Jim Wiatt will soon take executive control of the William Morris Agency and longtime CEO Walt Zifkin will scale back his duties to become CEO emeritus.
Effective May 20, Wiatt becomes sole CEO, marking a new chapter in the hundred-year-old agency’s history: He becomes one of the few mailroom-to-boardroom talent agents that have risen to the CEO post.
Wiatt, 55, will also retain the title of president of the tenpercentery.
While “emeritus” usually connotes retirement, Zifkin, 66, is not heading for the links. He will keep his office at WMA and continue to serve as an advisor to top leadership there, including WMA chairman Norman Brokaw. He will liaise for the shop on legislative and union initiatives and will continue to help manage WMA’s real estate holdings.
Still, Wiatt’s ascension presages greater autonomy and clout for agents at a company that’s long kept its management and agent cultures separate. It also augurs the likely addition of more agents on the board.
“The way this place operates, there’s a great complement between traditional agents and people who are more business-oriented: Allow the agents to really function, and do what they do best, and let other people worry about things better served by people with different skill sets. I believe it’s the most efficient and effective way to run this kind of business,” Wiatt told Daily Variety.
Zifkin leaves behind a legacy which includes spearheading the tenpercentery’s forays into the music biz, overseeing a merger with Triad Artists, growing corporate consulting and contending with the talent unions, most notably negotiations over the master franchise agreement with the Screen Actors Guild.
“I’m not retiring, but I’m going to be working less hard,” said Zifkin, who is about to celebrate his 40th anniversary with the company.
“That anniversary, coincidental with the strength of our company today, its agents and its management, made this seemed a very appropriate time.”
The moves come on the heels of a big signing for the agency.
Just last week, WMA signed TV heavyweight producer David E. Kelley, giving the tenpercentery a one-man TV powerhouse on a par with UTA-based Dick Wolf and CAA-repped John Wells. This talent coup came about partly because of Wiatt’s excellent relationship with Kelley’s manager, Marty Adelstein.
Despite the title they shared for the last four years, Zifkin and Wiatt come from different parts of the biz, boast different skill sets and put different emphasis on their tasks.
Zifkin came to WMA only two years out of law school as a business affairs exec; Wiatt has been an agent his entire career, spending 22 years at International Creative Management before segueing to WMA in July 1999. He became prexy and co-CEO alongside Zifkin one month later, inking a five-year pact.
With Wiatt’s arrival at WMA, the competish with ICM heated up.
WMA’s board — including Zifkin — had been deeply concerned about the company’s position in the movie business. While it was perceived as dominant in TV, WMA did not have as many of the superstar clients that ICM and CAA could count on.
But with the addition of Wiatt, the agency made big moves on the talent side of the movie biz.
any of Wiatt’s old agency confreres at ICM, including Dave Wirtschafter, Steve Dontanville and George Freeman, quickly followed him.
Big names abounding
Wirtschafter represents writer-directors like Steve Gaghan and the Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy; George Freeman’s arrival brought Catherine Zeta-Jones and Russell Crowe; Dontanville represents Meg Ryan and Reese Witherspoon.
Wiatt also brought along clients including Eddie Murphy, Tim Allen and Sylvester Stallone (the latter of whom has since returned to ICM).
One of the ways that Wiatt has paid for these costly agent pickups has been to make cuts. His stint as WMA prexy has been one of significant reorganization to boost profits, as well as strategic acquisitions to plug holes.
Under his restructuring plan, dozens of longtime agents departed the shop, the WMA London office was pared down by two-thirds and its mission refocused as a rights business, and a number of low or sporadically earning clients were let go.
Wiatt also aggressively sought to buttress WMA’s status in the book world after the August 2000 departure of star book client Tom Clancy for AMG and the September 2000 departure of Clancy’s longtime lit agent Robert Gottlieb, who went on to found his own lit agency Trident.
Taking big bites
In January 2001, WMA acquired the boutique lit agency the Writers Shop, which reps more than 100 writers, including bestsellers Peter Mayle, Kathy Reichs, Timothy Findley and Anne Rivers Siddons.
Wiatt has also been receptive to new initiatives, pushing for the agency to move into previously underserved areas like Latin talent. In January, the shop announced it would open a full-service office in Miami Beach, becoming the first national tenpercentery to set up shop at the epicenter of Latino culture in the U.S.
Wiatt’s emphasis on cost-cutting and a simultaneous focus on big earners and growth areas has, per Zifkin, resulted in “the best year in William Morris’ history.”
WMA agents themselves say this year’s bonuses are also the best in recent memory.
The hard line on costs did, however, partially result in the loss of some prestigious theater clients.
Theater ops wobble
WMA’s theater operations — long thought to be a loss leader — took a big hit when maverick theater topper George Lane ankled in March.
Representing many of the top artists working in American theater, Lane’s list included playwrights Warren Leight, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edward Albee, Richard Greenberg and screenwriter, director and playwright Kenneth Lonergan.
CAA subsequently snapped up Lane and opened a New York office with the intention of becoming a force on Broadway and the West End.
Zifkin also changed WMA significantly in his 40 years there.
He served as co-architect of one of the largest agency acquisitions in history, negotiating the buyout of Triad Artists in 1992 while still chief operating officer. WMA absorbed more than 50 of Triad’s agents, with then-Triad head Arnold Rifkin becoming WMA prexy and Triad partner Richard Rosenberg becoming worldwide head of music at the percentery.
The Triad acquisition also helped pioneer a new revenue stream for Hollywood agencies — corporate consulting. Today, WMA Consulting is headed by John Mass, a former Triad agent who has signed corporate giants like General Motors and the NFL.
In recent years, Zifkin has also focused on pan-representation business initiatives.
He has also been working on a compromise agreement with the Screen Actors Guild to loosen financial interest regulations in the now-expired SAG master franchise agreement.
“I think the company is extraordinarily stable right now,” Wiatt concluded. “The challenge is to stay as competitive as we possibly can. The challenge is probably the same challenge it’s always been in this business. Even in a strange economic climate, we’ve managed to function, be very prosperous and do a good job for our clients.”