<b>The Back Lot:</b> Who's on the bench?

I’m beginning to feel that most agents would be better off if they themselves were represented by a good agent.

Agents are very disputatious, competitive people. They need someone to settle their fights, pacify their enemies and, let’s face it, return their phone calls. Many agents aren’t good about that anymore.

An ICM agent named Richard Abate should have hired an agent recently when he decided to switch to Endeavor to start a new lit division. One reason for his departure, he said, was his concern about a “brain drain” that was occurring at his agency. Instead of an amicable departure, Abate ended up in court last week arguing his case before a stern-faced judge.

A good agent could have warned Abate about precedents in the agenting business. Several years ago, Beth Swofford decided to leave the William Morris office for CAA, taking key clients with her. Learning of this, her then-boss, Arnold Rifkin, informed her that she would have to serve out her contract and to dramatize his point, took away her office. She was dispatched to the basement with a stack of Varietys and told to spend the next four months memorizing their contents.

Michael Gruber faced a similar fate when he, too, defected from the agency.

Agents could use some sound counseling even when they decide to stay put. As the job market tightens and profits get squeezed, the annual negotiations over pay and bonuses have become even more combative.

Mid-level agents at CAA were recently told that their expenses would be more closely monitored, that they should fly business class instead of first and should be more economical in their choice of hotels. Some might be tempted to complain, “My clients fly first class and stay at the Hotel du Cap, so I can’t afford to look like I’m working class.” A seasoned agent would warn them against an avaricious appeal, however – not at a time when the big talent agencies are trying to be fiscally prudent.

And no one needs this sort of advice more than Richard Abate. Had he checked his back issues of Variety, he would have learned that when Ari Emanuel and three colleagues walked away from ICM to start the Endeavor agency 12 years ago, ICM responded with a legal fusillade. The net effect was to transform four relatively obscure agents who had no clients at the time into folk heroes. Everyone roots for the underdog.

Now Abate is experiencing the same melodrama. In his testimony last week, Abate said ICM’s lit guru, Esther Newberg, gave him a hug and congratulated him on the Endeavor offer, then recommended that he pack his Rolodex and get out before colleagues on the West Coast learned of his defection. All this suggested that he’d been gently terminated, in his view.

Well, nothing is gentle in the agency business, his agent would have warned him. ICM’s attorney countered Abate’s version by claiming that Abate had absconded with confidential documents and had blatantly breached his contract. The feisty Newberg followed by claiming that, though she may have given him a hug, she felt “betrayed” by his exit.

Since Abate himself lacked good agenting, it was clearly ICM’s intention to put him “on the beach,” as agents term it. Like Beth Swofford, he’d have to go to the basement and memorize his copies of Variety.

At week’s end, the judge ruled in favor of Abate, refusing to grant a temporary restraining order. It seems he will make a reasonably clean getaway, as Ari Emanuel had done, rather than ending up “on the beach.”

What all this means, of course, is that it’s dangerous out there, and ambitious agents need to be wary in navigating the troubled waters. That’s why they’d do well to fortify themselves by hiring a good agent – one who would even return their phone calls.

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