For decades, the Hollywood pecking order was clear. There was always one agency that was dominant, though the top dog shifted over the years: William Morris, MCA, CMA, then CAA.
But in a Variety survey, dozens of top studio execs and producers say something strange has emerged in the agency biz: parity. Newish tenpercenteries are hitting their stride as once indomitable firms hit some speed bumps, creating a competitive, nearly equalized environment.
Variety asked a substantial sampling of studio execs and producers, who spoke under condition of anonymity, to rate the five major agencies in five categories. Of those answers, there were only four “C” grades and one “A”; nearly everyone scored in the “B” range.
That’s good news for most of the agencies, but may be unsettling for those agents who thought that their company was head and shoulders above the competition.
In a tight race, CAA came out slightly ahead, followed by Endeavor, UTA, William Morris and then ICM. Overall, on a four-point scale, only one-half point separated No. 1 and No. 5.
It’s not surprising that CAA should have a good showing. The surprise is how well the others did: Each agency excelled in certain areas and each seems to have an Achilles heel.
Agents set the rhythm of the town; their frenetic dealmaking and packaging shape and define the business each day. The five shops chosen for the survey do the bulk of the movie dealmaking.
That’s not to diminish the clout and contributions of midsize shops like Gersh, Paradigm and Writers & Artists, which have grown in stature. Others, like Broder Kurland Webb Uffner, have branched from TV into feature films, though not into talent.
All agents are working in a charged environment characterized by a shrinking list of jobs (thanks to de facto strikes, studio stockpiling, etc.).
It’s been a seller’s market for the past year, but the survey, conducted last week, indicates that’s changing as studios take a respite from gorging on material. Consequently, not everyone scored highly in the category of civility, and several execs feel that agencies like UTA and Endeavor may need to rethink their guns-blazing approach now that times are leaner.
In general, the higher-ranked studio execs gave kinder grades. That’s not surprising: They get better access, better material and better manners. Most top-tier execs however, have one bete noire — an agency that they hate because they believe that agency hates them.
Here is a look at the results, category by category.
- Endeavor edged out the competition in motion picture material.
In this category, many might have expected Creative Artists Agency to finish first, as it’s set the benchmark for talent agencies for decades.
Instead, it placed fourth, with a C+ — only ahead of ICM’s vastly reduced motion picture literary department, which took home a C.
“They still have this attitude,” one studio veepee said of CAA. “They’ve never been humbled, which is inconsistent with the new landscape and the balance of power today.”
Endeavor earned a B+, followed quickly by United Talent Agency, with a B.
Brash and in-your-face — accompanying its proposal to remake the 1971 “Willard,” Endeavor sent out live rats –UTA and Endeavor were praised by execs as the best at developing new writer clients. But the praise was tempered with a few barbs. One exec notes that the reason for UTA’s high marks on material is quality, not quantity.
“It’s rare that they have (the material),” said one top studio exec. “But when they do, it’s good.”
As for Endeavor, one suit wags: “Don’t get fooled. The rent on that fancy building is paid by TV packaging. Someone might want to remind some of their lit agents of this.”
William Morris remained lodged at the middle of the material derby. Producers and execs praise topper Jim Wiatt for having “energized the place and improved it substantially” but note in the same breath that “it lacks synergy. Frick does not always know what Frack is up to” and that “WMA pushes the most things that you’re not going to buy.”
- When it comes to representing and packaging talent and filmmakers, CAA still remains the leader.
With an array of star talent that few can match, CAA takes the survey’s only A grade. Actually, an A-, but when you can identify clients by first name only — names like the Two Toms, Gwyneth, Sandra, Keanu and Nicolas — you’re talking about the predominant packaging force.
The recent defection of Patrick Whitesell served as a wakeup call to CAA. To avoid further losses of senior agents, the agency redoubled its efforts at team representation of clients — one area studio execs say CAA has been and remains truly best.
“Without a doubt,” said one producer, “CAA is the best organized, (has) the best synergy. It is a very warm and fuzzy place if you’re a client. But it’s a cold and distant one if you’re not. You’re either in the club or you’re not.”
Others echoed those concerns, decrying CAA’s ranks as A-list obsessed agents who “are no good unless you’re a big fish or a client. Their favor bank works in one direction, and their arrogance has caught up with them.”
Whitesell’s exit could also serve as an alarm to the other agencies to firm up deals with star agents who are not yet partners.
Several of those surveyed single out UTA’s John Lesher as a leading cause for worry at established shops. Lesher’s list (sometimes shared) includes helmers like Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”), David O. Russell (“Three Kings”), Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (“Amores Perros”) and Walter Salles (“Central Station”), giving UTA a huge share of hot, emerging directors.
Two years ago, ICM could have won the filmmaking category. But while studio execs say the shop “still has a good actor list and gets an A for trying,” it placed last in the filmmaker repping and packaging ratings, with a lit department that has been drastically reduced, aside from its book agents and a couple of heavy-hitters like Robert Newman, whose client list includes Robert Rodriguez, Darren Aronofsky and Danny Boyle.
ICM suffers from the perception that it “doesn’t have a lit department outside of its book agents.” ICM also is known as a collection of “boutique” agencies and hence is tougher to rate across the board.
One producer also took a breath to lambaste all agency packaging. “When did an agency last go out with a real package?” he harrumphs. “It just doesn’t happen anymore.”
- Dealmaking is getting harder and more unpleasant, but it’s easier when you’re a behemoth like CAA or simply bold, like Endeavor.
As for the dealmaking ability and civility of agencies, a pattern emerges. CAA wins with a B+, because it can. Endeavor and UTA have taken advantage of the strong sellers’ market for the last year, making rain for clients, but occasionally, foes at studios.
“There is no deal too embarrassing or aggressive for them to pursue,” one exec said of Endeavor. Another adds: “They’re so aggressive, they occasionally blow deals that should have been easy to make.”
Some execs are more forgiving of the two mavericks. One calls UTA “home of some of the more damaged personalities, but worth the trouble.” Another praises Endeavor for “the clearest focus and passion for what they’re involved in.”
Of UTA one indie producer said, “It’s taken them a number of years to get the ship up and running, but they’re now ‘The Little Engine That Could’ of agencies.”
Another said: “The guys who are most aggressive are UTA and Endeavor. They’ve stolen the limelight in terms of making deals.”
But what kind of deals? Fair deals? Maybe. Maybe not.
One production prexy regrets that not enough agents understand the importance of relationships with a studio or the long-term management of clients’ careers. Many agents, he said, are punitive, too much focused on this deal, and not enough on all the deals to come.
Then again, as Bernie Brillstein likes to say, you’re nobody in this town until somebody wants you dead.
(Jonathan Bing, Cathy Dunkley, Dana Harris, Charles Lyons, Lily Oei and Tim Swanson contributed to this report.)