Endeavor's down-and-dirty-dozen claw their way into the top tier

When a ragtag band of ICM emigres opened Endeavor almost a decade ago, few of the town’s insiders predicted survival for the upstart talent agency.

Sure, Creative Artists Agency and its zealous young agents, led by Michael Ovitz, had made an almost instant success when it bowed in 1975.

But the agency biz in the ’70s had been ripe for competition: In those days, William Morris was sagging, and the partners at Creative Management Agency were old and looking to get out.

In March 1995, the talent biz was at a peak of competitive frenzy, with managers and attorneys adding to the melee.

Endeavor has not only survived but has crashed the circle of the top five talent agencies, along with CAA, ICM, the revitalized WMA and UTA.

And the partners of Endeavor can boast that they did it their way — creating a brash, aggressive style of agenting.

(Talk to CAA toppers, though, and they say their attitude toward the upstarts has morphed from anger and indignation a few years ago to polite disdain today.)

As Endeavor prepares to enter its second decade, the agents have compiled a solid client list and its imminent move into flashy new digs, which cover three floors on Wilshire Blvd., can be seen as a symbol of success.

Still, there are challenges.

The partners are hungry to upgrade their list of star actors, directors and TV mavens. And they are still trying to figure out how to balance mainstream dreams with maverick methods.

Endeavor has a style that sets it apart:

  • In its unorthodox structure, there are 12 partners — but, they all insist, no agency presidents or tacit leaders.

  • The agents practice tough love. While other tenpercenters are careful not to ruffle clients, Endeavorites are brusque, even abrasive. When one client came up with an idea for a TV series, he was told it was promising but wouldn’t make enough money and was sent back to the drawing board.

  • Though they are tough negotiators, they are far from coarse: Most are well educated and street-savvy.

  • They are known as raiders, ferocious in trying to recruit agents and clients from competitors.

  • Their unique methods have contributed to a lot of defections for a newish agency.

    In March, David Greenblatt, one of the four founding partners, exited to become a partner at management shingle Key Creatives. Other losses include the February 2002 exit of Marty Adelstein and, more recently, partners David Lonner and Steve Rabineau. Those two exited to join William Morris, taking such clients as Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuaron, Terry Gilliam and “Alias” creator J.J. Abrams.

  • Endeavor has the lowest head count of any major tenpercentery, with only 60 agents. It’s also the most male-dominated: Of the 12 partners, there are no women.

  • The team is known for theatrical gestures. When David Vogel was appointed head of Touchstone Pictures in 1998, the agency greeted him with throne, scepter and crown.

And every promotion within the agency comes with an initiation ritual: A Texas-raised assistant had to dance the two-step with his wife on the conference room table before he became an agent. That whoop-de-doo style brings them admirers (though detractors characterize it as frat-house stunts).

If Endeavor were a film, it would be “Fight Club”: a gathering of intelligent scrappers. And, as with Endeavor, the first rule of Fight Club is that nobody talks about Fight Club.

All 12 partners meet weekly, but Endeavor has never announced or officially acknowledged the existence of any inner circle. However, about half of the partners comprise a management team that meets twice a month to discuss overall agency direction.

That group includes the founders — Arie Emanuel, Rick Rosen and Tom Strickler (and until recently, Greenblatt) — as well as Patrick Whitesell, Jason Spitz, John Lesher and Adam Venit.

Of all the agents, Emanuel best embodies the Endeavor spirit.

He’s a contradiction: An erudite, well-read, well-spoken family man who barks out conversations, is prone to hang up on people, has no time for small talk — and is a bit of a mystery.

A bundle of raw energy who’s made an asset out of his attention-deficit disorder, Emanuel is the youngest in a family of overachievers.

His eldest brother, Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D., Ph.D., is the chief of the Dept. of Clinical Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health. Rahm Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton and is concluding his freshman term as an Illinois congressman in the House of Representatives.

Arie E. is the hard-driving agent of Larry David, Aaron Sorkin and the Osbourne family, a master of rolling phone calls and keeping conversations to a minute or less.

When angry, he has been known to pick up the phone, scream epithets and hang up before the recipient says “Hello?” He also relishes his role as inhouse contrarian, the man who traded in his Ferrari for a Toyota Prius hybrid.

Emanuel may behave as if he thrives on others’ enmity, but it could be a pose. Few know for sure, since he moves too quickly for people to spend much time with him.

An exception is his wife, who was his high school sweetheart. Despite the world’s image of fast-paced Hollywood agents, Emanuel, his wife and their three kids live in an unassuming house on a quiet residential street at the edge of Westwood.

Nonetheless, he inspired Bob Odenkirk’s portrayal of opportunistic agent Stevie Grant on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” And on the upcoming HBO series “The Entourage,” exec produced by Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven portrays Emanuel-esque agent Ari Jacobs. (Wahlberg and Odenkirk are Endeavor clients.)

Says one Endeavor agent: “You may be smarter, more powerful and richer than he is, but you won’t find anyone more relentless. He becomes the lightning rod for everyone else and it allows others at the agency to work unmolested. That’s his patent.”

Others at Endeavor possess qualities that Emanuel lacks — attention to detail, diplomacy, tact — and, according to Emanuel, that’s as it should be.

“The most important element at Endeavor is our culture,” he says. “And that’s something that all of the partners contribute to. That’s why we have so many partners.”

Adds Whitesell, “We’d love to have 20, 30 partners.”

Whitesell left his post as co-head of CAA’s talent department three years ago to become an Endeavor partner, taking clients Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman and Drew Barrymore with him. Other poached partners include Venit, who also came from CAA, and Lesher, who joined from UTA.

Venit, who reps Adam Sandler, is another paradox. He’s a low-key, down-home guy who wears Hawaiian shirts to the office and spends weekends playing with his five kids — but who tools around in his new Rolls-Royce and lives in a new Beverly Park mega-mansion that overlooks the lights of Franklin Canyon.

Lesher, known for his client roster of hip directors such as Martin Scorsese, P.T. Anderson and David O. Russell, is a Harvard grad, one who majored in East Asian languages.

Other partners are similar studies in contrast.

Whitesell, the only Endeavor partner who’s still single, has a playboy’s rep but is a graduate of evangelical Lutheran affiliate Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Rosen is the resident elder statesman, who often takes the role of agents’ mentor and advocate. And Strickler is another Harvard grad, the smooth-talking and levelheaded diplomat of the group. Ever since the agency opened, he’s made a point of shaking every employee’s hand on Friday afternoon to wish them a good weekend.

The agents use the eclectic lineup of personalities to their advantage — when they can.

Even so, this is an agency that needs friction to function. Earning partnership at Endeavor is as much about bringing in business as it is contributing to the delicate balance of the agency’s cultural ecosystem. Says Venit, “It’s no secret that we’ve gone through changes. It’s been hard at times, but I think we’re enjoying the greatest camaraderie that the agency’s ever had.”

Endeavor says its annual revenue exceeds $100 million and it has the highest profitability of any agency — claims that are tough to gauge, as all of the tenpercenteries are privately held.

The agency also likes to think that its dealmaking strategies benefit from the cockeyed perspective.

Partners point to deals like the one they made for “21 Grams” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in which he retained rights in Mexico and Spain before selling the rest of the world to Focus Features. The deal quadrupled the helmer’s $2 million fee.

Endeavor is working on a similar scenario for Michael Patrick King and his planned “Sex and the City” feature.

Then there’s the success story of Jennifer Garner, whom Endeavor signed after her role as second banana in Jennifer Love Hewitt’s failed series “Time of Your Life.” Garner became a TV star via ABC’s Endeavor-packaged “Alias” and, with her bigscreen career rising, was the 2004 Female Star of Tomorrow at ShoWest.

In addition to “Alias,” Endeavor has packaged “The OC” and “C.S.I.”, among others.

“First they said, ‘You’ll never build a TV business,’ ” says Emanuel, who claims the agency’s revenues are now evenly divided between its film and TV clients. “Then it was, ‘You’ll never have a film business.’ Or get into gaming. Or reality. Whatever it is, there’s always someone saying we can’t do it.”

It’s a perspective that Jon Favreau appreciates.

He was a new Endeavor client in 2002 when the agency brought him the script for New Line’s “Elf.” Favreau’s agents convinced him that not only would the movie get made, it would make his career.

They were right: The holiday comedy starring Will Ferrell turned into a $200 million global hit and Favreau’s career as a director and as an actor went into high gear.

“They hustle,” says Favreau.

“Since I’ve been there, I’ve acted in ‘Wimbledon,’ ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ and ‘Daredevil,’ and I directed ‘Elf.’ It’s like the president’s question: ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ Well, I’m better off.”

(Claude Brodesser contributed to this report.)

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