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Ill-fitting ‘suits’ shed their corporate suites

LIFE AS A “SUIT” may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been noticing more and more instances lately of reasonably prominent corporate players abandoning their jobs to return to their former professions as agents, attorneys or whatever. Indeed, this “reverse migration” has caught many by surprise.

For years now, the accepted career path in Hollywood has remained the same: The sellers aspired to become buyers. Agents envisioned themselves as studio czars, like Lew Wasserman. Lawyers saw themselves as corporate statesmen, like Sumner Redstone. Wasserman, of course, has retired and, while Redstone still presides over turbulent Viacom, other attorneys who became studio presidents, like Sony’s Alan Levine or Universal’s Tom Pollock, are now back to lawyering.

They’re hardly alone. Sandy Climan, Rosalie Swedlin, Diane Cairns and Josh Donen are among the growing list of one-time studio denizens who have migrated back to their earlier callings.

“It sounds great to have a fancy title,” acknowledges one born-again agent, “but the fact remains that corporate life is numbing. My colleagues at the studio were boring. My clients at the agency are fascinating.”

Sure, talk like this may fall in the category of convenient rationalization. We know that some of the wannabe executives simply didn’t make the cut. Either they weren’t effective decision-makers or their political survival skills were found wanting.

Putting this aside, the hard fact is that life at the studios and networks may not be as attractive as it was a generation ago. The pressures are rising and so is the body count. In his intriguing new book about Don Simpson titled “High Concept,” Charles Fleming reminded me of an article written precisely 20 years ago about Hollywood’s “Baby Moguls.”

The story, by Maureen Orth, profiled an imposing list of studio executives, then in their early 30s, who supposedly were taking over the business. The list included Simpson, Mark Rosenberg, Thom Mount, Clair Townsend and Sean Daniel, all of whom were in the fast lane at their studios and who, Orth informed us, were “setting the tone for the movie industry throughout the ’80s.”

WELL, IT SOUNDED convincing at the time , but the staying power of those on the list was not exactly what Orth had envisioned. Of the five listed above, three died young and tragically, and two others have long since lost their studio gigs to become struggling members of the producing fraternity.

As a final irony, New West, the publication which emblazoned Orth’s piece across its cover, has long since gone to magazine heaven.

The lesson seems clear enough: It’s tough to be a star in the studio system even when you’re lucky enough to get off to a flying start. One key reason is that studios aren’t dedicated, single-product companies like they were in the past. They are, in fact, mere tentacles of multinational corporations. It’s the corporate parents that increasingly set the tone for their subsidiaries.

And this doesn’t necessarily provide a hospitable environment for brash young entrepreneurial types who like to follow their gut and make quick decisions.

“I just didn’t have the patience for corporate life,” observes one former executive who has returned to agenting. “I’m happier out there making deals. I need the instant gratification.” There’s also the issue of money. Back in the days when top agents like David Begelman and Martin Baum became presidents of movie companies, the compensation packages offered by the companies proved a powerful lure. In the Hollywood of the ’90s, however, bright young agents, managers and attorneys make a lot more than their corporate counterparts. They’re also building equity. And they don’t have to worry about being fired if their corporation changes ownership or if they find themselves on the wrong side of an internal political struggle.

IN SHORT, THE SO-CALLED “little guys” may have it better than the “suits.” Not only do they make more money, but arguably they also enjoy a better lifestyle.

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into one bright young agent who put it this way: “I always dreamed of becoming a head of production and surrounding myself with the best and the brightest. Then I got to meet the players. Let me be tactful: I’m planning to remain an agent.” He’s not alone.

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