Agents catch feng shui fever in designing their new HQ's

Agents spend a lot of time arguing, wrangling and occasionally yelling. Clients are often in their faces, and assistants and colleagues breathe down their necks. So how do you create a space for them that’s calming and harmonious?

The question is more relevant than ever, because most of Hollywood’s big talent agencies are bursting at the seams and desperately seeking new digs. But in doing so, they are ramming up against strict zoning regulations — and occasionally, each other.

Endeavor this month moved to new offices, with Paradigm planning a shift in August. The powerhouse CAA is finalizing plans for a move, while William Morris is in huddles about massive renovations. Even Gersh and UTA are eyeing new spaces. Among the big agencies, only ICM is staying put.

Aside from space considerations, agencies are giving serious thought for the first time about how they will present themselves to clients and the creative community.

When the William Morris office was planned a few generations ago, the goal was to present the image of money. Now the aim is to convey creativity and the exchange of ideas.

And, agencies hope to out-preen their rivals with offices that project the boldest image possible.

The result is a feng shui frenzy in Hollywood, with agencies hatching plans for avant-garde art, color-coded spaces, $12,000 electron-reversing windows and $2 million screening rooms.

At a time when most of Hollywood is in a cost-cutting mode, the agencies are budgeting major outlays for their new digs.

But this isn’t just showing off.

For CAA, the move is an opportunity to forge its new identity, as the current partners shed the Ovitzian Art-of-War/take-no-prisoners aura of its current I.M. Pei landmark office.

“I think it’s imposing, cold and a little intimidating when you first walk in,” confides one CAA partner. “I want the new place to reflect a high degree of collaboration we have here. It should be warmer. Welcoming. Friendly.”

All the agencies want to invent an efficient arrangement and a unique brand for their businesses. The longstanding architectural mandate of offices-and-cubicles may work in insurance companies, as it worked in agencies for decades. But now agencies want to rethink their layouts and accommodate the needs of sometimes-prickly individuals.

Endeavor’s dramatic new space by architect Neil Denari resembles a cross between a clever Jet Blue airport terminal and the crisp, white sets of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The new offices, which cover two floors in a BevHills office building, are the photo negative of CAA’s current digs. Denari recounts how Endeavor’s partners informed him that they see themselves as the polar opposite of CAA: “We’re backwards baseball caps and T-shirts; they’re corporate. We’re hiring you because we don’t want corporate.”

As such, Endeavor’s new home is flecked with pop-art logos. Conference rooms eschew the usual identifying name plates at the door in favor of “cartoon balloons” (i.e., those comicstrip-style clouds that display a character’s speech.) The waiting room has a backlit sign angled at its ceiling displaying several clocks logos — though none show the actual time.

Endeavor is now divided into four “worlds,” as Denari calls them: magenta, blue, green and orange. But there are no “departments” — TV agents are mingled with film and lit reps.

The apportionment of individual office space is decidedly egalitarian. True, partner Adam Venit has a 300-gallon fish tank in his office. Yes, partner Ari Emmanuel has seven flat-panel TV screens playing every news channel simultaneously.

And because “every person needs privacy at some point,” several Endeavor partners have opted for “electron-reversing glass” — clear panes that can frost over instantly at the flip of a switch, providing a clear view of assistants, but privacy at a moment’s notice. The cost? A single 3′ x 7′ pane runs $6,000. Some offices will have two panes.

But despite these individual perks, a recent tour of the venue revealed that all Endeavor partner offices are exactly the same size and all are exactly double the size of regular agents’ offices, according to partner Brian Swardstrom. In addition, the architects created more “partner” offices than are necessary — these extras have been left empty as visible incentives to rank-and-file agents.

“There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety and energy exuding out of every person there,” says Denari, “because all the assistants want to become agents. They know there’s a tremendous amount of money to be made, and the ambition level hits you right in the face.”

More, the competitive instincts of agents have spilled over to real estate. Endeavor found its new space only after it lost out on a bid to lease the venerable ex-MCA headquarters on Crescent Drive in BevHills.

The winner of that contest was boutique agency Paradigm. That org’s Sam Gores, in partnership with his billionaire capitalist brother Tom Gores, swooped in to buy the landmark building outright for $50 million.

Because it’s growing quickly — it recently swallowed rival literary shop Genesis — Paradigm in August will move its now-130-plus employees into Jules Stein’s former shop.

Gores, like CAA, has reasons for reinventing its space: The venue most recently was the office of Global Crossing CEO Gary Winnick. At the time of its January 2002 implosion, Global was the largest telecom bankruptcy in history. Winnick, according to Paradigm interior designer Michael Beckson, “spent an absolute fortune making it Gary’s personal palace.”

Winnick’s $2 million office, for example, looked like a movie villain’s lair: Heavily lacquered, with rare hardwoods that framed virgin-deerskin wall tiles; a vast adjoining marble bathroom and even a panic room (no doubt used when Global’s market cap plunged from $80 billion to nothing).

It was everything, in short, that an approachable, unassuming agent like Gores didn’t want. “We’re working to orient it so it’s not ‘Come see God, your king!’ when people visit Sam’s office,” says Beckson. Instead, Winnick’s old, massive double doors (forming a massive globe) are being removed, likely to be replaced by glass, or nothing at all.

Paradigm must surmount not just Global Crossing’s bad vibes but the inflexible design of a building erected in 1936. Because of the structure of the building, most agents will not be able to see their assistants. Upside: a sense of space to yourself. Downside: Many agents have a visual shorthand with their assistants (particularly when it comes to phone calls) that gets thrown out the window.

“The only problem we have with the building is that on its own, it’s very overpowering,” says Beckson.

Beckson is working with Tiffany Lendrum of Lendrum Fine Art to install a collection of emerging artists’ work to offset the MCA building’s staid feel. They’re filling Paradigm’s new space with the work of cutting-edge artists like Patrick Wilson, famous for creating reductive abstractions by layering alkyd and oils on translucent veils.

“We want to be big enough to have access, but not so big that we lose focus,” says Gores, “This acquisition isn’t just a real estate investment — it helps make us the Tiffany & Co. of agencies.”

Paradigm wants to exorcise ghosts of the previous tenants. Creative Artists Agency has other specters to exorcise.

In April, demolition began on the old ABC Entertainment Center in Century City to make room for a 790,000 square-foot project that will house CAA. The new home, with a massive four-story atrium, will cost $150 million to $160 million.

After an acrimonious split with co-founder Michael Ovitz, who worked closely with architect I.M. Pei in designing its current headquarters, they’re eager to put their own stamp on the CAA space. True, the lease is up, and the agency certainly needs more space. But clearly the move also offers a chance to publicly redefine its principles.

CAA has tried to make its agents feel that they’re participants in designing their own space. The agency has taken an elaborate survey of what employees want in their work area, then will deploy a team of agents as part of the design team.

The aim is to create an atmosphere of openness, says one CAA partner. Those sectors of the building given over to “brainstorming” will be out in the open.

“We want to create a dynamic environment where people can see ideas being hatched,” he says. “We don’t want people hiding behind closed walls.”

The new site will have a private entrance and elevator just for CAA clients and, say those who’ve seen the plans, will also have a dramatic “hole” cut through the center of the building — perhaps a metaphor aimed at openness, not the opacity that some sense in the current HQ.

Feng’s sway

It’s unclear what will become of the original CAA building — co-owned by Ovitz and former CAA partners Bill Haber and Ron Meyer — after the Young Turks finally decamp.

Its new tenants might want to take the advice Ovitz failed to heed. When the site opened in 1989, Ovitz wanted to make sure the feng shui was correct. The ancient Chinese philosophy believes that the positioning and physical characteristics of a home affect the fortunes of the owners.

The building was assessed and blessed by Prof. Lin Yun and San Francisco-based feng shui expert Steven Post. “Doves were released,” says Post. “And we could tell by the ‘poise’ of the birds that this would be a very successful initial development.”

But, Post also recalls, the good professor Lin also cautioned CAA’s partners to fix a “blocked energy feeling” at the front entrance of the building. He recalls that they didn’t. CAA’s failure to install a waterfall in the exact spot recommended is “probably why they had such difficulties with Ovitz’s departure,” Post speculates.

Fifteen years later, Gores’ design team is hiring a feng shui consultant to align their building’s furnishings with the precepts of nature.

Endeavor hasn’t hired a feng shui guru but appears to be embracing its principles. Post says red is a color that attracts money but is best used sparingly; Denari confirms that Endeavor’s new $2 million screening room “will be done entirely in red: The carpet, the seats, the ceiling, the curtains — all of it.”

Meanwhile, other agencies are watching all the relocation closely.

Within the next six months, William Morris — which hasn’t had a major renovation since ’81 — will finalize plans with the city of Beverly Hills. United Talent Agency insiders say they, too, are now discreetly looking for a more capacious home, and a spokesman for the Gersh Agency confirms it is on the hunt for BevHills space.

While it helps to have the luxury of not having to go first, WMA’s president Jim Wiatt isn’t kidding around when he insists, “Whatever we do, it will be quite dramatic.”

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