, she in syndication — there’s less professional conflict. But pillow talk still must be tempered at times.

“I’m still very careful about what I bring home, because I know my wife talks to reporters for a living,” Steinberg says.

But the next generation of players may have to cast a wider net.

Rapoport says, “The trick is to find somebody outside the industry to date — though I haven’t, and nobody I know has. But I’ve heard of it happening.”