Twenty-five years ago, a clutch of agents left the William Morris Agency to form CAA, forever changing the way tenpercenteries conduct business. Many are speculating that Jim Wiatt’s first year at WMA may have the same impact.
WMA’s new prexy and co-CEO is turning things upside-down. After 22 methodical years at ICM, Wiatt quickly pulled the plug on WMA’s costly London office, severely curtailed its N.Y. motion picture staff and, most controversially, began getting rid of senior agents with older clients.
He also began a massive build-up of WMA’s L.A. office with high-priced talent brokers, mostly taken from ICM. In the past, mass defections have served to fuel a startup agency; this is the first time one established giant has begun mass-recruiting from another.
The shakeups come at a crucial time for the agency biz. The once-fat cash cows are growing leaner as the economics change drastically — due to new technology, increased competition and battles with insouciant manager-producers.
Plus, the tenpercentery business is still reeling from a reneged deal with the Screen Actors Guild that would have given agencies broad new powers and access to vast capital.
And with studio heads reporting to bean counters, production deals are dwindling and development time for projects is being scaled back; as a result, agents are having a harder time than ever finding quality material for clients.
Everyone knows that there is a need to reinvent the agency business, but nobody agrees on how to get there. In an already choppy environment, Wiatt’s moves at WMA are creating even more waves.
His latest coup came this month with the luring from ICM of Steve Dontanville, who reps stars such as Meg Ryan, Julianna Margulies, Courtney Love, Holly Hunter, Patrick Stewart and Benjamin Bratt.
Dontanville joins agents Dave Wirschafter, George Freeman, Alicia Gordon and Danny Greenberg in the defector-style move from ICM to Morris. Those defections to WMA have cost such ICM clients as Russell Crowe, Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sylvester Stallone.
(ICM still handles such biggies as Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, Dustin Hoffman, Jodie Foster and Rosie O’Donnell.)
Established agencies don’t normally steal agents wholesale from other firms.
In the mid-1970s, a group including Bill Haber, Ron Meyer and Michael Ovitz tore through William Morris’ ranks to staff its nascent CAA; on a much smaller scale, Endeavor a few years ago yanked agents from ICM. But both of those were startups and struggling in the early years.
Some say Wiatt’s moves are a strategic effort to own talent that matters. Others suggest his organizing principle these days is plainer: To seek retribution against ICM chairman Jeffrey Berg, the man who ultimately refused to give him the deal he was seeking at ICM.
Whatever his motives, Wiatt’s moves are shaking up the agency biz. “He’s luring fellow agents with huge amounts of money,” said one former Wiatt supporter.
Wiatt has been accused of loosening the normally tight purse strings at WMA. Apart from disbursing salaries that are significantly higher than necessary, he has also boosted his own salary to north of $2 million.
Another top agency exec pointed to a less than perfect integration “of spirit and culture” between the former ICMers and the remaining WMA vet agents, who feel a bit left out.
Berg maintains that Wiatt’s decision to depart the ICM fold was strictly financial. Wiatt declined to comment on their relationship or about his plans for WMA. Berg, too, declined to discuss Wiatt’s or William Morris’ management decisions. He would only comment on certain aspects of ICM’s vision.
What is clear is that the two are as different as one could imagine.
Wiatt is the antithesis of many Hollywood agents. A family man with a wife and a daughter, he’s reserved and soft-spoken, with a seriousness that may stem from his early years in politics (an arena he still follows with a passion).
In Hollywood, the Berg surname is often prefaced with his nickname: “Ice.” A taut, cerebral and often unsettlingly direct man, there’s no such thing as having a “chat” with the head of ICM.
The personality traits reflect their operating procedures. Though Wiatt axed the U.K. office, Berg has maintained and expanded a decade-long presence in London with the acquisition of Duncan Heath.
Berg proudly touts ICM’s N.Y.-based lit office, with 15 agents and more than 400 authors, as well as ICM Artists, its fine-arts arm as “a good important business to be in and a cash-flow positive one.”
Wiatt, conversely, has scaled back in Gotham, slashing film agents from the rolls and placing WMA’s theater topper George Lane in charge of motion picture literary duties for the East Coast.
Berg is appalled that governmentally mandated agency regulations prevent him from taking ICM into cutting-edge tech businesses.
“The rules,” he said, “prevent us from accessing capital that would allow us to get into the highest growth industry: alternative distribution — wireless, satellite, the Web.”
Wiatt may not have Berg’s Internet acumen, but he has done a lot to bolster WMA’s new-media department.
WMA’s corporate advisory/new-media department with its eight new-media agents, headed by Lewis Henderson, has become a powerhouse — repping eBay, Pulse Entertainment, Styleclick.com, British Telecom and the online ventures for Tommy Hilfiger, Anheuser-Busch, Nokia and the Mills Corp.
Only Creative Artists Agency’s new-media army is larger and possibly stronger, with the New Media Lab and staff of 20. Most of them joined the company over the past year, during the quadrupling of the division to land more tech companies and to offer more Internet-related services to its repped talent. It reps IPIX, DrKoop.com, Rumpus.com, ExtendMedia and Tivo, among others.
Endeavor rounds out the business as a strong but quiet player in the space.
ICM has no new-media department, and Berg maintains one will not arrive anytime soon.
“When cable TV evolved, we didn’t say, ‘Hey, we better hire some cable agents.’ We told our TV agents that we were going to learn the cable business,” Berg said. “All our agents in film and TV are learning the grammar and structure of ‘new’ media.”
The emphasis at WMA is on a team approach to client representation and to the sharing of information, something the former ICMers maintain was hoarded jealously during their tenure at ICM.
For ICM, however, the woes won’t stop with WMA’s newfound prowess.
United Talent Agency, which has signed Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Madonna, Barry Levinson and Claire Danes, among others, is making a strong play to displace ICM in the top three.
The recent unpleasantry with ICM and WMA notwithstanding, more competition and corporate pressure on studios to stem red ink has refocused agents’ attention on clients’ happiness — and left them less time to spend on making trouble for rivals.
Explained UTA chairman Jim Berkus: “The consolidation of the entertainment business has forced agents to spend more time on the nuts-and-bolts of agenting, and less time trying to intercede in other agencies’ client relationships.”
Berkus added, “Agents now have to spend more time thinking outside the Hollywood box to find new opportunities for their clients.”
And in some cases, to think outside the box to find new clients.
CAA has recently added Coca-Cola to its list of corporate marketing clients that includes the Polo/Ralph Lauren label. William Morris cut a similar consulting deal with British Telecom; relative newcomer Endeavor represents the World Wrestling Federation and Lola Films U.K., and UTA reps E-Marketing Technologies and Paul Allen’s Mercata.com.