Jim Wiatt’s resignation Friday from International Creative Management, where he served as co-chairman and co-CEO, could cause more turmoil in the agency business than has existed in several years.
Though Wiatt’s departure was the buzz of the industry over the weekend, it was not entirely unexpected. The respected literary and talent agent, who had worked at ICM for nearly 22 years and had an ownership stake in the firm, had been rumored to be leaving the agency for months. And with his contract set to expire Sept. 30, Wiatt had been discussing his future with other firms over the past few weeks.
Sources close to Wiatt said he is near a deal to join the William Morris Agency, although neither Wiatt nor William Morris brass would confirm these talks. Wiatt could join WMA as soon as this week, unless a last-minute snafu, or a better offer from another suitor, arises and scuttles a pending deal.
Although insiders at ICM, WMA and others around town feel Wiatt’s deal with Morris is all but a fait accompli, it’s known that Wiatt was talking to other companies, including Endeavor, as late as last Thursday.
On Friday, Wiatt told Daily Variety that he had never personally spoken with William Morris, but that he would “stay in the agency business … (and I) will be taking some meetings this weekend.”
William Morris execs refrained from commenting about possible talks with Wiatt, but none denied that they were speaking with him.
A deal with WMA is expected to be worth considerably more than what Wiatt stood to make at ICM had he signed a new contract — although it is unlikely that he will be given any equity stake in WMA as he had in ICM. Wiatt’s base salary at ICM is reportedly $1.5 million with stock in the company that is worth nearly $7 million. Those equity shares will be paid out to him over a five-year period.
While Wiatt is understood to have been frustrated with ICM’s current management structure, his rejection of a multi-year contract presented to him last week by co-chairman and co-CEO Jeff Berg was due almost entirely to economic factors.
“There had been an offer on the table that was not acceptable to me,” Wiatt said.
If Wiatt were to join WMA, it could well trigger a shuffle in the agency’s top ranks. President Arnold Rifkin and some other senior agents, including former ICM rep John Burnham, would likely exit. Moreover, several ICM agents are likely to join Wiatt at WMA as soon as their contracts expire. Wiatt was well-liked by many agents at ICM, where the reps often have found themselves divided into camps, aligned with either Berg or Wiatt.
Although he has several more months on his contract, ICM senior lit agent Dave Wirtschafter is very close to Wiatt and has been rumored to be following him wherever he ends up. But one senior ICM agent cautioned not to rule out Wirtschafter staying at ICM, where he stands to benefit both financially and in terms of increased management status in light of Wiatt’s departure.
Berg sent out an e-mail informing ICM’s rank-and-file of Wiatt’s decision Friday: “It is with great regret that I must inform you that ICM and Jim Wiatt have been unable to conclude a new agreement. As a result, Jim will be leaving the agency effective immediately. I am saddened that Jim is leaving as we come to the end of our arduous LBO and we enter into our brightest and most productive phase.”
Wiatt later sent his own e-mail to staffers that read: “As you know from Jeff Berg’s e-mail, I am departing ICM. I’ve had a great career at this company and I feel as if I have made a positive contribution to its success. What made this decision most difficult is leaving my friends and colleagues. I believe ICM is an excellent company and I wish the company and all of you continued success.”
Speculation over whether Wiatt would renew his contract with ICM began shortly after he signed a one-year deal last September. In addition to William Morris and Endeavor, reps for Wiatt have also approached CAA on his behalf. In addition, his name has been mentioned in relation to senior posts at management companies such as Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and Artists Management Group. It has also been suggested that Wiatt might form his own firm.
Sylvester Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, William Friedkin and Richard Donner are among the clients Wiatt personally represents, and he could bring them with him to his next job.
Wiatt joined ICM in 1978 and quickly rose through the ranks to head the literary and motion-picture departments in 1980. In 1985, he was upped to president of the agency, a post he held until he was promoted to co-chairman and co-CEO last October.
Unhappy with structure
Though the new titles appeared to put him on equal footing with Berg, Wiatt was understood to have been unhappy with the new management structure. Despite Wiatt’s being upped to co-chairman and co-CEO, Berg continued as the company’s highest-ranking exec and largest stockholder. Moreover, talent agent Ed Limato and TV department head Nancy Josephson were promoted to co-presidents of the agency and had taken over much of the day-to-day oversight of the company.
Some ICM agents expressed surprise at Wiatt’s departure, noting that had he stayed, his 10% stake in the company would be worth considerably more than the $7 million it’s thought to be worth now, particularly when ICM emerges from the debt facility that is expected to be paid off next year.
That debt resulted from a $63 million loan taken out in 1988 to fund a leveraged buyout of ICM by Marvin Josephson, who was later bought out by a management group led by Berg, Wiatt and Sam Cohn in 1992.
Earlier this year, Berg completed a long-simmering, and often vitriolic, negotiation with Sam Cohn, by which the ICM co-founder relinquished his management role and sold his equity stake in the company.
In the aftermath of the agreement, ICM’s voting structure was converted from a unanimous vote of the three partners (Berg, Wiatt and Cohn) to a majority rule by the seven-member board of directors.