New plot twists in agents wars

Cohn still has hand in ICM

NEW YORK — When newly named William Morris Agency prexy and co-CEO Jim Wiatt arrives here next week for a toast by the agency’s Gotham office, he’s likely to be greeted by 65 agents whose morale is at an all-time high.

But Wiatt shouldn’t simply credit himself and his to-die-for client list — names like Eddie Murphy, Nora Ephron, Tim Allen, Kevin Williamson among others — for the happy faces in the atrium of William Morris’ Sixth Avenue office: The mood may have as much to do with another former International Creative Management honcho.

Over the last several years, word began to spread in Gotham and beyond that Sam Cohn — the legendary and irascible ICM co-founder who seemed the very embodiment of a New York agent — was in regular conflict with co-CEO’s Jeff Berg and Wiatt, and was reducing his presence at the agency he helped build into a powerhouse.

In late April, the curmudgeonly co-founder agreed to sell his stock and give up his day-to-day management. Cohn has not left the agency; he still comes to the office, still actively reps such clients as Paul Newman and Arthur Miller. But there was an unmistakable air of the end of an era.

WMA, which boasts five board members in Gotham — Lou Weiss, Robert Gottlieb, Jim Griffin, Owen Laster and Alan Kannof, who heads the New York office — saw this as an opportunity to change the West Coast’s perhaps unfair but nonetheless dogged perception that ICM had the main players New York.

They chose to step up WMA’s commitment to the city in which the agency was founded, spending freely from their deep coffers to create new departments and expand into new businesses.

Seven years ago, WMA opened a new-media department, which has been a solid revenue supplier for the company. It’s also started a corporate advisory department, a licensing and marketing department, and beefed up its off-the-field sports representation and international film and TV packaging departments.

While those divisions aren’t nearly as sexy as the motion picture and lit departments, they are part of WMA’s growing infrastructure. Along with the 101-year-old company’s always-aggressive theater department, steadfast music division, and lucrative television packaging and commercial and voice-over businesses, those niches add credence to the company’s claim that it is “New York’s only full service agency.”

As one WMA agent put it, “The New York machine is well-oiled; now it’s Wiatt’s turn to take it around the track.”

Meanwhile, at ICM, the reduction of Cohn’s role combined with the upping of lit department stalwarts Esther Newberg and Binky Urban to New York office heads, was a signal to some in Gotham’s creative community that the company was content to limit its focus in New York to its renowned lit department.

While many at ICM resist this characterization, they admit that their Gotham base has been significantly scaled back in the last three years.

ICM New York — which has Cohn and attorney Mark N. Kaplan of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as its only Gotham-based board members — cannot claim a myriad of departments and divisions. Its TV business is much smaller than the one at Morris, as is their music department. Perhaps its strongest niche business is in commercials and voiceovers.

What ICM does have is a list of big-time, A-list clients in the lit and motion picture departments.

On the lit side, ICM sports troops of mostly female agents who boast a list of gliterati clients including Norman Mailer, Carl Hiaasen and Pete Hamill.

WMA’s lit department of 10 agents skews more commercial, with mass-market favorites like Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz. They pride themselves on getting best-sellers out of such sitcom stars as Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.

About a dozen agents cover both film and legit at ICM. (Unlike WMA, ICM doesn’t distinguish the two departments. Morris’ combined departments total roughly 15 agents).

ICM’s talent agents are by-and-large industry vets who service, among others, a list of actresses that are the envy of their rivals: Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, Sigourney Weaver, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lopez.

The William Morris New York motion picture division is relatively small. It consists of eight mostly younger agents who, unlike their ICM brethren, regularly work Gotham’s premiere parties.

Its pic wing is more grounded in the world of indie films than with established A-listers. They have tried to distinguish themselves by whom they sign, namely up-and-comers who have made a big splash on the fest circuit — helmers like Tony Bui and Chris Eyre and actors like Sarah Polley and Lili Taylor.

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