Innovative Artists at 25

At a time of industry unrest and a shifting agency landscape, Innovative Artists is prepping for its 25th birthday. The mid-sized tenpercentery’s stability is impressive enough, but especially striking considering its stubborn methods of bucking industry trends.

With clients bridging the worlds of film, TV and legit, Innovative’s departments are more synergistic than territorial. Even more iconoclastic, it spends little effort trying to package TV shows, saying the process is rarely in the best interest of clients. And, most radically, it’s seen growth in revenues for the past five years, despite the recession.

President Scott Harris, who co-founded Innovative Artists with the late Howard Goldberg, knows from experience that clients at midsize agencies are vulnerable to poaching, but he counters that an agency of his size can provide more one-on-one TLC than larger tenpercenteries.

Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Innovative’s roster ranges from hyphenates like actress-writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt to rising thesps including Amanda Seyfried and Ashley Greene and character actors-turned-leading men like John Hawkes. In an industry where mergers and defections have resulted in a few mammoth agencies, the Santa Monica-based tenpercentery prefers to keep its focus on service not size.

“Our original vision was to start a company where we would take care of our clients in an extraordinary way,” says Harris. “Howard and I both felt that if we had the right-size client list, we could deliver better service and make a reputation for ourselves. Over time, we grew, and we became more ambitious. But instead of the idea of getting big by merging, we always reinvested money back into our company and built from within in an organic way.”

That mandate has changed little since Innovative’s early days when Harris and Goldberg defected from what was then the Phil Gersh Agency and set up shop in their accountant’s Beverly Hills office. The pair nixed the idea of soliciting clients to follow them and instead waited for the phone to ring.

“The first person to call was Joe Pantoliano,” recalls Harris. “He said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ Soon thereafter, word got out, and a couple of weeks later, we had a client list of about 30 actors and a couple of directors, and we were off to the races.”

With the help of a cadre of long-serving agents like Nevin Dolcefino, David Rose and Stephen LaManna, Harris has built a talent division that makes up 60%-70% of the agency’s overall business. Though lacking in household names, Innovative guides a host of thesps who straddle stage, film and bigscreen, including Hawkes (who stars in Sundance hit “The Surrogate”), “CSI: NY” topliner Hill Harper and Broadway star Laura Benanti (“Gypsy,” “Women on the Verge”). Dolcefino says the agency is also adept at helping reinvent the careers of vets like Sissy Spacek, Ellen Burstyn and Lorraine Bracco.

“People reach forks in the roads, and I think we are good at guiding them through those,” says Dolcefino, a one-time New York script messenger who got his foot in the door by offering unsolicited, yet sage advice on potential projects. “The key is having an instinct and knowing, ‘That role would be the changer.’ The role on ‘The Sopranos’ was such a game changer for (Bracco). She knew she didn’t want to play the mob wife. She wanted to play the psychiatrist.”

The agency – housed in a sleek, 20,000-sq.-ft. post-modern industrial space just blocks from the beach – particularly flexes its muscles during pilot season.

“There have been days here when 15 clients get placed in great pilots,” says Dolcefino. “We’ve always been known as an agency that can provide talent to the greatest number of pilots.”

Among the highlights of recent years, Innovative gambled when it placed Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” the cabler’s first foray into the original scripted business. “That show has become the face of an entire network,” Dolcefino says. “And that show will likely go into syndication.”

This year, Innovative landed four clients on the ABC drama pilot “Americana,” including star Greene and Annabeth Gish. And despite Innovative’s good fortune with cluster bookings, Harris sees packaging as often at odds with the client’s best interests.

“It generates a tremendous amount of money for agencies, but if you’re an actor who greenlights a show, and your name is being used to package certain projects, sometimes you’re not being given the opportunity to see various other projects that are not in the control of that agency,” he says.

Though Innovative largely eschews packaging dollars, the agency has enjoyed continual growth in revenues for the past five years, says VP and CFO Harvey Finkel.

“We made it through a writers’ strike and the economic downturn without any significant change in the way we do business,” says Finkel. “We’re on extremely stable ground.”

Of course, the risk for mid-size agencies known for breaking the next “it” thesp is losing that star to a super-sized agency.

Case in point, Innovative repped Ashton Kutcher before he became one of TV’s highest-paid stars. Despite booking the then-unknown for a lead role on “That ’70s Show” – a gig that lasted eight seasons – Innovative watched Kutcher defect to Endeavor, becoming its top earner (he eventually signed with his current home, CAA).

Still, in recent years, some successful young thesps, like Innovative’s Seyfried and Gersh’s Kristen Stewart, have stayed loyal to the agents that have steered their meteoric rises.

For Seyfried, it’s about building and shaping a career. The actress, who is repped by Innovative’s Abby Bluestone, is playing Cosette in “Les Miserables,” Tom Hooper’s first film since his Oscar win for “The King’s Speech.” She also continued to buck the conventional starlet career path when she signed on to topline the recently wrapped Linda Lovelace biopic “Lovelace.”

Although Harris was loath to discuss Seyfried or any client’s career arc, he did weigh in on the poaching phenomenon.

“I respect the actor’s right to make choices and to make moves,” he says. “But what I see is that many agencies don’t put their resources toward getting their clients jobs because they spend so much of their time, energy and resources trying to court new clients by poaching from other agencies. That is the unfortunate side of the agency business.”

For Dolcefino, the best defense is a solid offense. “We offer a level of service that makes (the client) feel like they don’t know how they could do it without you,” he says. “If you don’t have the depth of that kind of relationship, you’re vulnerable.”

And while the actor business contributes heavily to Innovative’s bottom line, Harris is putting profits back into multiple departments, having created below-the-line and voiceover divisions as well as Gotham and Chicago outposts. Innovative honchos say it’s the only mid-size agency with branding, licensing and digital media units, making it an ideal fit for budding hyphenates like Westfeldt (“Friends With Kids”).

“We work department to department very collaboratively,” Dolcefino says. “And because of that we do tend to succeed with people who do more than one thing, like Jennifer. She’s a fantastic actress who is a great writer and now a terrific director. To be able to represent someone really well in all those areas is emblematic of what is strong about us.”

Innovative Artists at 25
Lean, keen and scrappy | Gotham pros build strong stage roots for versatile thesps | Agency turns below-the-liners into high-profilers | Web’s cusp runneth over | Biz’s sweet two-way street

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