What Do You Get an Actor About to Start Work on a New Series? It's Trickier Than You Think

Illustration by: Nick Iluzada

Customarily, agencies, studios and networks congratulate TV talent at the start of production with a present. Things get complicated with multiple clients ("It's a minefield") and constant series churn: "At some point, it feels like too much."

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Here are many types of ritualistic gifts in Hollywood: the wrap gift to mark the end of a series (the Two and a Half Men crew received four-figure AmEx gift cards); the present that says "thank you for all the money you've made my company" (Jay Z and his Roc Nation gave Rihanna a Porsche); and the "I'm sorry" token (Jeffrey Katzenberg gifted Robin Williams with a Picasso after using his voice — against his wishes — to market Aladdin). Less noted, until now, is the TV tradition of the start gift that celebrates the beginning of a production.

When pilots or series commence, creative and onscreen talent typically are treated by their reps, studio or network bosses. "We do send gifts to our shows and actors when pilots and series start," says Gary Newman, chairman of the Fox TV Group (which has a dedicated executive vp talent relations, Missy Halperin, whose duties include gift giving). "It's a gesture to show there's a human touch at what can feel like a cold corporate studio or net­work. We hope to have a long relationship and to set a tone that shows we appreciate their talent."

What does such appreciation cost? Says Dana Walden, Fox TV Group chairman: "This is not about extravagance; it's a moment to connect and a gesture of goodwill." Sources polled say such gestures typically range from $100 to $150 but can cost $500 to $1,000 for top-tier talent. And the gift for the start of series production should be slightly pricier than a pilot start gift.

Popular start gifts include such usual suspects as flowers, fruit, pastry baskets, chocolate (La Maison du Chocolat's Tamanaco Gift Box is a favorite of one major agency), wine or champagne (unless the client is sober) and tech items like Kindles, Beats Pills or headphones and Bose speakers. "IPad minis, when they came out, were the rage," says an agent, who adds that last year the Sony or LG smartwatch, Mophie Juice Pack Powerstation Duo and Native Union Monocle Portable Speaker were ubiquitous. Gifting also can be geared to location (a chic down jacket or scarf for clients shooting on the East Coast or in Canada), interests or personal milestones. New Girl's Max Greenfield, whose wife, Fox's Tess Sanchez, is pregnant with their second child, jokes about the start gift he would receive if he were starting a new production: "I like to think that my representation knows me pretty well, so maybe right now they would send me some sort of baby stuff."

Monogramming also is big with gift givers, who commonly customize jackets, hats and polo shirts with the title of the show, date or season number. The "most elegant and beautiful" customized gift, says a top female agent who reps A-list TV stars, is a leather script-cover with the start date of the project monogrammed on the front (available at Coco's Leather Goods on Brighton Way in Beverly Hills; owner Coco Kechichian says binders run $450, $100 extra for monogramming).

Of course, there is an unspoken and tricky subtext regarding whose contributions are more valued among all the writers, producers, directors and actors working on the same show. "You try not to create problems for yourself with discrepancies in level of gifts," says an agent. "Some people go crazy and spend thousands of dollars and have Chanel bags waiting in their clients' trailers. But we've gotten smart and decided as an agency to get the same gift for all of our clients for a given year." Another solu­tion agencies that have multiple clients on the same project practice is fronting the cost for a catered meal on the set or a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf truck. Otherwise, "it's a minefield," declares a rep. A former agent confesses that she once sent a writer client a generic start gift, only to be upstaged when another writer on the show was seen on set riding a fancy bike — a start gift from the writer's agent at a rival agency.

To some in the industry, it's not the etiquette that's challenging, it's the volume of today's content. "The way things are now, somebody can do three pilots in two years, and you're sending gift after gift after gift," says an agent. "At some point, it feels like too much." Cheryl Hines dismisses the notion that all actors are needy. "A card is fine," she says. "It's very nice for people to send you flowers or slippers, which are practical. But I think they can scale down. Let's tell Los Angeles that a pair of slippers is all anybody needs."

This would reduce the strain on industry expense accounts. "I'm mar­ried, so I know extravagant gifts are appreciated," laughs a male agent. "But start gifts are a time to show your client that we understand the difficult road they are about to head down, and we are there with them. Honestly, the best start gift is quality time with a set visit to build that relationship."