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Ten percenters set to kill outdated constraints

WHILE I REALIZE it’s way too early for year-end predictions, I’ll nonetheless venture one modest forecast for the year 2000: In the ever-turbulent talent agency business, the playing field is about to undergo some major realignment.

Within the next couple of weeks an advance guard of top agents will sit down with the new leadership of the Screen Actors Guild to kick off discussions. It’s no secret what the agents want: They want to wheel and deal. They want the freedom to buy companies, even production companies, or to sell their businesses to bigger entities. They also want the opportunity to produce movies and TV shows. In short, they’re hungry to do anything that managers can do.

And though none of us likes to agree with our agents, the fact is they have a point. In most sectors of the business landscape, government constraints have been all but erased. Deals like the Viacom/CBS merger sail past regulators. The banking and insurance industries are now free to muck around in each other’s domain.

Hence it’s a perverse irony that the most entrepreneurial players in town — talent agents — remain the most tightly regulated.

To be sure, these inhibitions once made sense. As early as 1907, major theater owners such as Abe Erlanger, widely known as “dishonest Abe,” tried to play footsy with the original William Morris, sneaking him a cut of box office receipts if he would offer up his clients at reduced rates. He refused to go along.

Back in 1962 the Justice Dept. under Bobby Kennedy was so concerned about the concentration of power in Hollywood that it filed suit against Lew Wasserman’s MCA (also naming SAG and the Writers Guild) to restrain Wasserman from controlling the biggest agency as well as what would shortly become the most important TV production company. Wasserman managed to ward off the relentless Kennedy only by pledging to get out of the agency business.

Those were very different times, of course. With all of MCA’s clients up for grabs, for example, Abe Lastfogel, the tiny but imperious chief of the William Morris Agency, instructed his soldiers not to solicit any of them. “We’re not ambulance chasers,” he intoned.

THESE DAYS, OF COURSE, everyone chases everything. Raiding clients of rival agencies is the favorite indoor sport. Moreover, the fragile detente between agents and managers has all but disintegrated. Managers openly negotiate deals in defiance of industry constraints, say the agents.

And then there’s the case of AMG, founded by Michael Ovitz and his partners, Julie and Rick Yorn, which at once is the most publicized and most surreptitious company in showbiz. AMG insists it’s a management company; agents argue it’s also a talent agency. Some AMG clients also have an outside agent; some have two managers. And everyone, both inside and outside the company, has a different theory as to the source of AMG’s financing.

So where does this take us? Within a year or so we may start seeing agencies getting bought and sold like cable companies. Some might even be bought by cable companies. We’ll see production companies owning agencies, and vice versa.

AND THERE WILL BE INCESSANT speculation as to who is merging with whom. Will United Talent Agency, with its sharp young client list, be a good merger partner for Toys R Us? Will Microsoft, with its persistently argumentative corporate culture, be content to swallow up equally argumentative ICM? Will the resolutely inscrutable John Malone sense that CAA is a comfortable fit?

And as agents start piling up producer credits, the mind boggles with the possibilities. Will Jeff Berg, that closet techno-geek, attach his name to abstruse high-tech thrillers? Will courtly Bryan Lourd emerge as producer of a series of Southern gothics?

Only one thing seems clear: The agency business will never be the same. And that’s not a prediction; that’s an inevitability.

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