Antsy Agents Make Mutant Managers

Renouncing the corporate politics of the major agencies while looking for ways to be more entrepreneurial, more and more agents are jumping ship to become managers. In the past month, several high-profile talent agents, including the William Morris Agency’s Joan Hyler and Creative Artists Agency’s Carol Bodie, have made the switch.

With clients like Winona Ryder, Rutger Hauer, Diane Lane, and Aidan Quinn in town, Hyler and Bodie are part of a growing wave of agents who are trading their ten-percents for a potentially bigger piece of the pie.

“It’s a pioneers’ road,” says Hyler. “Management is just like the agency business was when I was starting out. MCA had broken up in the 1960s. It was kind of like the Wild West, a buckeroo business. It’s now the same with the management field, and I feel like ‘Annie Get Your Gun.'”

There are any number of reasons for the recent surfeit of agents-turned-managers. The consolidation of power in the hands of several major agencies has made life tough for the ten-percenters working both inside and out of those houses. On the inside, agents are under the gun to handle the careers of up to 30 clients, with the added pressure to sign new clients. Meanwhile, agents at the smaller firms are finding their choice clients being cherry-picked by the majors.

With that kind of tension, who has time to mull over the long-range career path of one client? The answer apparently is managers.

“Among actors there’s greater demand for managers because they feel they’re not getting enough attention at the major agencies,” says Brian Medavoy, a former ICMer who is a partner in More Medavoy Management.

Detractors abound

And while most agents turned managers are only too happy to warble “Anything Agents Can Do I Can Do Better,” this ever-growing group of artists’ reps is not without its detractors.

Many studio executives and agents are unhappy about the rise of managers, grumbling that managers of major stars are mucking up the process. Executives say it’s getting costlier to make the deals, not only because there’s now another voice added to the fray, but also because managers have been known to foist themselves onto projects and take a producer’s fee.

Similarly, some agents are saying that managers are treading on their turf by going out and procuring work for the client. “What they’re doing is illegal,” said one agent from a mid-sized firm.

In the board meetings of the Association of Talent Agents, the issue of managers treading on agents’ turf has been popping up with frequency. Notes one board member, “It’s a virus out there that ought to be treated; pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t solve the problem. Managers are basically functioning as unlicensed agents.”

There’s also acrimony over the notion that managers will take hot clients away from the agent who helped them make their break and put them with one of the top three agencies. Alan Somers, whose company Somers, Teitelbaum, David manages Martha Plimpton, Amanda Plummer, Cheryl Ladd and Hector Elizondo, says, “Most of the high-quality managers perceive that the high-powered agencies are the place to be. And when an agent feels they’ve lost an important client because a manager got involved, they will probably never change their opinion about managers.”

Other agents find it galling when they put a star, a script and a director together for a project, yet it’s the manager’s name that pops up on the screen as a producer.

That aside, agents are nonetheless seeing the guy down the hall migrate into management and perceive it as an attractive entree to a producing career. Under current state law, agents are barred from being producers. And unlike talent agents, managers say they seldom poach from one another.

Doug Chapin and Barry Krost are veteran managers who produced “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which starred their client Angela Bassett. Bassett switched agencies last week, moving from Ambrosio Mortimer to International Creative Management.

Chapin stresses it’s dangerous for the new crop of managers to believe they can “create producing careers on the backs of their clients.

“You can be a best friend, feed on the paranoia of the business, but we suggest that talent watch out for these kinds of managers. You don’t pay a best friend. You need to find a business executive,” says Chapin.

The first test of friendship for managers and clients is the fee. Rates vary from 8% to 15%, with the average hovering around 10%. For stand-ups and rock stars, the percentage is generally closer to 15%. Occasionally managers won’t even bill their mega-stars, choosing instead to take a producer’s fee on each of their projects.

Says Connie Tavel, who manages Helen Hunt and started a new company with former WMA agent Bill Gross: “Our business is based on being sensitive. We have a set rate. But if you don’t work for a while, we don’t take a fee from the first couple of jobs while you’re getting your footing back.”

Reconsidering commissions

Other managers suggest they will frequently get into a negotiation with a client’s agent about how a commission will work. Instead of both charging a client 10%, they may each take a smaller commission rather that foist an excessive 20% on a client for both their services.

Percentages aside, the manager-agent relationship often just comes down to the way the two players get along. Jerry Dale of Writers & Artists Agency, says, “I work with managers who are extremely helpful and make a big difference. They’re creative and have relationships in town that I don’t have. Then there are other managers who think their job is to fax over lists with roles clients should be submitted on.”

Agent Rima Greer, who left Writers & Artists last year to start up her own agency called Above the Line, says that she had difficulties with managers in the past but finds them to be no problem anymore.

“Now when I find a client who has a manager, I make sure I’m as close with the manager as I am with the client,” she says.

The caliber of player segueing into management helps to explain why the industry is slowly accepting managers as powerbrokers. Hyler, for instance, says she traded careers because she’s become convinced that managers are a crucial cog in the wheel. While an agent, she worked frequently with former Morris Man Brian Swardstrom among others.

“Because I’ve worked so closely with managers as an agent and respected them, I am tremendously aware of the contributions that both sides make,” she says. “I think the whole business is changing and in response to the growth of opportunities, people need both an agent and a manager.”

Howard Klein left ICM in 1990 and started management firm 3 Arts Entertainment along with Michael Rotenberg and Erwin Stoff. Over the past five years they have built the company into a production and management entity that packages projects for Keanu Reeves, Pauly Shore, “Beavis and Butthead” creator Mike Judge and now Winona Ryder.

Positive image

“Managers are viewed by the community at large in a much more positive way than when I started out,” Klein notes.

Often agents segueing to management are responding to the same stimuli that prompt their colleagues to run production clients for a favorite client.

In this vein, CAA’s Brad Smith recently left that shop to run his client John Singleton’s production company. The director remains at CAA. Likewise, WMA’s Chris Godsick – who devoted so much of his energy to servicing director John Woo that he even began learning Chinese – left to run the director’s production company at Fox.

The agencies are seldom affected by those moves because the client usually stays at the agency and the agent is no longer on the payroll.

Many of the more recent evacuees from the agency world believe that while there are many capable agents, the talent pool is slimmer when it comes to management and thus there is a great opportunity to make a splash.

“You’re closer to the bottom line on your client’s decision,” says Somers. “Agents are going to take their marching orders from the clients and the managers.

“While agents’ day-to-day concern is finding the next job, most managers have a much bigger view of what it is the client wants. As a manager you’re just dealing with a bigger picture.”

Less lust for power

Bill Gross, a veteran of WMA’s TV lit department, ankled last month to form a management company with Tavel, herself a former ICMer. “Being a power wielder is way down on my list,” says Gross.

“I don’t enjoy giving people ulcers. And while I have tremendous respect for people who are agents, there seemed to be room for equally experienced and aesthetically sensitive people on the management side.”

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