Industry’s talent agents now flying tsuris class

CONSIDER THE CHAIN OF EVENTS: On April 21, the principals of United Talent Agency held an emergency meeting to fire one of their partners, a self-styled “warrior” named Gavin Polone. Polone’s “inappropriate behavior toward Nancy Jones,” a fellow UTA agent, was cited as the last straw that led to Polone’s dismissal. Three days later UTA issued a public apology to Polone for terming his behavior “inappropriate,” declaring oddly that it was only the media coverage that was “inappropriate.” Nonetheless, Jones promptly jumped to CAA, and Polone said he’s going into business with another UTA emigre, Judy Hofflund. Yet another UTA founder, Martin Bauer, let it be known that he’d opposed firing Polone in the first place but had been excluded from the Sunday summit. At the end of it all, the bearded Polone, who covets his Mephistophelean image, issued a joyous statement saying, “I feel vindicated. I’m extremely happy.” Well, I’m happy that Polone’s happy, but I can’t figure out exactly why anyone would have cause for cheer over these dismal events. The behavior of this warrior may or may not have been “inappropriate,” but how about the behavior of his partners? And, most important, how does it reflect upon the once-honorable profession of agenting? Coincidentally, it was precisely one year ago that Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer began negotiating their exit visas from CAA. Both issued ritualistic denials at the time, but it was clear to friends and associates that both had concluded it was time to move on. Ovitz, of course, landed atop Disney and Meyer at MCA. Clearly they sensed things were changing — a shift in the balance of power, perhaps. Over the past year it has become increasingly clear that the agency business is indeed in a state of turmoil. Where the major agencies once wielded a high degree of influence, attorneys and managers increasingly fill the power vacuum. And as activist “owners” like Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Edgar Bronfman Jr. seize more direct control over their empires, the once passive studios also are shaking off their torpor. Which brings us back to the basic question: What the hell is Gavin Polone so happy about? The agency business is suffering a credibility crisis, and if you don’t believe it, try talking to those forgotten people known as clients.

THERE’S A GROWING CONCERN that most agents seem so preoccupied with internal politics, and with stealing clients from rivals, that the level of service provided has sharply diminished. These criticisms are seconded by the “buyers”– namely the networks and studios. Phone calls aren’t being returned. Scripts aren’t being read. Deals aren’t being closed. Instead of speaking with a clear voice, the major agencies tend to give off mixed messages on important projects. “It’s getting a lot harder to do business,” acknowledges one studio chief. “The machine keeps sputtering.” Some insiders had predicted that the abrupt departure of Ovitz and Meyer would trigger a redistribution of wealth in the agency business, but this has not turned out to be the case. CAA has lost some important clients (Sly Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Costner) but has signed some as well (Nick Nolte and Matthew McConaughey). Contrary to predictions, there has been no major defection of agents from CAA to competitive companies. If anyone seems to have gained, it’s been the lawyers and managers. As stars and star filmmakers have grown skittish about the behavior of their agents, they’ve become increasingly dependent on the other “anchors” in their business lives.

THE BOTTOM LINE IS THAT AGENTS have little to be “happy” about. Indeed, after conversing this week with a variety of top studio executives and other seers, I would urge my friends in the agency business to ponder the following: It’s time to stop the war and focus on providing service once again. If an agent signs a new client but loses an old one, that’s zero gain. Agents aren’t stars, the clients are stars. Too many “hot” young agents seem obsessed with creating a mythic status for themselves — the clothes, the hair, the phone manner. Agents are supposed to make deals, not make news. There won’t be any jobs left if you kill off your buyers. As one senior agent puts it, “I keep telling my young hotshots that it’s self-destructive to force-feed a deal that will guarantee that a studio loses money on a project. We need that studio to stay healthy so we can make other deals. My own agents tell me to fuck myself.” A director friend who recently changed agents asked me a question the other day: “Why do these agents all describe themselves as warriors?” he asked. “I want to build a career, not start a war.” I don’t think my friend would be happy with Gavin Polone.

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