MANAGERS POUNDING AT THE STUDIO GATES

The rising clout of talent managers took on new significance last week when news leaked that manager Brian Swardstrom, whose clients include Elijah Wood and Bill Paxton, is sealing a first-look producing deal with the Walt Disney Studios. During the same week, manager Phyllis Carlyle inked two first-look deals, one with Miramax and the other with Showtime.

It’s certainly a good time to be a manager, with studios and mini-majors disposed to underwrite the tricky transition from artist’s representative to full-fledged producer. But these hot new unions between management companies and studios are fraught with as much promise – and peril – as a blind date.

If the alliance is a success, the studio pays a premium in the form of a producer’s fee; in exchange it receives access to stars, writers and directors. The manager gets to run his stable like a studio potentate of old – packaging projects that will bring him fees beyond his commission and also packaging projects around his clients.

However, many veteran studio execs and old-time producers view managers as opportunists who try to keep talent from the studios unless they have a producing fee to attract their attention. Managers disagree.

Centralized thinking

“I think (aligning with a studio) provides a great service to the clients to have a place that is inclined to develop material specifically with them,” said Swardstrom. “Disney’s a great place because of all their different divisions, so clients with widely differing tastes – from Ricki Lake to Bill Paxton – can all find a place for their projects.”

Swardstrom and Carlyle are just embarking on their honeymoons. Some marriages between managers and studios have been stormier than others, because in a worst-case scenario a studio can shell out a lot of dough for a little product, and talent can get burned in the bargain.

Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which manages Dana Carvey, Garry Shandling and Brad Pitt, has a first-look deal for TV and features with Columbia Pictures. BGE has a substantial development fund, in the neighborhood of $20 million, but it has yet to put a film into production at the Culver City studio. That may change soon, as a feature with Shandling may start in the fall; also afoot are personnel changes at BGE’s film division.

Carlyle had a falling-out with client Andy Garcia this past winter, reportedly because he learned that she was trying to capitalize on her client’s clout to goose her own producing career – an assessment she denies.

“After 16 years, we decided it would be better if we tried to find projects to work on together but we were no longer client and manager,” is how Carlyle sums up the split.

But there are success stories.

“The fact that Keanu Reeves is making his next big action picture (“Dead Drop”) at Fox demonstrates our deal is working on both sides,” says 3 Arts Entertainment principal Erwin Stoff, who manages Reeves. “These deals can get tricky if a client perceives that he’s being used to service the manager’s agenda. Friction can also arise if the manager promises the studio specific stars he has no plans of delivering.”

As part of its first-look deal at Fox, covering both TV and film, 3 Arts is producing the Alfonso Arau period romance “A Walk in the Clouds” – which stars Reeves (and is a project close to his heart) and which Fox picked up after MGM/UA had put it into turnaround – as well as the Andy Davis action pic “Dead Drop,” skedded for a fall start.

In theory, such first-look deals can become an equitable swap. Unlike Warner Bros., which has elevated the care and feeding of franchise movie stars like Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson to an art form, other studios who need star power figure the best way to an actor’s heart is through his manager’s wallet.

Talent benefits from a manager making the transition to producer because an artist’s representative is, in theory, more concerned with his client’s interests than a third-party producer would be. If push comes to shove on a movie, the manager-producer will almost always fight for his client, whereas a pure producer may try to get that same client fired when a hotter star or director becomes available.

Says one veteran manager-producer: “What I tell my clients is this: Who would you rather have looking out for your interests on a project? Me, who wants to be in business with you for the next 20 years, or some big-name producer who has no qualms about screwing you over when a better director, screenwriter or actor comes along? They usually choose me.”

Some manager-studio alliances can work to everyone’s advantage. Fox’s first-look deal with 3 Arts has not only given that studio entree to clients Reeves, Winona Ryder and Mike Judge (the creator of “Beavis and Butt-head;” now doing a pilot for Fox Broadcasting), but it gave the studio a leg up when it came to securing Reeves for “Dead Drop.”

Problems can arise on such deals, though, when managers put their interests before those of their clients. Both films that Phyllis Carlyle has produced (“The Accidental Tourist” and the upcoming “Seven”) did not involve her clients.

Carlyle, the manager of Vincent Spano and Lou Diamond Phillips, says, “I advise a client in relationship to their career, not in regard to my producing career. I advise the client to take the project that’s best for his career even if it means that I am going to lose a producing credit. I have never insinuated myself on a project or automatically assumed that I would be a producer on a client’s film. That’s an invitation someone else has to make.”

– Anita M. Busch contributed to this story.

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