Will honor code ankle with Rapke?

When Jack Rapke, co-chairman of CAA, abruptly exited the agency business last week, rival agents promptly started strategizing about which clients might be pried loose from the powerhouse agency. The exit also caused agents across town, mostly older reps, to reflect about the significance of his departure and what it suggests about the changes in the business.

Rapke was a symbol of a certain style, strategy and approach to agenting — one that many feel is quickly passing from the scene. In the view of these agents, the town is losing its reps who adhered to an unwritten code of honor, while many younger agents who play by a “take-no-prisoners” set of rules are on the rise.

Industry observers say that what has happened is a generational shift taking place throughout the entire entertainment industry. “When Stan Kamen and Guy McElwaine and Sue Mengers were in power,” said UTA president Marty Bauer, “the whole concept was if they got a call from your client, they would call you up and say, ‘You better fix it. If you don’t fix it, I’m going to take the client.’ There was a code of gentleman’s honor, where people didn’t go after each others clients. That rarely exists now.”

The turmoil in the agency business has had a ripple effect in Hollywood, observers note. The abrasive style of agenting tends to permeate studios, networks and other sectors of the entertainment economy. Both older and younger agents are complaining about the kind of behavior the intense competition has spawned, and want the madness to stop.

Larger issues

The changes in the agency business, many note, are symptomatic of a larger problem the entertainment industry is facing. “Jack was a very honorable guy, and for people who are honorable, it’s a very difficult business,” said ICM’s Toni Howard. “You can have an agreement from a network or studio or client, and then the next day it can fall apart. They make an offer, the next day they pull the offer. A verbal agreement means nothing anymore.”

The rising costs of doing business has also changed the role of the agent. With actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey and Harrison Ford, studios are taking a hard look at what they are buying. Said one agent with over 15 years of experience: “The costs have risen so dramatically that the gut-reaction way of doing business has been supplanted by cost-efficiency. No one is having fun anymore.”

The Oliviator

Added Bauer: “Agents used to get studios to make better movies. We used to be the advocate for artists to fulfill their dreams, and jump on unpopular causes and unpopular movies. Now they are trying to make everyone an action star. If these guys repped Laurence Olivier, they would try to get him to become an action star so he could make $20 million per picture.”

The aggressiveness that now grips Hollywood is best evidenced in the agency business. Recent months have seen a frenzy of talent defections that have hit all of Hollywood’s major tenpercenteries, from the departure of Arnold Schwarzenegger from ICM to WMA, and Cuba Gooding Jr. from Paradigm to CAA, to Sylvester Stallone’s completion of the agency loop: CAA to ICM to WMA and back to CAA.

“Stan (Kamen) and I had an understanding that if any client called either one of us, we’d call each other,” said former agent McElwaine. “Then we’d allow 24 to 48 hours to cure the problem. If it wasn’t resolved, we had a fiduciary responsibility to our company to sign the client. Now a competing agent calls a client at 8 a.m. on a Sunday when the client’s movie just flopped … when they are the most vulnerable.”

To be sure, client jitters and insecurities play a large factor in their decision to depart. But some vets see the wave of client jumps as indicative of a new attitude, with competitors more aggressively capitalizing on another’s weakness.

“People now wait until Monday’s box office to see who they think is a good actor,” said Howard. “If agents spent more time getting clients jobs and less focus on getting other people’s clients, the clients wouldn’t want to leave in the first place.”

Now, even boutique agencies are fair game — agencies for which just a few clients can be their livelihood. As her star rose, Julia Ormond was lured away from Paradigm to CAA.

A year and a half ago, the exits of CAA co-founders Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber left competitors ecstatic at the thought of a more level playing field. If anything, many agency vets believe, fiercer competition has emerged, which has changed the focus from the client’s career to the agency’s scorecard. “It’s not so much whose clients they are going after, it’s that going after a client has taken so much energy,” said Paradigm’s president, Sam Gores.

Many attribute this to the same shift brought about by the founding of CAA, which used aggressive methods to sign clients, motivated by the basic need to survive.

It started to change when Mike Ovitz got into the agency business,” said Bauer. “Then, aggressively going after clients became the norm. And he was successful at it. The one thing that was exempt was smaller agents. They respected that.”

Jerry Katzman, WMA’s new vice chairman, agreed. “The aggressiveness all started with the formation of CAA, and it’s now become the standard behavior. When you’re working in a world that requires an atom bomb to get a client, you don’t go back to using a firecracker.”

Agenting changed substantially for the first time when MCA got out of the talent agency business in 1968. That’s when Freddie Fields and David Begelman turned from management to agenting and started CMA. “That’s what got the vegetarians to become carnivores,” said one veteran agent. Fields’ aggressiveness has become legendary. Determined to sign James Coburn away from another agency, Fields walked into his meeting with Coburn and took off his jacket to reveal a holstered gun. The tactic was a joke, but it got the job done. Coburn signed with CMA. “CMA planted the seed, but it was CAA that mastered that game,” the vet noted.

The obsession with the deal, according to many agents, has supplanted what is best for the client’s career path. Rapke’s exit underlined that point. “Someone who was an adult, classy agent has left the business, someone who cared about his clients career,” said one veteran agent. “That has left the scale tipping towards a business run by yuppie larvae, heat-seeking missiles looking only for the money and deal, and not thinking of the client’s career trajectory.”

McElwaine said the new generation has learned that such aggressiveness “is the proper way to do business.” WMA’s Nicole David said everyone has a responsibility for what has happened. “The young people will do only what the older people allow them to do,” said David. “If no one teaches them what is valuable, then what do we expect from them?

“It’s not just the agents; everyone is part of a system that now encourages greed. If you focus in on what you have, you can make it work. That’s what CAA did when they first started 20 years ago. They took the small handful of clients they had and made them shine.”

The problem, many say, is that now the agent has put himself and the agency before the client. Said one, who requested anonymity: “Now it’s about the deals. It’s the most amazing turnaround in our business. Today it’s ego. It’s whatever the media picks up on.”

Katzman agreed. “Agents have become pariahs. Agents used to be behind the clients. Now agents are in front of the clients.” That is evidenced by the vastly increased media coverage that the agency business has received over the past five years in such consumer publications as Vanity Fair, Newsweek and Time.

Every major agency now has a publicist. The practice of naming the agents who executed specific deals in the entertainment papers has only aggravated the problems. Several younger agents contacted for this story declined comment, citing image concerns.

Loss of the bond

Now there are teams of agents on each client, partly to ensure that if one agent leaves, the impact on the agency will be lessened. What has been lost, some vets say, is the bond between agent and client, one that used to be so strong that many of the best-known reps went without paperwork.

“We have rarely had a contract with a client. We never wanted it,” said veteran New York agent Robert Lantz, who reps Elizabeth Taylor and Milos Forman and previously helped steer the careers of Richard Burton and Bette Davis. “These people had ups and downs and hits and flops, but they didn’t immediately turn the blame on the agents.” He added that he also once repped Mike Nichols, and remembers the director telling him: “Would you please give me a contract so I can fire you?”

All noted that there are many agents in town, both young and old, who still have the integrity and the respect of their clients. “The agent-client relationship should be founded on passion and magic and a shared vision,” said Paradigm’s Gores. “That’s why (ICM’s) Ed Limato is a good agent and Jack Rapke was great. Now it’s almost as if clients have become pawns. They are looked at as things you move around, and that’s just wrong.”

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