IF YOU’VE NOTICED a different dimension to coverage of the entertainment industry lately, here’s part of the explanation: More and more showbiz attorneys and agents have dropped their protective cover and are out there issuing pronouncements and volunteering quotes to the press. Many are even hiring press agents to enhance their public presence.
This is a surprising turnabout for an elite fraternity that has always prided itself on anonymity. Indeed, some of its leading practitioners seem a little embarrassed about it.
United Talent Agency has just retained the services of a public relations agency, for example, but Marty Bauer, UTA’s president, acknowledges, “I’d prefer not to do it.” Says Bauer: “We’re all trained to stay in the background. It’s a way of life. But it all comes down to the issue of remaining competitive.”
UTA’s major competitors, to be sure, have armed themselves with flacks as well. Though traditionally tight-lipped about its activities, Creative Artists Agency was the first, with Anna Perez, former press secretary to Barbara Bush, now filling the job. The William Morris office next brought in Larry Bloustein and this year ICM hired a high-powered financial PR firm called Sitrick and Co.
The town’s legal eagles have aggressively followed suit, which is ironic in view of the fact that attorneys traditionally were even more secretive than agents. Suddenly press releases are arriving at Variety reminding us that the law firm of Pachulski, Stang & Ziehl has handled many of the town’s high-profile insolvency cases (Weintraub, Fries, De Laurentiis, etc.) or that Jeffer, Mangels , Butler & Marmaro is pushing more and more into the entertainment field. Old-line firms like Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp are not only hiring PR counsel but are inviting reporters to drop by for a friendly chat.
There’s nothing wrong with all this, of course. Indeed, my reporters are delighted that people who formerly hung up on them suddenly are offering to buy them lunch. At the same time, the new front-and-center style of attorneys and agents poses an array of interesting questions and challenges for the press, the clients and the practitioners alike.
Can an egocentric actor, for example, handle the reality that his agent now gets as many mentions in the newspaper as he? Will a client who sees his attorney’s picture in the paper become paranoid that his business secrets might be leaked to a reporter?
These fears may be irrational, but rationality has never had much of a hold on Hollywood. “Agents are invisible,” insists a conservative chief of one medium-sized talent agency who doesn’t even want his named connected with this quote. “We were brought up to be invisible. We help our clients only if we stay invisible.”
THAT’S ALL WELL AND GOOD, except that the big talent agencies now believe that invisibility is a luxury they can no longer afford. Hence the William Morris office puts out a steady stream of releases about client signings to demonstrate a new momentum at that agency. ICM utilized the services of Sitrick publicists in the U.S. and key foreign cities to ventilate its arguments opposing the link between CAA and Credit Lyonnais.
CAA, on the other hand, is wary about publicizing itself or discussing its activities in investment banking or advertising, but its PR representative tries to be responsive to questions about client signings or major deals in the works (“Most questions put to me I simply cannot answer because of client confidentiality,” concedes Perez).
Given the sudden fusillade of press releases, the press has to decide what to print and what to toss out and we’ve all been a bit inconsistent in our choices. On occasion, more space has been given to the signing of a relatively obscure screenwriter than to news of a top star who shifted agents. Much attention has been paid to agents who switched allegiance, even though few if any clients followed them to their new lair.
Similarly, in covering showbiz stories, newspapers tend to quote attorneys who are most aggressive at seeking attention rather than those who are true experts on the issue in question.
All in all, the fact that the business and consumer press has discovered the importance of agents and attorneys may prove a mixed benefit to the practitioners.
As more writers churn out pieces about talent agents, they will also turn the spotlight on aspects of the business that agents would love to leave undiscovered. While many sectors of the Hollywood economy have been caught in a financial vise, for example, the strong talent agencies have become vastly more affluent. Profit margins may be lean in the TV and film business, but some agencies have posted record profits and generate margins of 40%. Agent salaries now vastly surpass those at the studios or networks.
THE HOLLYWOOD ARISTOCRACY in the “golden era” consisted of studio chiefs, producers, filmmakers and stars. Today the ranks of the wealthiest and most influential are dominated by those who, generations ago, were thought of as “service personnel.” This socioeconomic revolution is quietly accepted but rarely discussed in Hollywood and no one wants to see banner stories about it.
Given the heightened competition for new clients, it’s understandable that agents and attorneys see fit to publicize their firms, but the traditional client-agent relationship may never be quite the same. Before an actor summons his agent to demand a bigger Winnebago on location, he’s inevitably going to stop and think, “Wait a minute, maybe I should get my agent a Winnebago.”