After owner's death, biz rebounds with smart hires, global plan

Three years ago last month, Jon Furie, the owner of below-the-line agency Montana Artists, committed suicide at 48. At the time, many believed his death would also spell the end of the agency he had developed into a high-profile shop after buying it in 2003 from its founder, Carl Bressler.

Furie, the son of helmer Sidney Furie, was one of Hollywood’s most popular and effective agents specializing in finding jobs and nurturing careers for scores of cinematographers, production designers, producers and other industry pros via his tight relationships with studio production execs. Hundreds of friends and followers showed up for his funeral.

Furie’s passing certainly left Montana in a precarious place, yet today it not only survives but, by all indications, is thriving. Matt Birch, whom Furie hired in 2009, and is now prexy of the agency, says that in the past three years, Montana has signed about 150 new clients, bringing the total up to around 300, more than making up for those who left.

Saving the place wasn’t easy, and included a degree of loyalty among those it reps. But Birch aggressively courted new clients, hired new agents — and altered the Montana business model to include the representation of not just individuals but also overseas production-services companies in parts of the world where international filming is growing.

Still in the weeks following Furie’s death, things seemed bleak, because he was so closely identified with the agency. Approximately 30% of Montana’s clients abandoned the midsize shop — one of about a dozen below-the-line shingles serving the biz. Rival agents started writing Montana’s obituary, and rumors flew that another agency was buying the company.

“There was an exodus,” recalls Birch. Many of the departing clients, he says, had only dealt with Furie, and felt the agency was rudderless. In typical Hollywood dog-eat-dog fashion, other agencies poached a significant number of Montana’s clients.

Birch became an expert in damage control, reaching out to every client. “We told them what was going on … and reminded them it wasn’t just about Jon,” Birch says. “An illusion had been created that Jon was doing everything, because Jon was doing most of the communications (with) some of the more prominent clients.”

Within weeks of Furie’s death, Birch made significant hires to bolster Montana’s team of agents. He tapped Ralph Berge — a production veteran of TNT, Paramount TV and CBS — to lead the agency’s TV business, and Nick Malkin, from UTA, as head of the its commercials department. (Birch himself mainly handles features.)

“Larger agencies out there looked at this as an opportunity. (They went after) d.p.’s and line producers (because) those are the big-ticket items,” Birch says. “At the time, the thinking was, ‘This place isn’t going to be around much longer so let’s try to gut it.’?”

And while many left, many stayed on. Costume designer Suttirat Larlarb (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who designed costumes for the Olympics Opening Ceremonies alongside longtime mentor Danny Boyle, says she was never tempted to leave after Furie’s death. “I was shocked when someone from another agency approached me and used my nickname, Ann, which only my friends use,” she recalls. Being overly familiar didn’t work.

Production designer Alec Hammond (“Man on a Ledge,” “R.I.P.D.”) had joined Montana in 1998. “Many people tried to poach me,” he says. “To those who called me in the first six months, I said, ‘I’m absolutely never signing with you.’ After that, I met with a big agent, but I did more homework on him than he did on me. During lunch, he was looking at my IMDb sheet. That’s exactly who I don’t want for an agent.” Hammond echoes the concerns of many clients who feel that some agents view them as mere revenue generators. Montana, they say, has more integrity than many other agencies.

Cinematographer John Leonetti (“Insidious”), who stayed loyal to Montana after Furie’s death, says he was “just a number” at an agency that repped him earlier. Another Montana client, producer Richard Sharkey (“The Pacific”) recalls once being repped by an agent “who was almost a caricature, all Jerry Maguire and ‘show me the money.’?”

But Birch wanted to do more than maintain existing clients. He also brought to Montana his international production experience and contacts, and steered the agency into repping studios, vfx houses and production-services companies in overseas territories that are magnets for international filming because of their favorable labor costs and aggressive incentive programs.

Repping overseas facilities has no negative impact on Montana’s representation of U.S. clients because the films he steers there would be shooting out of the country anyway. Discussions, Birch says, are more about, “?’Have you considered Serbia,’ when they’re (already) looking into a higher-priced area like Prague.”

Birch’s knowledge of international was one reason Furie hired him to begin with. Birch had been head of physical production at Endgame Entertainment and spent considerable time on projects in Eastern Europe. He and Furie had many conversations about turning Montana into less of a traditional below-the-line agency and more of a production-resources company.

Even before Furie died, Birch had signed Serbia-based production house Work in Progress in March 2009. In January 2010, he brought on board Italy’s Cinecitta Studios, and in January of this year, he signed Dynamo Prods. in Bogota and Pioneer Pictures in Budapest.

These and other deals have given Montana a footprint — and potentially lucrative clients — around the world, including a presence in Serbia, Italy, Malta, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Colombia. Birch even signed Sprocketheads, a producton-services company in his home state of Alaska, which now offers a hefty 44% tax credit.

According to Andjelka Vlaisavljevic of Belgrade-based Work in Progress, Montana brought several films to the production shop, including “The Raven,” “Chernobyl Diaries” and the upcoming “Therese Raquin,” starring Elizabeth Olsen.

Montana also connected the producers of “To Rome With Love” with Cinecitta Studios, which provided production services for the Woody Allen film.

Unlike the representation of individuals, which traditionally yields agencies a straight 10% on the revenue produced by their clients’ labor, arrangements with production-services companies span a variety of fee structures, including monthly retainers, a commission on coin that’s passed through the company via the relationship, and even payments based on brokered tax credits.

Now that the agency has rebuilt itself, the key to growth, Birch says, is knowing what’s going on and being first with news of new projects. “It’s an information game,” he explains. “Even if it’s only 30 minutes, you want to be 30 minutes ahead of other agencies to try to get an advantage for your client.”

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