It was 5:30 p.m. Jan.12 when United Talent Agency president Marty Bauer called an emergency meeting of the entire staff – 10 partners, 35 agents and numerous assistants. With dark circles under his eyes, surrounded by several other partners looking equally haggard, Bauer called for quiet in the agency’s Wilshire Boulevard nerve center – the former Drexel Burnham trading floor where Michael Milken once reigned.
The weighty issue was the near-departure of partners J.J. Harris, Judy Hofflund and Gavin Polone. Their exit would have been a crippling blow to one of Hollywood’s fastest growing agencies, which represents Jim Carrey, Conan O’Brien, David Caruso and the writers of “Jurassic Park” and “Seinfeld,” among other talents.
The three partners had told Bauer the day before that they wanted to ankle UTA. But on Jan. 12, Bauer assured the troops: “All partners and associates are staying.”
As the partners remained bunkered for most of Jan. 13, Bauer told Variety that management issues would be resolved over the weekend and that the company would now be steered by a smaller group of partners.
The crisis was averted after round-the-clock negotiations and the intervention of a psychological counselor. The negotiations among partners centered on money and management issues; the shrink dealt with so-called interpersonal relationships.
While the near-revolt at UTA was an isolated event, it provides a cautionary tale for the agency business at large. A common flashpoint is the generational conflict: Young agents at the peak of their revenue generating powers versus senior agents who have moved into more managerial roles.
On top of the generational tension bubbling at most agencies, UTA has been wrestling with the difficulties that arise from marrying several disparate corporate cultures into one shop.
UTA was born four years ago when Bauer-Benedek merged with Leading Artists. In November 1993, six Intertalent agents, led by David Schiff, Harris and Hofflund, joined the agency. Last year, two agents from the Gersh Agency also came aboard.
“The key is to set up a senior management committee to run the company,” Bauer said of the ongoing negotiations. “The notion of trying to let 10 partners run the agency was not working. The lesson is when three companies merge, the principals of all these entities cannot continue to make key decisions for the new entity. This is especially true when you have rapid growth – when a 12-man agency becomes 35, with 120 overall employees. Hence, we shall create a senior management by this weekend.”
How to blend agencies into one cohesive unit is a common concern at the town’s top ten-percenteries – even two years after the seismic upheavals of 1992.
That year, International Creative Management absorbed a portion of the now defunct Intertalent, and the William Morris Agency merged with Triad. The Creative Artists Agency is the only shop with a 20-year run uninterrupted by mergers, even though it was several CAA agents who left there to start Intertalent in the late ’80s.
Back at UTA, the loss of Hofflund, Harris, and Polone was a scary prospect. While the agency is strong on writer talent, its star client list is fairly small; agent Ilene Feldman left to start her own shop last fall, taking Bridget Fonda and Tim Roth with her. Several of UTA’s stars are repped by Hofflund and Harris.
Harris counts Drew Barrymore, Madeleine Stowe, Mark Harmon, Ellen DeGeneres and Scott Bakula among her clients. Hofflund has Cybill Shepherd, Laura Dern and Peter Coyote on her list; and she is part of the team that wooed Emilio Estevez to UTA. Hofflund and Harris are the only two female partners at any of Hollywood’s major talent agencies.
But from a purely financial standpoint, Polone’s ankling would have been the most devastating. Individually, the Ferrari-driving tenpercenter probably brings more income into UTA than any other partner. He reps some of the agency’s best compensated screenwriters – David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”) as well as TV producers like “Seinfeld” creator Larry David and “The Critic’s” creators Al Jean & Mike Reiss. He also handles former “Simpsons” scribe Conan O’Brien. “Seinfeld” alone should be worth more than $200 million when it goes into syndication, and UTA’s percentage of that figure is just one of the many lucrative paydays that Polone has brokered. He is 30.
Last fall, the 10 partners that comprise Hollywood’s hottest mini-major agency began working with a psychological counselor to sort out a number of corporate and interpersonal issues. They planned to have those problems resolved by Jan. 1, but late on Jan. 13 – a Friday no less – there was no word exactly which partners would have a more significant role in the company.
There was also concern among UTA agents that the placating of the three partners was little more than a temporary measure. In other words, the same problems that have beset the agency since the fall might surface again.
The psychologist, David Kruschke, first worked with partners during a series of weekend retreats last fall. He has become a fixture in the office, often asking agents to turn off their phones for hours at a time to work on interpersonal problems. Rank-and-file agents there have given up a number of Saturdays to sort out problems with him as well. UTA’s “facilitator” also worked with CBS’ entertainment division several years ago.
The design of UTA’s offices has not helped matters. Since partners’ offices are composed of glass walls and open onto rows of assistants’ desks, agent squabbles were in clear view of colleagues and assistants. While similar fights might have occurred at other agencies, they would be behind closed doors.
Despite UTA’s partners throwing stones at one another in their glass offices, the agency generally works with an interdepartmental teamwork seldom seen in most shops. UTA has enjoyed great success moving its TV writing clients into feature film work. Agents have also done a good job turning TV actors like “In Living Color’s” Jim Carrey into movie stars.
And while staff members there continue to interact in a collegial fashion amidst the internal turmoil, one agent summed up the feelings of many of his colleagues. “The sad part about all this is that it’s happening at a time when we’re doing well as an agency,” he said. “Hopefully, clients won’t take the short view of the internal squabbling.”