The flow of clients from International Creative Management to the William Morris Agency began on Monday, following former ICM co-chairman and co-CEO Jim Wiatt’s arrival at WMA as president and co-CEO, supplanting prexy Arnold Rifkin.
Among clients who will travel down Wilshire to Wiatt’s new office (a converted conference room for the time being) are actors Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone and Tim Allen, directors Nora Ephron, Penny Marshall, Richard Donner and Renny Harlin and writer Joe Eszterhas.
Wiatt’s hiring by WMA was announced Monday by the percentery’s CEO, Walter Zifkin, who said Wiatt’s tenure is effective immediately. Rifkin, who announced his resignation at the same time, will remain at the agency until Sept. 8.
While Rifkin said he does not have concrete plans for the future, for the next year or so (the remaining term of his existing contract) he is expected to work as a manager with several of his long-standing clients, including Bruce Willis, Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.
It’s understood that while Rifkin is acting as their manager, these clients will remain represented by William Morris as well — although it is unlikely the clients will be paying commissions to both WMA and Rifkin.
Rifkin did not come into the office on Monday, spending the day negotiating his exit from WMA. He will begin handing over the reigns to Wiatt today when the two are scheduled to have lunch together to discuss the transition.
While Wiatt had been rumored to be talking to William Morris brass for weeks, he and Zifkin said that a deal was not completed until Sunday evening. At WMA, Wiatt will serve on the board of directors and will share oversight of all areas of the agency and its worldwide operations.
“Jim Wiatt is uniquely qualified to lead William Morris into the 21st century,” Zifkin said in a prepared statement. “In an expanding and highly competitive business, he is one of the most talented and resourceful executives I’ve ever known. He’s regarded with affection and respect, not only by his clients and colleagues, but by those with whom he works throughout the creative community.”
Wiatt is believed to have signed a five-year pact and received a signing bonus as well as a base salary well above the $1.5 million he was receiving from ICM. But unlike ICM, Wiatt will not have an equity stake in the company and will likely have less managerial autonomy than he had at ICM, where he reported only to ICM chairman and CEO Jeff Berg.
It’s understood that Rifkin was not informed of the agency’s decision to hire Wiatt until Friday, when Rifkin was on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
WMA staffers were given the news Monday morning via an e-mail authored by WMA chairman Norman Brokaw, vice chairman Jerry Katzman and Zifkin.
But even before the e-mail was sent out at 11:30 a.m., word had spread around the office: During the morning’s motion picture lit meeting at 9, agents joked about pitching projects to Wiatt clients Ephron and Marshall.
“This is a significant event for the William Morris Agency as we chart the future course and direction of our company,” said WMA chairman Norman Brokaw in a statement attached to that e-mail. “It reaffirms our commitment to evolve into the most dynamic, forward-looking, cutting-edge talent and literary agency in the world.”
By joining WMA, Wiatt ends months of speculation that often took on “Truman Show”-like overtones as the town watched while he discussed his career opportunities with several suitors including WMA, Endeavor, CAA and Artists Management Group.
Wiatt’s contract with ICM, where he spent the past 22 years, was due to expire Sept. 30, but when he and Berg could not come to terms on a new deal, Wiatt negotiated out of that pact last Friday and was free to join WMA over the weekend. According to sources, Wiatt had been seeking a substantial increase of his salary and was willing to give up his ownership stake for that.
While Rifkin and Wiatt share the same attorney, Skip Brittenham, Wiatt retained corporate lawyer Joseph Troy to negotiate his deal with WMA.
Other Wiatt clients who are expected to be joining him are writer-director Kevin Williamson (“Scream,” “Teaching Mrs. Tingle”) and helmer F. Gary Gray (“The Negotiator”), although he had not discussed this with either of them as of Monday afternoon. Williamson, however is understood to have expressed interest in taking meetings with other agencies before committing to joining WMA and Wiatt.
Though Rifkin will continue advising some of his clients in a managerial capacity during the next year or so, he told Daily Variety that his career path will not include the agency business.
Asked to address speculation that he might team with Willis in a management/production company, Rifkin said, “It’s unclear what I’ll do, but whatever I’ll do, I’ll do with him.”
“It’s too soon for me to respond,” Rifkin added. “I’ll do something in the interim to create continuity with my clients and their representation at WMA.”
Willis issued his support of his longtime agent, stating: “I continue to support my friend and partner of 15 years in whatever choice he makes in business and in his life. Anyone who has ever worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, year round, will understand wanting to spend more time with your family. I wish him the best of luck in all his future endeavors and remain his biggest fan.”
Though WMA’s official stance maintained that the agency began the search for Rifkin’s replacement only after he hinted to WMA management that he would not seek to extend his existing contract when it expires next year, it’s understood that Rifkin never regained favor in the board’s eyes after his 1996 flirtation with the top production post at Sony Pictures.
Beyond management’s disappointment with his Sony talks, younger agents were said to have become disillusioned with their leader.
“While they signed him to a new, multiyear deal after the Sony thing went away, some of the guys, including young agents, never looked at him in the same way, and he seemed to retrench.”
A WMA statement read: “Arnold Rifkin encouraged the agency to pursue a relationship with Mr. Wiatt. Mr. Rifkin’s separation from William Morris is friendly and amicable.”
However, sources said Rifkin was shocked by the news, which WMA’s board managed not to address with him until after Wiatt’s resignation from ICM last week.
In a statement issued by WMA, Rifkin said of his time with WMA: “This has been, without a doubt, one of the most personally rewarding and professionally fulfilling experiences of my career. Over the last seven years, I’ve formed close working relationships with people I have grown to love and respect, and will continue to know long after my tenure at William Morris comes to an end. I look forward now to spending time with my family before announcing my future plans.”
While questions have arisen over the future of board members and motion picture department co-heads John Burnham and Mike Simpson, in view of Wiatt coming aboard, both Wiatt, who met with Burnham on Monday, and Zifkin said that the two are committed to the agency and have no plans to leave.
Burnham also informed WMA agents that he has no plans of leaving the agency.
Some wonder where ICM agent Dave Wirtschafter might fit into the picture if he were to join WMA and his close friend Wiatt when his contract is up at the end of the year.
“This will be interesting to watch,” one WMA agent said. “With Wiatt and Rifkin it was fairly clean, but with Wirtschafter in the mix there could be a real power struggle.”