It was Pablo Picasso who famously said, “I like to live like a poor man — but with lots of money.”
Talent agents are the mirror opposites. They like to live like rich men — but without lots of money. Their “money” stems from the prospective earnings of their clients.
All this comes to mind as a result of the Big Deal that will take effect this coming week. The “deal” in question is the merger of the William Morris Agency with Endeavor, or rather Endeavor’s confiscation of William Morris, which is the way insiders prefer to describe it.
Though the surviving entity, WME Entertainment, is only now taking its first breath, Hollywood is still struggling to figure out how the deal came about and what its implications may be.
Several issues continue to resonate:
In Hollywood, there’s a pervasive desire to “follow the money,” and in this case the “money” consists of roughly $143 million. That’s the presumed amount the William Morris Agency elicited from the sale of its three buildings in Beverly Hills. The big question: How many people shared in that largesse — and how many lawsuits will ultimately be filed as a result?
The individual who theoretically was master-minding the process was Jim Wiatt, a man considered to be both savvy and shrewd. These talents notwithstanding, Wiatt clearly lost control of the process and ended up getting voted off the island, apparently without even knowing it. Was Wiatt, too, “following the money”?
Talk to the heads of rival agencies, and you quickly sense both an appetite and a dread. The two mega-agencies, WME and CAA, now loom large in the marketplace, but competitors are convinced that clusters of agents will break away from the monoliths.
And many working artisans will find themselves without an agent. When talent agencies purge their client lists, they inevitably surrender their “research and development” function — veterans of the agency business remember how Freddie Fields of the old CMA discarded a young agent named Sandy Bresler along with his client, Jack Nicholson.
The upshot of all this is that everyone involved feels the pressure. CAA and WME must persuade clients that they won’t get lost in the new mega-structures – a special problem for WME since its management structure is yet to prove itself on the battlefield. And given the inevitable defections, agents at ICM and UTA feel pressure to evaluate and sign agents and clients who are torn loose amid the melee.
Agents and clients alike realize that the balance of power in Hollywood today favors the big conglomerates, not the talent. The long-standing expectation in show business was that the deals kept getting fatter; that’s not the case any more.
Hence some important clients already are telling their agents, “you guys are cooking big deals for yourselves, now do it for me.”
They have a point. The wheeling and dealing of the past two weeks has triggered some amazing paydays for an inner circle of talent agents. Their clients have been watching avidly.
Jim Wiatt presumably was part of that circle. On the other hand, he’s also out of a job.
The last major agent who got a big payday along with his exit visa was Michael Ovitz. He has not gone on to a distinguished post-agenting career. Jim Wiatt would doubtless like to do better.