NEW YORK — Not so very long ago, agenting in New York was defined by ICM’s Sam Cohn. As rude as he was astute, the powerful Cohn was one agent who didn’t need to return phone calls and, by God, he rarely did.
The landscape looks a lot different these days. There’s more action, more stars, more filmmaking activity — and a new generation of sharp young agents, most of whom have never met Cohn.
The change is signaled by the resurgence of ICM and the William Morris Agency, just a few years after their Gotham offices seemed to be struggling as Hollywood-bound clients defected West.
Now Gotham’s independent film scene (led by Miramax and October Films) is flourishing, as is TV and commercial work. Perhaps more important, the synergy between film/TV work and New York’s theater and publishing worlds has given a major boost to the East Coast agencies.
Even the smaller New York offices of bicoastal agencies including Gersh, Paradigm, Innovative, Jay Michael Bloom and Writers and Artists are seeing business pick up as they move clients from stage to film and television — with some of the productions set in Gotham.
WMA has been steadily rebuilding since the acquisition of Triad in late 1992. Particular strengths include the TV department under Jim Griffin (including newscasting), theater under George Lane, the lit department under Owen Laster and Robert Gottlieb, commercials under Brian Dubin in New York and a music and personal appearances group.
In talent, WMA Gotham boasts senior veeps Gene Parseghian (who co-heads motion pictures in New York with Lane) and Johnnie Planco (former head of the department) and VP Frank Frattaroli. Parseghian, a founding partner of Triad, brought with him Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson and Christopher Walken, an actor who had left William Morris two years earlier.
ICM is seeing its own rebirth. At the hub of it, to be sure, is its strong literary department, embracing the likes of Amanda (Binky) Urban and Esther Newberg, whose curtness approaches that of Cohn. Other strengths include music, based in Gotham under rock ‘n’ roll maven Jon Podell, ICM Artists under David Foster and Lee Lamont (classical artists and lectures), sports under Mark Perman and theater, of course, headed by Cohn, with clients who include Arthur Miller and John Guare.
In motion picture talent, a major factor is the presence of senior VP Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, who represents Julia Roberts, Spike Lee and Tim Robbins, and who is arguably one of the most powerful female agents in the biz. ICM’s Gotham office is also home to agent Aleen Keshishian, who has helped nurture numerous young actors into stars, including Natalie Portman, Skeet Ulrich and Edward Norton.
The talent department of the New York office of the Gersh Agency has essentially relaunched with six agents — double the number from when David Guc ran the office. Among the young agents who defected from William Morris with young clients are Bill Butler, Larry Taub and Rhonda Price.
n The New York office of Innovative, opened six years ago, has likewise grown — from one to four agents — with Richie Jackson, Guc, Gary Gersh and Claudia Black, who heads up young talent.
New York agents tend to be a breed apart: They know that their life is inescapably tied to the West Coast, even though they tend to look down on Hollywood and everyone in it.
N.Y. agents like to think they talk a lot more about the theater and ballet than their L.A. counterparts. They tend to name-drop in describing dinner parties. They relish knowing they represent media stars in addition to movie stars. And when their West Coast colleagues start talking about their trainers, they become downright snooty.
“New York is grittier. The market is different,” asserted ICM’s Keshishian, a slender, dark-haired young woman who was formerly a child actress. On the wall behind her hang some of her own photographs, vestiges of the days when she thought she might become an artist.
“The artists who live in New York are serious about the craft,” she said. “L.A. has different energy. In L.A. there’s a lot of serious work. But there’s a lot more preoccupation with being a star.”
For instance, New Yorkers will point out that, in L.A., William Morris reps Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Travolta, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood; but in New York, senior VP and head of the New York talent department Parseghian is the lead agent for actors like Thompson. And at ICM, Boaty Boatwright has a clientele, including director Alan Pakula, based entirely on the East Coast.
“Dinner parties in L.A. most of the time are just with people in the movie industry,” said ICM’s Andrea Eastman, who came East in 1988. “A dinner party in New York mixes publishing, financing, film. It’s more interesting. And I’m not even a big dinner party person.”
But they also help business. At a dinner hosted by former Daily News publisher Jim Hoge a few years ago, she ended up seated next to Charlie Rose. Today, he’s a client, part of Eastman’s eclectic, bicoastal roster that includes Katie Couric and Wes Craven.
And in New York, everyone shows up at the same Miramax premiere. Attending these functions is one way to do business. “In L.A., agents get in their car and visit the studios,” said Keshishian, who does studio coverage on the indie. “If I showed up at the offices of Miramax, they’d laugh. I see them at parties.”
L.A. still the center
Still, even though New Yorkers may not like it, Los Angeles remains the center of the entertainment world. In many cases, clients of a Gotham agent will also be paired with an agent in L.A. All the agents stay connected with the latest Hollywood information and daily meetings through video-conferencing and e-mail.
William Morris’ Griffin said some video-conferenced meetings may involve as many as 80 agents.
“The pulse, the power of the business is there,” said one of New York’s top agents, who didn’t want to be identified. “It’s just a fact.”
Indeed, Creative Artists Agency, which lured many Gotham-based talents away from the city in the late ’80s and early ’90s, has never seen the need for an East Coast office. CAA finds it more efficient to interact with independent agents, on the literary side, for instance, with the Janklow/Nesbit and the Kathy Robbins agencies.
Livin’ on L.A. time
Many Gotham agents keep Los Angeles hours. But ICM’s Goldsmith-Thomas goes one step further. “Look,” she said, picking up the gold-plated clock on her desk and showing its face: Even though the deals can happen in New York, the clocks are on L.A. time. Hollywood is still the ultimate reference point. “It’s about farming talent to L.A.,” she said.
From stage to screen
For example, the New York offices of Gersh are moving actors from Broadway to television and films. Gersh client Calista Flockhart, who appeared on Broadway in “The Glass Menagerie” and “Three Sisters,” is the lead in “Ally McBeal,” David E. Kelley’s new series on Fox, and client Jake Weber is in “Meet Joe Black,” the feature starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.
Similarly, Lane, who has turned William Morris’ theater department into a powerhouse since taking the reins in 1992, is feeding new playwrights to Hollywood.
A few months ago, he got a phone call from Mike Simpson, co-head of the motion picture department in the L.A. office of William Morris, saying that Tim Burton was on a plane to New York and wanted to meet with a writer to do the remake of “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes.” Lane paired him with Bryan Goluboff, whom he signed while Goluboff was a student at New York University.
Lane, who frequents Remi enough to have his own lunch table, also recently sent Madonna the script for “The Maiden’s Prayer,” about two sisters and the men who orbit them, written by client Nicky Silver. The play won’t appear Off Broadway until February, but he thought he’d get a jump. “I knew Madonna was looking for something to do with Courtney Love.”
Mary Meagher, also in William Morris’ theater department, just sold “As Bees in Honey Drown” by client Douglas Carter Beane, to Universal for $750,000.
Agents are also milking the local scene. At Innovative, B.D. Wong (“M. Butterfly”) is now a series regular on “Oz,” the New York-based HBO series, along with three other clients. And the firm has two clients, Faith Prince and Paula Marshall, on “Spin City,” also shot in New York.
Perhaps the most surprising sign of New York’s renaissance is the arrival of ICM’s Goldsmith-Thomas — the ultimate L.A. agent.
“I’m an L.A. baby, a Valley girl,” she said, after getting off the phone from dressing down an entertainment executive, and taking a minute to give orders to her two assistants. Goldsmith-Thomas’ office evokes a cozy sitting room, with its “shabby-chic” couch and photos of her bridal shower on the wall, but, dynamic and outspoken, she is all business.
Goldsmith-Thomas moved East three years ago to be with the man who is now her husband. In coming to New York, she took a look at life: “I didn’t want to be like a lot of people I had seen who went to sleep at night with their client list,” she said. Besides, many of her clients were already living in New York.
“I’m here,” she said. “But I don’t know for how long.” Goldsmith-Thomas actually likes L.A., which sets her apart from most of her East Coast colleagues. Most New York agents like New York and its lifestyle: the ballet, theater, opera, walking to work. They also like that Gotham isn’t a one-industry town.
“Here, there’s the mix, theater, publishing, not just movies and TV,” said Planco, a William Morris agent who launched his career repping directors John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, and who now represents Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Danny Aiello.
The mix has always set New York agenting apart. Legendary Gotham agent Robbie Lantz represented not only Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at the height of their careers, but also literary stars Carson McCullers, James Baldwin and Isak Dinesen.
Lantz, who can mix stories about Hollywood with tales of his boyhood encounter with Albert Einstein, began his career when studios still functioned in New York. That era of genteel sophistication may be part of an era that is essentially over.
ICM has invited Keshishian to move West. But she says she’s staying put. “In L.A. I could probably sign more people, go to more parties and screenings. But I feel there’s so much that hasn’t been explored.”
All in all, there is a certain kind of agent that thrives on Gotham energy. William Morris’ Planco said: “If it came down to choosing another profession or leaving New York, I’d have a really hard time.”