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Will agents ‘get real’?

As tenpercenters attempt to recast themselves as corporate go-betweens, the current state of showbiz and the economy suggest a rewrite is in order.

The passing of Ted Ashley last week was another reminder of the generational shift in agenting.

Thinking about Ashley, it’s tempting to speculate how this shrewd pragmatist would have responded to the traumas presently confronting the agency business, or showbiz in general.

Like many agents of his era, Ashley started out as a little guy from Brooklyn who took refuge in the William Morris mailroom. It was clear from the outset that he was a natural. He loved talent, was exhilarated by the dealmaking process and seemingly could persuade anyone to do anything. Even as a young man, his buoyancy and inventiveness could capture a room of business heavies.

When Ashley tired of William Morris, he started his own agency. And when he tired of agenting, he launched into a remarkable career as a corporate titan. Under the mentorship of Steve Ross, Ashley essentially invented modern-day Warner Bros. and ultimately installed Bob Daly and Terry Semel to supplant himself.

Ashley was an innovator, but a restless one. When one idea failed, he would leap to another. If you felt you’d cornered him, he’d suddenly materialize in another guise. He was irrepressible. And innately theatrical.

So if Ashley were presiding over his old talent agency today, how would he respond to the dilemma of the moment?

For one thing, he’d quickly understand that the present crop of agents is more business-oriented than the previous generation’s and, as such, is deeply concerned by the changing economics of showbiz.

They envision a business in which agencies will bridge the talent world and the corporate world, not only guiding careers but serving as strategic and marketing braintrusts for conglomerates.

Indeed, their ownership would also reside, in part, with these corporate overseers. Just as the studios and networks have become tentacles of global corporations, so the talent agencies would also reflect the new world order.

To which the hard-liners of the Screen Actors Guild say, “Bullshit.”

The job of agents is to get gigs for their clients, says the faction that now controls SAG. Once agents become involved in corporate entanglements, they’ll end up being the bosses, not the facilitators.

If the SAG board supports this position at its Sept. 5 board meeting, actors may face a rough choice: Will they rally around their agents or their Guild?

So what would Ashley do about this impasse?

Mind you, I never discussed the situation with him. I’m not sure he was even aware of it. But he was a man who loved agenting and knew when it was time to make a deal.

My guess: Ashley would say, “Who needs this hassle?”

Not one of the top agents is looking forward to sitting down with his superstar clients to explain his future corporate involvements.

Actors want to know about their own deals, not those of their agents. They want a bigger payday and a bigger Winnebago, not a bigger ICM or CAA.

Besides, there’s not exactly a long line of prospective buyers eager to acquire a 20% stake in a talent agency.

I suspect a pragmatist like Ashley would say: Forget the financial interest rules and focus instead on improving other terms of the SAG franchise deal, such as expanding commissions on video and DVD.

In short, get real.

But then, Ashley probably would have said “get real” to several other key players in the global media business.

Like to Gerald Levin, before he got in bed with AOL. Ashley grew up in a world where it was OK to dream big but not OK to lose touch with reality. Ashley had his own demons, but he seemed in touch with himself and with the world around him.

It will be interesting to see if today’s agenting community still knows how to “get real” as they face the rigors of the coming weeks.

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