|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 18, 2010 --On an upper floor of the Four Seasons on the edge of Beverly Hills, guests stepping off the elevator see a typical high-end hotel hallway: thick carpeting, subdued lighting, numbered rooms.
But visitors who open a certain door find themselves in a high-tech studio that resembles a cozy living room from the 1960s or '70s, a place to settle in for a martini or two with friends. Thousands of dollars' worth of recording and editing equipment are there too, but are hard to notice at a glance.
"The set looks like my first apartment," quipped actor and comedian Arsenio Hall, soon after his first visit this month. He came to the studio to record an interview and stayed to hang out for a while. Coaxing celebrities to let down their guard and linger, it turns out, is the strategy behind the informal recording and broadcasting studio.
That's one reason it's in a posh hotel, said former child actor R.J. Williams, who came up with the concept of creating a celebrity-friendly nest and sold the Four Seasons on his idea. There he films interviews and off-the-cuff banter with entertainment and sports figures, which he sells to Yahoo and other sources or posts on his Young Hollywood website.
"We wanted it to be intimate with a cool, loungy vibe," Williams said. "It's like coming to my house."
The timing was right to build the hideaway studio inside of one of Southern California's best-known hotels. As the recession hammered business and leisure travel, inns including the Four Seasons saw occupancy dip.
That has many of them looking for new sources of revenue, such as events. For instance, the $480-million Terranea Resort, which opened last June in the midst of the hotel slump, has pushed its seaside wedding venues on the bluffs of Palos Verdes. This year Terranea scored a Hollywood coup by hosting a wedding for the ABC television show "The Bachelor," which filled nearly 275 rooms and required a multitude of meals.
The Four Seasons agreed to rent Young Hollywood three rooms, including a two-bedroom suite, for at least a year. Exact terms are confidential, but Williams said the annual price is six figures. The cost of furnishing and outfitting the studio with high-definition cameras and other equipment was in the $500,000 range, he said.
The two-bedroom suite and another guest room are now the studio and green room. Williams lives in the third room.
The Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, as the hotel is formally known, has long been a favored haunt of the entertainment industry and frequently hosts events where members of the media gather to interview stars promoting their latest movies.
"It made perfect sense for R.J. to be here," said Mehdi Eftekari, the hotel's general manager. "We are a hub for junket interviews."
The fledgling studio may help the 23-year-old Four Seasons in its competition with the brand-new W Hollywood hotel to be the junket destination of choice. When the W opened this year at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, its managers showed off a large suite and outdoor deck built specifically to attract junket business.
In addition, the Four Seasons recently laid 200,000 feet of fiber optic cable to improve electronic connections and broadcasting for junkets. Eftekari declined to say how much it cost but said it was "a huge expense" to wire 3 1/2 floors of rooms including the studio, ballroom, wedding garden, business center, meeting rooms and restaurants.
The Four Seasons, Eftekari said, doesn't know who is coming and going to Young Hollywood's floor, though it does give Williams' team permission to bring cameras into public areas of the hotel if they're not intruding on other guests. It's a rare concession.
"We have zero tolerance for paparazzi," Eftekari said. "Security has been trained to look for cameras, telephones and little equipment" capable of taking pictures.
And he was quick to defend his hotel's reputation for discretion.
"R.J. brings his own business," Eftekari said. "We do not supply him with names of who is here and who is not."
Young Hollywood's reputation as a friendly venue works in its favor.
"They do celebrity profiles in a way that is almost always flattering to the talent," said Jimmy Pitaro, vice president of media at Yahoo Inc. "It's incredibly consistent with the tone of Yahoo Entertainment and Yahoo Sports, which is not mean-spirited."
Young Hollywood has been providing interviews to Yahoo for more than two years to mingle among Yahoo's original-content pages, Pitaro said. Yahoo and Young Hollywood share the ad revenue that the material generates.
Young Hollywood interviews also show up in other places such as screens on gas pumps and in quick-service restaurants. "We're platform agnostic," Williams said. Future targets are screens in elevators, bars, gyms and movie theaters.
Williams, who looks younger than his 32 years, grew up in Southern California, graduated from USC's film school and has roots in the entertainment business. He started appearing in the soap opera "The Young and the Restless" as a toddler and went on to get parts in a long list of television shows including "Baywatch" and "Full House."
These days, his on-camera work is limited to interviews as he builds a business that now has 24 employees in the studio and in its West Los Angeles offices. One of his goals is an evening television program.
"I want to be a brand like 'Entertainment Tonight,'" he said. "I want to play with the big boys."
Williams has financial partners, he said, but wouldn't identify them beyond saying they include an athlete and a fashion model. He said that his revenue, which he wouldn't disclose, is on track to grow 400% in 2010 and that the Young Hollywood website had 2 million visitors in May.
The Four Seasons is a good place to make actors, musicians and athletes feel at home because many of them are already familiar with the place, Williams said. It's also good at celebrity pampering. When English singer VV Brown requested hot chocolate during her visit, a waiter brought an elaborate serving.
"What other studio has 24-hour room service?" Williams said.
Young Hollywood tries to catch up-and-comers such as Brown. Other recent guests included members of OK Go, a band that became an Internet sensation with an elaborate dance on treadmills in 2006. But acts don't necessarily have to be young, Williams said -- just young-thinking.
"Betty White would be great," he said.
Arsenio Hall, who also filmed a sketch with comedian Dave Chappelle during his visit to the hotel, advised Williams to stay grounded.
Young Hollywood needs older Hollywood, the 54-year-old former talk show host said later. "They don't always want to talk to Miley Cyrus."
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