Prod co. names former agent co-chairman, COO

In ending a 40-year career as a talent agent to become co-chairman and chief operating officer of Morgan Creek Prods., Rick Nicita becomes the latest in a lengthening line of senior CAA dealmakers to transition to outside jobs.

Nicita’s move also puts into play the most stellar client list of any exiting agent since Ed Limato left ICM for William Morris. The list includes Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, Garry Marshall, Kevin Costner and Rob Reiner.

Two of three longtimes reps of Cruise — Nicita and Tori Metzger — have left CAA. The third part of his team, Kevin Huvane, remains.

In what was a literal and then figurative shakeup at CAA’s Century City headquarters, CAA topper Richard Lovett followed the morning earthquake by emailing staffers to gather for an important announcement. Nicita stood up and announced his departure, and Morgan Creek CEO and co-chairman Jim Robinson issued a press release moments later.

While CAA insists it didn’t bounce Nicita and that the decision to leave was his, the exit isn’t that shocking. It is certainly in keeping with CAA’s desire to pare costs.

His decision to run Morgan Creek, which has been dormant for 18 months, with Robinson was attributed to his long relationship with a man who came to Hollywood after making a fortune owning a Subaru distributorshipin the midwest, and shipping and receiving up to 400,000 trucks and cars per year in ports in four cities that included his home base in Baltimore. Nicita might not be able to match the salary and bonus schedule he enjoyed at CAA, but he has the opportunity to be an equity player when he starts his new job on Aug. 15.

Nicita, 62, saw an opportunity for a new challenge, and a chance to use his extensive industry contacts to make an immediate impact in a well-funded but underperforming company.

While Morgan Creek generated such films as “Ace Ventura,” “Young Guns” and “Major League,” the company’s recent releases haven’t fared as well. Robinson, known as a prickly boss, came to town with the hope of turning Morgan Creek Prods. into a full-fledged studio. His most recent splash came when Robinson spoke out about the bad behavior of Lindsay Lohan on the MCP release “Georgia Rule.”

He said he’s known Nicita for years, but they began bonding when he was treasurer and Nicita was president of the board of Cinematech: “We saw each other out of uniform.”

Robinson will rely on Nicita to jump-start MCP at a time when Robinson intends for the company to get busy again. Going dormant the past 36 months was a deliberate choice, he said.

“We chose to pull in our ears and wait out all the dumb money that came into town, chased the product and the talent, and drove up the prices,” he said. “The town has been awash in films that were made and have no distribution. I’m spending my own money here, and the price of poker went up too high. But that is changing, and we are back.”

In Nicita, Robinson has made his highest profile hire since Joe Roth ran the company and took it to early prominence before leaving to run Fox and Disney, and start Revolution.

Former agent Guy McElwaine, who steered film production for Robinson, died in April of pancreatic cancer.

Under Nicita, the company hopes to greenlight two to three pictures per year that will be run through its output deal with Universal Pictures. MCP fully finances its pictures, and pays for its P&A. The company is developing several pictures, including “The Face,” a script by “24” creator Joel Surnow.

Speculation is that Nicita tired of the grind that comes with being a talent agent. That job has become tougher than ever, particularly for reps of established stars who’ve seen better days and are now struggling to hang on to the salary quotes and first dollar gross deals that their agents negotiated in their salad days.

Studios are cracking down on paying first dollar gross to stars who haven’t opened movies lately. Nicita’s biggest stars fall into that category, as both Cruise and Kidman have weathered recent flops — “Lions for Lambs” and “The Invasion,” respectively. When Cruise recently dropped out of a long attachment to the Columbia Pictures drama “Edwin A. Salt,” rumors cropped up that a factor was that the studio didn’t want to pay a quote earned when he was toplining hit after hit.

Nicita certainly isn’t the first CAA agent to seek a change of pace in a prominent production job. Among the senior CAA agents who’ve transitioned to other jobs are Nicita’s wife and current United Artists CEO Paula Wagner, Jack Rapke, who partners with his director client Robert Zemeckis and Steve Starkey in ImageMovers, Josh Donen, who left to partner with his director client Sam Raimi, Michael Wimer, who left to partner with client Roland Emmerich. Lee Gabler left to join his longtime client David Letterman at Worldwide Pants, and this year, Ken Stovitz left to join clients Will Smith and James Lassiter at Overbrook Entertainment, and Metzger left to run the motion picture division of financier/producer Media Rights Capital.

Aside from Wagner and her former colleagues, there are plenty of ex-dealmakers who’ve found prominent Hollywood positions. They include Universal honcho and former CAA co-owner Ron Meyer, former ICM agent and current Warner Bros. Pictures topper Jeff Robinov, former Endeavor agent and current Paramount Pictures topper John Lesher, who works for ex-manager Brad Grey. Endeavor agent Modi Wiczyk moved to become co-CEO at MRC with Asif Satchu.

CAA’s team representation strategy on top clients has stanched the loss of clients when their dealmakers exit, for the most part. But the competition for stars has become more voracious than ever and while CAA is as aggressive as any percentery, the agency has lost a few, including Robert De Niro, to fast-rising rival Endeavor.

It will be interesting to see whether any of Nicita’s longtime clients also seek a change of venue.

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