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Changing the guard at WMA

Wirtschafter at agency as 3 exit

This article was updated on December 19, 2004 at 3:19 p.m.

The William Morris Agency chose perhaps the quietest time of year to disclose a palace coup, announcing Friday that David Wirtschafter has been named agency president as TV head Sam Haskell, music chief Richard Rosenberg and chief operating officer Steve Kram exit the firm.

Shakeup represents the biggest culture shift at WMA since Jim Wiatt jumped ship from ICM.

The trio, all longtime WMA execs, cited “philosophical differences regarding the focus and direction of the company.” Each signed a multiyear noncompete clause and sold his ownership shares back to the agency.

They announced their exit date as Dec. 27 but were effectively gone by Friday. Like most agencies, WMA closed for the holidays at the end of business Dec. 17 and will not reopen until Jan. 3.

Irv Weintraub has been named chief operating officer. Michael Dates, who has been senior VP of finance, will take on Weintraub’s prior post as chief financial officer.

Wiatt, who until last week was both president and CEO of William Morris, has relinquished his president title but will remain CEO. Norman Brokaw continues as chairman of the board.

Announcement stunned some agency observers. The troika exiting the agency has worked at WMA for more than a decade, with Haskell spending 26 years at the agency.

Others said the rift stemmed from the decision to give Wirtschafter greater control over the agency. However, Wirtschafter’s appointment was only the clearest indication that the old guard had stepped down in WMA’s long-brewing power struggle.

“They pursued the buyout,” said an industry insider with close knowledge of the situation. “They’re very happy with the deal they negotiated.”

Observers say WMA has long been an operation dictated by departmental fiefdoms, which was problematic in a world where corporate clients want access to movies and television, rappers are actors and television stars record albums. There was also an element of conservatism that blocked high-profile hires from other agencies.

Also criticized was the agency’s long-running executive committee, which rendered the actual board of directors irrelevant. That entity is now dissolved.

While dramatic, these changes were overseen and blessed by Brokaw who, at 77, stands as the eldest of the WMA guard and whose voice in the company is dictated by legacy, if not ownership.

The exits of Haskell, Rosenberg and Kram, of course, spell new roles for others in the firm.

WMA syndie-cable-unscripted chief Mark Itkin will take on greater responsibilities within the TV department, working closely with Wiatt and Wirtschafter. However, the agency is expected to seek a new TV topper.

Peter Grosslight will assume Rosenberg’s oversight of the music department.

As WMA’s head of worldwide motion pictures, the 47-year-old Wirtschafter has been long acknowledged as one of the industry’s best movie agents. However, he’s commonly dogged by two critiques: He isn’t interested in any other WMA departments, and he lacks Wiatt’s people skills.

Wirtschafter has been working to change both perceptions. In addition to clients like the Wachowski brothers, Bryan Singer, Halle Berry and Ridley Scott, he’s also signed songbird Alicia Keyes and most recently worked with New York-based agent Cara Lewis to sign rapper and producer Nas.

While Wirtschafter may reject the glad-handing mentality, many WMA agents prefer his approach to the tenpercentery’s history of cultivating formal structures that often led to fiefdoms and intra-agency squabbling.

Nonetheless, WMA has lost a prime source of industry goodwill in Haskell, renowned as an old-school Southern gentleman who knows everyone and was considered to be a major force inside the agency’s TV department.

“I think everybody in the TV world is saddened that Sam is leaving,” Viacom co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves told Daily Variety. “He truly may be the best human being in the television business. I’ve never worked with anyone who had more honor or whose word meant more.”

Moonves noted Haskell’s role in packaging two of the Eye’s biggest comedy hits, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” with client Ray Romano, and “King of Queens.” Most recently, Haskell was key in putting together client Kirstie Alley’s much-hyped Showtime sitcom “Fat Actress,” which features an agent named Sam who speaks with a Southern accent.

For years, TV industry vets have figured Haskell might ankle and get out of the business altogether, perhaps to run for public office. However, industry insiders don’t expect him to immediately leave Hollywood, either. It’s possible he could pop up in an exec capacity at network or studio or get involved in another aspect of the business.

“I truly believe that my experience here has helped prepare me for the next chapter of my life,” said Haskell. “Everyone who knows me best knows that, at some point, my final destiny lies in my home state of Mississippi.”

Rosenberg has been an exec VP and WMA board member since 1992, when he joined following the agency’s acquisition of Triad, where he was a founding partner and president.

Rosenberg says he plans to retire from the business, calling his time at WMA “the most rewarding of my 40-plus-year career as an agent.”

Kram joined WMA from Capitol Cities/ABC. He’s credited with establishing and managing the company’s corporate consulting division and spearheading the agency’s recent expansion in China.

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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