Hollywood and money have always had a rocky relationship. Like the gold rush mentality that characterized the early settlers of the state, virtually since the dawn of the moving image, celluloid prospectors have headed to California to make their fortunes either behind or in front of the camera. And like the saying about New York's Great White Way that there are a thousand broken hearts for every light on Broadway, Hollywood continues to churn out its share of stratospheric fortunes, many of which evaporate as suddenly as they appear.
But that's not the case for Scott Patterson, whose name alone is enough to start some female hearts pounding. The male hunk, excuse us--the former male lead of The Gilmore Girls television show is now starring in a new series: Aliens in America. More significantly, Patterson is approaching nearly a decade of steady television work--which alone puts him in rare company. But the relatively modest actor with the gentle sense of humor from a working class New Jersey family has also quietly amassed an impressive personal net worth of several million dollars. His major debt is the mortgage to his Hollywood Hills home, which is very much under control. He has no far-flung real estate in exotic places. Nor is he involved in any confusing limited partnerships or any of the other types of "investments" that regularly destroy Hollywood fortunes seemingly as quickly as they're made.
From a financial-planning perspective, Patterson is almost as enviable for what he does not have as for what he does. He's never been married (so he's never been divorced), has no dependents and is virtually debt-free--in Hollywood terms, something of a financial endangered species.
One thing he does have is an active business relationship with independent financial advisor Jeffrey S. Fishman of JSF Financial in Los Angeles. Fishman works behind the scenes to keep Patterson's finances on an even keel despite Hollywood's erratic roller-coaster ways. The two began working together in 2000--the year he joined The Gilmore Girls--when Patterson's accountant suggested he meet with Fishman to get a better handle on his finances.
"A Hollywood career can be here today and gone tomorrow," says Fishman from his Wilshire Blvd. office. "From a financial-planning point of view, we try to bring this into perspective. These people have enough risk in their lives."
It's a task that's easier said than done in a town where a house without an in-ground, kidney-shaped pool is considered a starter home. "Understandably, people want to enjoy their success and are entitled to reward themselves," confides Fishman who is affiliated with broker/dealer Cantella & Co., Inc. "But too many missteps can put you back where you started. There are plenty of real-life examples."
Early in their relationship, Patterson was set on buying a Malibu home. Fishman ran the numbers and flatly told him to forget the house, keep working and start a basic investment and retirement plan. While Fishman's advice didn't sound like much fun, Patterson could not argue with the logic in his approach. "It was a good idea to wait," the actor now admits without a drop of regret. "There's a misconception that everyone in Hollywood lives in a mansion," continues Patterson. "Actors don't make a lot of money until they're in a long-running series. It can be very difficult to hang on to money here."
"We'd been advising many of our clients to be very cautious regarding real estate, anticipating an end to the bubble," says Fishman. "It was just a matter of time."
Managing money for the Hollywood set presents its own set of challenges. Temptations are everywhere and promises to actors of a bigger payday tomorrow appear regularly. Those who take a long-term view are a rarity, yet Fishman regularly takes this approach with his "Hollywood" clients who include other actors as well as writers and directors. He also has one professional athlete on his 300-plus client list, four-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg who's cultivating a new career now that his life in the fastest pool lanes has ended. "Krayzelburg is on firm financial footing," says Fishman--unusual for many athletes. "He understood his time in the limelight would be limited and took the right steps early in his career." While some are quick to sign on to Fishman's "logical approach," others need to be burned before they can appreciate it. In a town where tips on high-flying investments are passed around as casually as premiere tickets, $100,000 can go down in flames virtually overnight.
"Everyone in this town is after your money," says Patterson, who made a few poor investments of his own before signing on with Fishman. Starting on a TV series, actors can earn $25,000 per episode. Patterson lost that same amount in one day on shares of e-Toys. Today it's a different investment landscape for him. While neither Patterson nor Fishman will disclose the actor's net worth or what he's earning in the new series, published reports value his worth at $1.7 million. His portfolio is in the low seven figures, and each acknowledges that the diversified group of investments has generally moved in the right direction throughout their relationship.
Patterson is also now aware of his personal financial weaknesses and better yet, in control of them. "I can be a bit impulsive. When it gets chilly, I want to get a ski house in Aspen. When the sun's out, I want Malibu or Hawaii."
Advising Beyond Money
But long-term personal financial planning is about much more than competitive rates of return and balancing a portfolio.
"The truly successful relationships in this business come to be when there's real trust and communication between advisor and client," notes Fishman. "We manage Scott's portfolio so that he's not forced one day to take a role that won't further his career. Ideally, I want my clients to be in position to pick their roles. A strong portfolio helps make that possible."
Patterson agrees with the strategy. "It's difficult to get work in this town," he says. "Regularly finding good work is even tougher."
When The Gilmore Girls was not renewed at the close of its seventh season, Patterson--who also relies on a manager and lawyer but no traditional talent agent--was able to execute a "hold" deal with Warner Bros. Television should its major co-stars return. This maneuver enabled him to stay on Hollywood's equivalent of an "active" roster. As part of the deal he was also prohibited from accepting a role from a competing network.
"We don't want Scott signing on to do just anything," notes Fishman. "He's always had his eye on pursuing quality work." When plans were made for Aliens in America, a series about a misfit high school student whose Midwest family takes in a Pakistani exchange student, Patterson was cast as the dad. When the show debuted last fall, early reviews were positive, leading critics to note that Patterson may be on to his next TV hit--a rare entertainment-industry feat. (Trade bible Variety enthused, "It's the parents who steal the show." (Amy Pietz co-stars as the mom.) The New York Times called it "fresh, funny and charming.")
Fishman and Patterson talk with each other anywhere from three to five times each week. "It's not always about business," says Patterson who now describes his investment behavior as "financially responsible" and considers Fishman more than a financial advisor. As proof of his financial restraint, he points to a recent meeting with an acquaintance who asked him to invest in a vitamin-supplement business. "He thought I was just going to nod my head and write a check. I asked to see a business plan--and I'm still waiting."
Should Patterson find himself without work--a possibility with the writers' strike continuing as of mid-December, Fishman has set aside an emergency fund for him. "This was one of the first things we did together," the advisor recalls. Designed to cover about six months of living expenses, it is invested in highly liquid securities such as municipal bond and money market funds.
They've also crafted a defined benefit pension plan for Patterson. "Our aim is for steady but unspectacular growth," says Fishman, a strategy to which Patterson agrees, with a retirement portfolio largely invested in low- to medium-risk securities.
"There are too many unknowns," says Patterson, who vividly remembers his working-class roots: "We were comfortable, but we earned everything we had. It was better for me that success came at a later age when I was able to show some restraint."
Now that he has become a believer in preparing for the future and investing for the long term, Patterson recommends young people begin working with a financial advisor early in their careers. "There aren't a lot of good financial role models here," he says. "There are plenty of people who will bleed you dry."
Despite the apparent common sense of this approach, not everyone in Hollywood agrees with long-range financial planning. Fishman recalls proposing a similar plan to a veteran Hollywood actor who walked away. "He was in stratospheric debt when he came into my office," recalls Fishman. "He'd been in some 50 films and would be in at least a few more, but did not agree with the idea of sacrificing to get his financial life under control."
It's hard to say with certainty who's the rule and who's the exception when it comes to financial-planning clients in Hollywood. While it's often the lure of sudden fame and fortune that draws many to the world's entertainment-industry capital, making it here in the long term requires an entirely different character. There are no special effects to be employed when it comes to building one's financial future. If a movie was made about Scott Patterson's financial life, most critics would probably describe it as boring. But that's okay with him. As Fishman says, "With this script, we're not looking for a surprise ending."
Joseph Finora is a freelance writer who might one day actually finish his screenplay.