FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

Hollywood is the ultimate youth culture, where people perceived to be out of touch with those under 30 or even 20 frequently find themselves out of work.

But for all the talk of ageism, and stories about people disguising their real age in order to land a writing or acting job, there remains a large contingent that manages to survive well into their 50s, 60s and even 70s.

In fact, these often are the people who call the shots.

"The difficult decisions are always made by people 45 to 65, not people in their 20s and 30s," said a senior network executive.

How do these executives manage to survive? Ability, of course, plays a role. But just as important are relationships.

Senior executives have a tendency to frequently jump from one top job to another. Frank Mancuso ran Paramount Pictures, and now heads Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mike Medavoy ran Orion Pictures and TriStar Pictures before starting his own company.

"Every family needs parents to guide them in the right direction," said a top agent in his 50s who has become a personal manager. "There is nothing to replace maturing, but the quintessential element of our business is relationships. John Calley (of Sony Pictures Entertainment) is the greatest example. He's been in the trenches as a producer and studio executive, and he has remained successful as a studio executive. Why? Because he has maintained good relationships with people in town."

The longer people stay in the business, the more relationships they have. Someone who had been a co-worker early on might one day become the head of a major studio.

Money is another reason why top executives in entertainment tend to be older. The average film costs more than $50 million to produce, and a TV series like "ER" costs $13 million per episode huge numbers that are normally put into more experienced hands.

"The upper crust works with other people's money, and when you work with somebody else's money, it calls for a sense of security," said Medavoy, the 57-year-old chairman of Phoenix Pictures. "People like to feel a company is being run by experience."

Wall Street likes stability, and a few gray hairs suggest that a CEO can weather a few storms and right a foundering ship.

"The guys who handle the purse strings have long track records," said Steve Cesinger, an investment banker at Los Angeles-based Greif & Co. "That's what shareholders want to see."

Of course, older executives often lose touch with young audiences, which is why they surround themselves with younger people.

There tends to be a dramatic age difference at entertainment companies between the top managers and the next management layer. At the TV networks and the studios, younger people are usually found in development departments, where new programs are screened. Many are young women known as "D-Girls."

"They are the ones that give you input into their world," said 65-year-old Leonard Goldberg, a veteran film and TV producer who once headed production at Twentieth Century Fox. "Here at Mandy Films (his independent production company), my head of development is 28 years old. My daughter, Mandy, joined us last June. She is 24."

One senior network executive in his 50s said he surrounds himself with younger executives with different backgrounds and tastes and watches for their excitement about a show. After that input, he makes up his mind. "You want different angles, you want to see how people react," he said.

Frank Price, former chairman of Columbia Pictures, said a smart CEO encourages and listens to youthful lieutenants who supply intelligence about their sensitivities, which then become a window onto their world.

"Given that the audience is young," he said, "you better have some tie-in there to detect what is going on."

Besides these middle managers at studios and agencies, creative professionals writers, actors even directors also tend to be younger.

"Ageism is supported by the studios and by the networks and by the trade unions that want more and more workers coming in to pay dues," said one veteran director who is over 50. "People in their 50s are worried. Guys go out and get hairpieces."

But the corporate structure of Hollywood usually demands that an experienced executive has the final word when it comes to the business side.

"The risks are so big for a major studio," said Goldberg. "You better understand the business, and the entertainment business is a business. You have to understand the marketplace. You have to know how to deal with your financial partners. This doesn't come from youth. You have to have been there and done it and know how to bounce back from the bad times."

Goldberg doesn't think this will change, either.

"As costs continue to rise, you will need very responsible people in charge," he said. "It doesn't hurt to have experience, and that only comes with a few gray hairs."

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