The Awkward Politics of Hollywood Playdates: Socializing, Soliciting and Schmoozing

Awkward Politics of Hollywood Playdate-Illo-H 2016
Illustration By Zohar Lazar

Nothing brings industry parents together more than commiserating over tantrum-throwing toddlers, but there’s a right — and really wrong — way to pitch that screenplay.

"I hate playdates," says Leah Forester, star of Bravo's There Goes the Motherhood and wife of Lotus Entertainment co-chair Bill Johnson. "Sometimes your children befriend children with parents whose lives are very different from yours. It can get awkward as you try to find common ground."

Forester by no means is the only parent who bemoans the ritual that often feels to adults like blind dating without cocktails. In Los Angeles — with its 1,877 private pre- and elementary schools — the classroom, where most playdates originate, probably is the only arena where kids of struggling voiceover artists play patty-cake with the offspring of studio chiefs. And because parenting may be the greatest equalizer of all, moms and dads in disparate tax brackets and on opposite ends of the Hollywood food chain find themselves bonding quickly and intimately.

"It takes everybody to a very different level of relating, where there's a ton of support no matter who you are," says Jill Spivack, parenting expert and co-founder of Santa Monica-based Sleepy Planet sleep-consulting firm, who has worked with Jack Black and producer Suzanne Todd. "At work, these people hear, 'What can I do for you? What do you need?' But at home, they still hear, 'I hate you, Mommy.' "

Conversely, that wild cross section of industry types can breed competition and opportunistic scheming among certain parents, who purposefully nudge their little ones toward the kids of parents they want to meet. "They're hoping that some life advantages will be conferred onto their children or family through a playdate," says Tamara Mose, Brooklyn College sociology professor and author of the new book The Playdate: Parents, Children, and the New Expectations of Play. "It also gives those parents a cachet that says 'I'm friends with so-and-so.' "

Mose, whose child was a classmate of Solange Knowles' son in New York, recalls how parents jockeyed for an invite to the boy's birthday party at a public park, assuming Aunt Beyonce and Uncle Jay Z would be on hand. They were — and when a balloon suddenly popped in a tree, casually dressed security guards rushed forward to reassure the power couple that there was no threat. "I was like, 'OK. We're at that level now,' " says Mose.

That level in some form can exist at many West Coast private schools, including The Center for Early Education, UCLA Lab School, Oakwood, John Thomas Dye and Crossroads. And because most schools circulate a parent directory — in part, to facilitate playdates — it's pretty easy to clue in to who's who. As one parent says, "People start Googling names like crazy as soon they get the list."

One parent whose child is pals with Leslie Moonves' son Charlie had to ground her kid's expectations after the CBS Corp. president and CEO and his wife, Julie Chen, hosted a group playdate at the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, where they had front-of-the-line access. She later had to explain to her son that he shouldn't expect such VIP treatment in everyday life. "One night at dinnertime, we were playing Jar of Questions, and I asked him who he most wanted to be for a day," she recalls. "Guess who he said? Charlie Moonves!"

For some, the directory becomes a veritable career treasure map. At Wagon Wheel preschool in Hancock Park, the directory also boasts parents' occupations, which founder Ruth Segal includes to foster socializing and schmoozing. "I see that happening at parent night and at the birthday parties. I even see it in the driveway at drop-off," says Segal, who recently opened a Wagon Wheel outpost in Malibu. But shop talk doesn't mean aggressively pitching producers your big-budget, time-travel script idea at the school gala. It's a more nuanced interaction. "Just recently, I had to talk to someone who was soliciting certain parents," says Segal. That said, there are three major, unwritten rules for making a deal over an organic juice box:

1. Schedule a time-out "The first playdate is parents feeling each other out," says Mose, who adds that any topic — from advice for endless tantrums to gossip on quickie marriages — can be fair game, but save the hard sell for later. "In some cases, parents set up a private date to discuss a business project so the lines aren't blurred."

2. Don't play pretend Social climbing to scale the career ladder is more obvious than you think. "My clients who are in the industry absolutely have very high bullshit meters," says Spivack, who also appears as a group therapist on There Goes the Motherhood. "They can tell when someone wants something from them versus having a genuine connection."

3. Consider all consequences When parents of kids who are friends partner on a project, there's always the possibility that it won't end well. Case in point: When New Girl showrunner Dave Finkel first met TV writer Ethan Sandler at a private school, he frankly told him, "I will never hire you on my show because I don't want it getting weird between us or our kids." A year later, Finkel ate his words and brought Sandler on staff. Any regrets? "No way," he says. "It's actually good to work with somebody who you have a close relationship with in the outside world."

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.