Float up the elevator to the Waldo Fernandez-designed 14th-floor penthouse that is Soho House West Hollywood, and this is what you might see: Up in the Air director-cowriter Jason Reitman enjoying a burger at the bar for lunch; Contagion director Steven Soderbergh sitting in the lounge, tapping away at his laptop, his ears encased by humongous, sound-erasing headphones, paying no mind to the producer taking a meeting a few feet away; the Entourage cast—as though cameras were rolling—ordering a round of drinks and hunkering down to a game of Scrabble.
Here’s what you won’t see: velvet-roped VIP sections, corner tables reserved exclusively for Actress X, squadrons of handlers protectively escorting their clients. In a town where status is often measured by overt markers, part of the appeal of this restaurant-bar-lounge appears to be its egalitarianism. Once they become members, at least, the chosen mingle democratically under one gilded roof.
Faster than you can say “Bridesmaids 2!,” this Sunset Boulevard aerie has become the entertainment industry’s most exclusive sanctum—a members-only social club so desirable that the wait list to get in has more than 2,000 names on it. Although the club attracts high-profile types from all slices of L.A. high society (art, fashion, philanthropy), Hollywood has been particularly smitten. As George Heller, a manager-producer at Apostle Management, puts it, “Soho House is the new courtside Lakers tickets. It’s where you go to entertain clients and see and be seen.”
Unlike Lakers tickets, Soho House’s $1,800 annual membership fee is a bargain for a crowd accustomed to dropping that much for a business dinner. What that gets you is merely the right to enter one of the more spectacular spaces in L.A., offering a bar area with a breathtaking view, a rooftop restaurant lined with olive trees planted in the floor, and a screening room as plush as any studio head’s. With its wide marble staircase, maze of darkly lit hallways, and kitschy photo booth, the venue falls somewhere between an old-world gentlemen’s club and the Parker hotel in Palm Springs.
To gain access to this urban paradise, applicants strategize like chess grand masters in their attempts to impress the club’s Star Chamber-like membership committee. “I’m going to push my political relationships,” confides a talent agent, sensitive to the club’s well-publicized desire to limit the number of “suits.” As for those unlucky souls not invited in, they face sotto voce scorn from their peers.
“She’s been on the wait list for nine months,” hissed a manager recently after he spotted a young woman—a development executive by the look of her dressy-but-not-too ensemble—entering a sushi restaurant. (The manager, meanwhile, admitted that his own fear of being rejected had kept him from applying in the first place.)
That Soho House still elicits this kind of interest more than a year after it opened its doors in Los Angeles is testament to how well the British establishment—the first club opened in London 16 years ago—has adapted to this city. L.A., after all, is famous for hot spots that are typically hot for only one season before they’re replaced by the next thing. But the club’s brass was savvy in the way it approached the Los Angeles project, the second of three clubs to launch on American shores—in 2003, Soho House New York opened in the trendy Meatpacking District; in 2010, a Miami outpost debuted.
The perception is—and rightly so—that the L.A. club is much harder to get into than the others. Soho House New York went through a phase during which membership became lax and the club’s vibe shifted to, as one member sniffs, “bridge and tunnel.” Over the past year and a half there has been an effort to get back on track, and Manhattan memberships have not been renewed. The club’s image was also tarnished by the murder of swimsuit designer Sylvie Cachay in one of the club’s hotel suites last year.
Los Angeles, though, is particularly susceptible to Soho House’s charms. By touting its outsider status as a posh British institution, the club is, as one publicist puts it, “playing into the city’s cultural inferiority complex, in the same way BAFTA [the British Academy of Film and Television Arts] does.” At the same time it has mastered the age-old Hollywood game of kissing the appropriate rings and quietly courting the town’s high and mighty. The result is an irresistible hybrid of inaccessible exoticism and insiderdom few can resist.
“It’s ‘members only.’ That works better in Los Angeles than anywhere,” says producer Lynda Obst (Hot in Cleveland, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), who joined the New York club when she was filming in the area and then became a member of the L.A. branch. “It’s like that joke: Anything that someone else can’t get into, everyone wants to be a member of.”
Obst, who is based at Sony Pictures, points out another lure of the L.A. club. “One of the brilliant things they did, which they didn’t even know they were doing, is find the invisible center of the town,” she says, referring to Soho House’s location in the towering 9200 office building on Sunset Boulevard, just west of Doheny, that straddles the leafy green residential streets of Beverly Hills and the funky commercial blocks of the Strip. “It’s right between the East- and Westsides, literally halfway between my house and my studio.”
The space also serves as a kind of cultural clubhouse. There are lectures (Carl Bernstein and will.i.am on democracy), movie screenings hosted by icons (Robert Evans presented Chinatown; Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate), and even pasta-making classes. Another key feature: It’s camera free. Because entry to the building is through a garage, paparazzi are kept at bay, meaning that stars can make discreet entrances and exits. Once inside, cameras are forbidden there, too, and it’s an unspoken rule that everyone plays it chill, no matter who walks in the door.
“It’s one of the few places in L.A. where they don’t pitch me movies when I’m there,” says indie mogul Harvey Weinstein. That sense of privacy prevails even when he’s hosting someone with a famous face. “If I have a lunch with Jim Carrey or Leo or Quentin, who I take there a lot, it’s not somewhere where I feel ‘OK, this is going to be a tough situation.’ It’s very low-key, dark, easy to deal with. I don’t mean to be snobbish, but when you’re talking about making a movie for a lot of money, it’s nice to have a quiet business lunch.”
No wonder the Weinstein Company hosts its annual Oscar party at Soho House, which may be the only time nobody minds the stars’ getting noticed. Weinstein recalls how at the Inglourious Basterds fete last year, the fire marshal showed up and threatened to shut down the overcrowded party until Cameron Diaz walked in and charmed him.
Soho House founder Nick Jones acknowledges that a lot of time and energy—years’ worth of reconnaissance, essentially—went into putting all these details into place, but he notes there was no guarantee any of it would work, L.A. being the unique animal that it is. For one thing, there was the idiosyncratic nature of the city’s social matrix, which he likens to a “mining town in the U.K.”—that is, a town dominated by a single industry.
Second, there was the fact that Los Angeles’s members-only scene has faded considerably. The handful of ultra-exclusive country clubs are no longer the networking hubs they were back when Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis were teeing off at the Riviera. (“I went to Hillcrest for the first time last week,” says one studio executive and Soho House member, referring to the Hillcrest Country Club on Pico Boulevard. “It’s like the most geriatric, nonhip place.”) As for social clubs such as the Factory, a Rat Pack favorite, and the Daisy, a ’70s-era dance club, they have been replaced by a succession of Industry-anointed spots anyone could visit: Spago, Mortons, and most recently, Tower Bar.
“There was a lot of nervousness on our part because we know and respect what goes on in L.A., but we didn’t understand L.A. well enough five years ago,” Jones said one afternoon as he sat in the club’s sun-dappled lounge sipping a sparkling water with lime. Half a dozen screenwriters were at work on their laptops in the glass-paneled room while behind them the city stretched out in all its hazy, horizonless glory.
Dressed in designer jeans and a loose-fitting white linen shirt, his dirty-blond hair brushed haphazardly across his tanned forehead, Jones embodied the club’s stylishly relaxed atmosphere. (“Creative” is the club’s unofficial motto and the word most used to describe its ideal member. A few years ago Soho House New York put up a sign, since removed, showing a diagonal red line superimposed on the image of a suit.)
Before settling on a location, Jones began the process of getting to know Los Angeles by throwing a series of annual pop-up Oscar parties in rented homes in the Hollywood Hills. The effect was that the right people became aware of, and impressed by, the club without having to be overtly solicited; at movie studios they call this tactic guerrilla marketing. Jones, who lives in London, bought a house here and arranged tête-à-têtes with the town’s movers and shakers at Cecconi’s (another Soho House Group property), where he asked for their advice and ideas. Yet another page was taken from the Hollywood rule book: Make it about them.
Right away there were signs this was not London or New York. “We learned a lot in doing the guest list for the Oscar parties,” said Tim Geary, the club’s membership czar, who was seated across from Jones and was also dressed in jeans, which he had paired with a sharp button-down shirt. Lesson One was how Hollywood machers “react to rejection,” he said. “You get the call from the second assistant and then the first assistant and then the person himself.”
“If that was done in a nice way, then you knew you had a fantastic rapport with this powerful person,” continued Geary. “But some people, who are considered very important in this town, didn’t approach it that way, and you could immediately tell that they weren’t the kind of person who would become integrated into a club like this naturally.” In other words: Application denied.
Withholding membership in an elite club because of an applicant’s behavior? Hollywood, known for its screamers with a sense of entitlement, wasn’t accustomed to that. But Jones and Geary stuck to their core belief that money and titles aren’t enough to justify inclusion—a blasphemous notion in a town defined by IMDb credits and Forbes rankings. But it was also genius. Of course, people only wanted to join more.
“There’s an awful lot of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ ” Geary said. “People are confounded as to why they haven’t been chosen as members. Just two days ago someone offered me $15,000: ‘I’ll give you $15,000 on top of the membership fee—you can charge me whatever you like, if you let me in.’ There are people who say they will give huge amounts to charity, which maybe we should accept. But that goes against who we are.”
For a time last year Paul Haggis, the writer-director who won two Oscars for Crash, the 2004 ensemble piece about L.A.’s socioeconomic dynamics, made Soho House his home away from home. Like most scribes, Haggis finds that writing in his pj’s at home makes him stir crazy, whereas being in a public place, he says, “allows me to fool myself into thinking I’m a part of life. I can hear the buzz around me. That helps.”
In Rome Haggis likes to write in bars, where no one has any problem with him tying up a seat for hours on end. But here, he says, that is harder to pull off. Hence he was drawn to Soho House, where he developed a routine of “going there almost every day. I’d go at about ten in the morning, have breakfast. It was always very quiet. Then I’d stay and have lunch and sometimes an early dinner and leave around six or seven.”
The only drawback, according to Haggis, is that too many writers have a similar plan. “I just find them all annoying,” he says, half joking. “They’re taking up the spaces I want to be in. I think they have to limit the number of writers. I told them to start kicking them out, starting with me.”
That’s not about to happen, says Jones. Moreover, for all the tales of billionaires and heads of management companies and other noteworthy personalities being denied access, he and the club are not about simply keeping out the riffraff. (The rumor that Arnold Schwarzenegger was not admitted is false, Jones says.)
Jones characterizes Soho House’s ideal member as a struggling screenwriter who must save his pennies to pay his annual dues. “We don’t mind that person sitting in a corner with a glass of tap water all afternoon or all day,” he says, adding, “Exclusivity is not what we ever intended because we’re very inclusive—I suppose in a very exclusive way.”