This article by Chris Gardner originally appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine – thank you for the feature!
“Thank you.” Those two words usually are a simple expression of gratitude. In Hollywood, however, they can take on complexity colored by a relative pecking order. Be it for a weekend stay at an oceanfront Malibu mansion or a winning Oscar campaign, this scrutinized social gesture often is marked by an expensive piece of stationery, a $300 floral arrangement or Taschen’s Annie Leibovitz tome — at the very least.
Estate manager Bryan Peele, who guides the gifting activities of his mega-wealthy Los Angeles clients, says thank-yous can have tricky subtexts. For a translation, he adds, look to the stage: “In any Chekhov play, there is what’s being said, what’s not being said and what’s being implied. That’s how I equate proper thank-you gifts — there’s a subtlety to it.” What’s being said is easy, says Peele: “Thank you.” What’s not being said is how aware the giver is of the relationship’s value — including if the recipient occupies a higher position within the Hollywood hierarchy. And what’s being implied is the giver’s taste level (and bank account).
Those who ignore those subtexts can leave a recipient confused, overwhelmed or guilty with a sense of obligation. Explains Peele, “If the gift is too extravagant, it raises attention: ‘What does this person want from me? Is this person trying to break into my social circle? Do they have a script from their boyfriend they want to give me?’ ” Adds the founder and president of the Estate Managers Coalition, “It overshadows something that should be a simple: ‘Hey, thank you. I’m grateful.’ ” To show gratitude with respect and style, know these rules:
HANDWRITTEN NOTES STILL REIGN
In this digital age, the vintage act of putting ink on paper is alive and well, according to an overwhelming consensus among industry and social types. Says L.A.-based philanthropist and author Angella Nazarian: “Today, every communication seems rushed. A handwritten note means someone cared enough to take the time to show their appreciation.” Adds Rob Lowe, “I’m not averse to a nice Hermes tie, but the handwritten note never ceases to amaze me.”
Oprah Winfrey, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Renee Zellweger, CBS Films president Terry Press, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are said to be among the best when it comes to personalizing thank-yous on stationery. They’re leading a trend: Stationery experts report an uptick in purchases during the past year. Says Wanda Wen, founder and CEO of the paper boutique Soolip, “When iPhones really got going five or six years ago, there was a drop in interest, but people are again realizing the power of a handwritten note.” Marc Friedland, whose Couture Communications is responsible for the Oscar envelopes, adds that thank-you notes are an antidote to the perception of entitlement that pervades technology: “With all of our devices, people are connected like never before, but there’s a lack of authenticity. When you send a thank-you note, it defines [you] as thoughtful.”
Don’t claim to be too busy to sit down with a pen in hand: If Warner Bros. Television Group president and chief content officer Peter Roth can, so can you. “Somehow, in addition to running the studio, every single person on the staff at the start of production on every show — and there are many shows they make there — gets a handwritten thank-you note from Peter,” says Warners-based producer Greg Berlanti. “A very personal gesture like that is as valuable as any gift that shows up at your door.”
CHOOSE ORIGINALITY OVER COST
Expectations can be astronomical when power players are involved. But instead of triggering a dangerous competition that can be won only by a pop star (the music business boasts the most outrageous gifting because tours and endorsements bring millions that roll in quickly), industry leaders opt for out-of-the-box items.
Ryan Seacrest‘s go-to gift is cold and customized: The media mogul relies on Omaha, Neb.-based ice cream company eCreamery, which delivers sorbet, gelato and the traditional soft stuff to all 50 states. “It’s homemade, bespoke ice cream: They make it with anything you want in it, they call it whatever you want, and then they send it on dry ice,” he says. “When I got it once, I thought it was the greatest gift ever.”
Seacrest’s gesture satisfies a long tradition of sugar-packed deliveries (muffin baskets, anyone?). NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt describes to THR a recent arrival to his office that bucked the trend: “Everyone thinks I have this crazy sweet tooth, which I do, so people send me [sweets] in droves. But recently I got a big basket from somebody, and on the card it said, ‘This is bananas!’ The basket was filled with 25 bunches of bananas. That’s a really healthy thing to give … and very clever.” Other clever gifts: Ellen DeGeneres loves the rare books at appointment-only L.A. store LeadApron; Christopher Nolan bought Hans Zimmer a watch at the end of filming Interstellar; and Peele is in love with LaCie’s Christofle Sphere, an external hard drive that looks like an objet d’art (and costs $490).
BUT DON’T BE TOO ORIGINAL
Don’t assume your taste level — as in art — is aligned with a colleague’s. A better bet for someone who has everything? A credit with an interior designer: It’s the high-society version of a Starbucks gift card. “If you are giving a gift for the house and you want it to be expensive, it’s nice to ask their decorator to offer a credit or put down money at a gallery so they can pick art out themselves,” says L.A.-based interior designer Peter Dunham.
When it comes to thanking the team, don’t go overboard with bells and whistles. “We’ll do champagne brunch for the team and try to be specific to people who have broken their backs to make something happen,” says Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley about achievements like awards-season triumphs. “But the people on the team know exactly what they did and how hard they worked, and their reward is the thing itself. We can amplify it a bit, but they know they were a part.”
A THANK-YOU SHOULD BE VERY TIMELY
Mail cards within 24 to 48 hours, or run the risk of seeming ungrateful or forgetful. Flowers, on the other hand, should be sent a day before arriving for a weekend or the afternoon before a dinner party. “If it’s someone you don’t know that well, it’s smarter to go somewhere in the middle,” says famed L.A. florist Eric Buterbaugh, referring to how much to spend. “A lot of my clients keep stationery here, or they will send a personal note by messenger. That detail always gets noticed.”
DON’T ASSUME THEY DRINK
The town’s substance-abuse issues touch all corners, from actors to agents, producers to publicists. Says Wilson: “Just the other day we were trying to figure out if a friend was sober or recovering before we could buy him alcohol. We had to concoct a plan to find out.” She wasn’t speaking of Lowe, whose sobriety is well documented. Still, he admits to receiving alcohol every so often. “I do get the odd bottle of champagne, but most people know I won’t be drinking it,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m also the only idiot going on 25 years sober with a substantial wine cellar.”
Thoughtfulness matters. Kindness counts. But if you’re paralyzed over what original, cost-appropriate thank-you present (with a perfectly written note) to give, remember the wise words that David Foster, a multimillionaire music producer (Madonna, Beyonce), tells THR: “It doesn’t matter how rich you are; even the richest people love free shit. Period. End of story.”