The ten percent solution

The one indisputable fact about the agency business is that it fosters an amazing amount of gossip. Hence developments like last week’s Jim Wiatt-Arnold Rifkin shuffle spew forth an absolute cacophony of instant analyses and conspiracy theories.

And while everyone has an opinion, no one wants to talk on the record. After all, you never know when you’ll again have to do business with one of these bozos.

“We’re going to see war,” predicted one agent, who has survived many prior outbreaks. “We’re not talking slings and arrows, we’re talking cruise missiles and Tomahawks.”

In his opinion (he works for CAA), a further initiative by the Morris office to poach clients and agents from ICM will result in fierce counter-forays that will resonate across the industry.

“Fear-and-loathing has been building for months,” advises an agent at United Talent. “Let’s face it — all of us are in a sour mood. We’re working twice as hard because there are fewer movies being made and the TV business is consolidating. The managers and lawyers are second-guessing our every move. It’s a shitty time.”

The Ovitz-CAA pissing contest was just the first symptom of unrest, he points out. “At least that was patricide. Morris-vs.-ICM is more like fratricide.”

I asked one manager if the Rifkin dismissal had surprised him. “I’ve studied rainmakers,” he told me. “Rifkin is a classic rainmaker, and he was good at it, except it stopped raining a few years ago.”

I put a similar question about Wiatt to an ICM agent. “After one negotiating session with Jeff Berg, we had to treat Wiatt for frostbite,” he told me. “That’s when I knew the end was near.”

As ICM and the William Morris office prepare for hostilities, other agencies are presenting themselves as islands of serenity. United Talent, which once retained a resident psychiatrist, has now rid itself of its career neurotics and focused on building on a solid base of smart young agents and clients.

“It’s more fun to build Ben Stiller into a major star than to find work for Dustin Hoffman,” says one UTA agent.

Endeavor, once the brash breakaway from ICM, now likes to say it’s “building not just stars, but brands.” Among its “brands” are Adam Sandler, Edward Norton and, it claims, “Blair Witch” in film and David Kelley and Aaron Sorkin in TV. “Only in the agency business can a bunch of guys who were stealing rolodexes four years ago now be presenting themselves as elder statesmen,” says one CAA cynic.

CAA, meanwhile, now in its fifth post-Ovitzian year, sees itself as the “establishment” of the agency business. By the end of 1999 they’ll even stop paying off their debt. To be sure, they must still pay rent to Ovitz and Ron Meyer, realizing that, in doing so, they are also paying Ovitz’s rent at his sparkling new offices on Wilshire and Beverly Drive — a bitter pill for people with patricidal propensities.

Quietly but persistently, CAA has been picking away at William Morris over the past couple of years — an agent here, a client there. To the affluent young pros at CAA, the prospect of seeing two of their biggest rivals doing battle is better than a Christmas bonus. When Ovitz and Meyer left, many predicted a Balkanization of CAA, but that dark scenario never unfolded. Instead , the old-timers decided to put up with the Young Turks, and everyone rallied around their new president, Richard Lovett, who dresses and acts like an Episcopalian minister patiently presiding over his argumentative flock (a neat trick, since Lovett isn’t Episcopalian).

“The guys at CAA think they’re a cathedral instead of an agency,” says one grizzled manager. “On the other hand, they work their butts off.”

Who will benefit from the newest agency frenzy? In the short term, clients will get their calls returned faster. Paranoid about the competition, agents will be reluctant to lower talent prices lest a competitor use it against him, so studios and networks will have to bargain harder. In fact, everyone will have to work harder.

“If any of us had any class, we’d declare a truce and go to the Hamptons or St. Tropez for the rest of August,” one senior William Morris agent told me. “There’s something sick about this business.”

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