With more and more money chasing a relatively static pool of superstars, there’s been a subtle but pronounced shift in the balance of power in Hollywood. The new “power elite”– the people who really decide what projects get made and at what price — consists increasingly of the handlers and gatekeepers of top actors and filmmakers.
In short, the power of the studio exec is dwindling, even though studios hold the pursestrings and thus technically control the game.
“The asylum has definitely been taken over by the you-know-whos,” asserts one of the town’s top-drawer directors. “When I’m putting together a project, the only ‘yes’ I need is from one of seven or eight agents. If I get their support I know I can set up a deal anywhere in town.”
The upshot is spiralling salaries for top talent — and higher budgets for important films, defying cost-conscious efforts of the studios.18
While lists of the “most powerful” players in the film industry were formerly headed by the Pollocks and the Gubers, the newly emerging power elite contains names less well known to the public.
- Creative Artists Agency partner Ron Meyer is the lead agent for, among others, Tom Cruise, Michael Douglas, Sly Stallone and Demi Moore.
- International Creative Management’s Lou Pitt is longtime agent for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- ICM’s Ed Limato makes the calls for Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Richard Gere.
- Arnold Rifkin of William Morris handles Bruce Willis.
- Fred Specktor of CAA represents Robert DeNiro and Danny DeVito.
- Morris agent Lenny Hirshan handles Clint Eastwood.
Of course, agents alone don’t call the signals. If you need a “yes” from Sharon Stone, call her manager, Chuck Binder. And manager Pat McQueeney calls the shots for Harrison Ford.
Strong yet publicity-shy
There are many other important agents and managers who figure in the great new talent chase. And no one suggests that these handlers exercise absolute power over their clients. Indeed, most agents themselves go out of their way publicly to duck the spotlight.
At the same time, it’s an open secret in Hollywood that most top stars are not exactly avid readers and that their agents, in lining up the best material and the richest offers, ultimately tilt the final decisions.
The “handlers” also know the kind of material that appeals to their clients. “The agents and managers have a big edge because it’s easier for them to know what the client is looking for than it is for someone at a studio,” says Binder. He adds quickly, however, that the studio has the money to finance the film –“they’ve got the ammo and the loaded gun.”
Other members of this elite group also caution against overconfidence. “I don’t think the emergence of a star on a project is an automatic greenlight,” says Morris’ Rifkin. “It will have a lot of influence, but I do not find that it always pushes the material forward.”
Yet while the studios have the capital, and thus the greenlight, they are totally committed to superstar megapics and hence, once a star commits to a project, a long list of buyers forms quickly. Last week, for example, when Lou Pitt flashed the word that Schwarzenegger had opted to make “Crusade” next summer with director Paul Verhoeven, Carolco’s Mario Kassar promptly started writing checks to pay off players waiting to make “Show Girls” with Verhoeven — a payoff totalling $ 5 million, according to sources.
Power brokering: murky
While hundreds of writers have analyzed the process by which studios select material and array their projects, decision-making at the agent level has avoided scrutiny. At any given time top stars are literally swamped with submissions, many carrying firm, multimillion-dollar offers.
“I’ve got 12 firm offers, the smallest of which is for $ 5 million, waiting on clients,” says one superstar agent. “Frankly, I’ve given my advice on each of them. Now I’ve got to wait for someone to read something.”
Lou Pitt estimates at least four or five “decent scripts” roll in every day to Schwarzenegger, but some days it can run higher.
“Usually we’re inundated with scripts, but it has been exceptionally dry for really good projects,” says Elaine Goldsmith of ICM, who looks after Julia Roberts, among others. Goldsmith, like most agents, plays down her role but concedes, “A lot of talent doesn’t want to read 17 different versions of a script. That’s where I come in.”
In the case of Sharon Stone, Chuck Binder, Stone and her agent Guy McElwaine all review scripts “but ultimately she decides,” says Binder. “I read all the scripts that come in. If I think it’s worth her perusal I’ll show it to her.”
Binder, like other top managers and agents, says that a script with a director attached grabs their attention first. It often makes a project stand out among the numerous scripts. But while the interest of a director might highlight a good project, a star can still move a production forward. Once Stone committed to her next movie, “The Quick and the Dead,” she and Binder picked Sam Raimi to direct.
Many top handlers use their agency’s story department to process submissions. On the other hand, freelance readers are also brought in to deal with the massive load of material. “I won’t kid you — I read synopses until something grabs me — a terrific role, a spectacular offer,” says a top agent. “Then I lug home the material. There are a few filters before I get to see things.”
A big agency has the advantage of diverting a project submitted to a superstar to other talent on its list once the star turns it down. Hence someone offering a project to Stallone via CAA might find himself getting pitched Tom Berenger. The result of the competition: Stars like Nick Nolte and Kurt Russell, who are respected performers but not considered superstars, are commanding $ 7 million and up for their new projects.
What’s driving up the star salaries? Supply and demand, for one thing. With major studios stepping up production, the return of MGM/UA and the presence of start-ups like Turner and Savoy, the demand for talent has increased accordingly. And while more “niche players” are entering the business — companies like Miramax that favor specialized product — the expansion of the overseas market plus ancillary markets have nonetheless combined to create the supremacy of the superstar.