‘Level’ playing fields covered with big gray areas

WHY IS IT THAT BUZZWORDS often come into vogue long after they’ve lost their relevance? Take the expression “level playing field.” Everyone likes to talk about “creating a level playing field,” but when’s the last time you actually saw one in business or politics?

All this comes to mind as a result of the clash between those high-powered agencies, Intl. Creative Management and Creative Artists Agency — a fight that continues to grow more abstruse and emotional. It is ICM’s urgent contention that the alliance between Credit Lyonnais and Michael Ovitz has tipped the playing field and changed the rules.

While ICM is pressing the Hollywood guilds to support its position, the guilds are equivocating. “The issues are too complex,” they say. “Why risk stirring the wrath of CAA?” they demand. “Isn’t Michael Ovitz creating much-needed jobs in Hollywood by resuscitating ailing companies like MGM and United Artists?”

Complains the veteran chief of one guild: “The simple old rules don’t apply anymore. There are too many grayareas.”

Look almost anywhere on the Hollywood landscape and you glimpse those “gray areas.” Some examples: Agents are supposed to sell talent, not buy it. Yet it’s gotten to be routine for major TV producers or networks to ask packaging agencies to hire artists and negotiate deals. Lawyers, managers and agents are mandated to avoid conflicts of interest. But nearly all the top ones find themselves smack in the middle of conflicts daily and their clients endorse it because they want to be identified with a “major player.”

ICM, which represents writers in their negotiations with studios, operated a development company for years that hired writers to write scripts. ICM also actively performs functions akin to those of a studio by rounding up financing for projects and securing completion bonds; the agency even hired Franz Afman, of Credit Lyonnais fame, to help with this endeavor. (Afman’s relationship with ICM has ended.)

CAA has negotiated the employment agreements for most of Hollywood’s production chiefs (Sherry Lansing’s most recently), only to turn around after the deal’s been completed and start pitching projects to them.

THE LONG-ACCEPTED STRICTURES of the past seem to have grown fuzzy around the edges. Two decades ago, Hollywood’s top agents rose in wrath when the parent company of a neophyte agency called London Intl. bought a chain of British movie theaters. Given this pressure, the guilds effectively terminated London Intl.’s franchise to do business, and its principals (including Alan Ladd Jr. and Gareth Wigan) had to find other callings.

In today’s relaxed environment, would that agency have been forced out of business? I doubt it. Indeed, it’s debatable whether the MCA melodrama of 31 years ago would have been re-enacted today in the same scenario. The Kennedy administration gave MCA 48 hours to dispose of its clients because that company had become a major factor in TV production. In 1993, righteous indignation of this sort would seem gauche, and everything might be resolved on that legendary level playing field of quiet negotiation.

Given the prevailing fuzziness of rules and guidelines, it’s amusing to speculate what would happen if all remaining artifices were abandoned — if the talent agencies moved aggressively into production and perhaps the studios even undertook to represent talent now and then.

ONE COULD IMAGINE THE FEROCITY of Jeffrey Katzenberg demanding $ 30 million from Paramount for his new client, Arnold Schwarzenegger. For that matter, a slate of pictures put together by ICM or CAA might compete quite effectively with the output of a major studio — indeed, the agencies might bring fresh energy and invention to the table.

It’s dubious, to say the least, whether any of this could actually come about. While both the William Morris office and ICM, spurred by CAA, are examining investment banking and other ventures, the core activity of these companies will doubtless continue to be agenting.

The existing playing field, while forever tilted, is nonetheless sufficiently bountiful to satisfy their ambitions and energies.

At the same time, this is a very difficult environment in which to make the sort of case that ICM’s Jeff Berg is espousing. When people are worried about jobs, they’re not especially receptive to complex jurisdictional disputes.

More specifically, while Hollywood has never quite understood how Credit Lyonnais arrives at its inscrutable decisions, it is nonetheless keenly aware of the fact that the bank has poured billions into the entertainment industry. Jeff Berg may feel he’s advanced some telling arguments, but no one today wants to scare away any bank, especially this one. Hollywood may have its gray areas, but this one seems black and white.

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