Agents, like the Mafia, have long believed in omerta — the code of silence with respect to family matters.
But on Tuesday, the Writers & Artists Agency went public with a corrosive family squabble by locking talent agent David Brownstein out of his office and slapping him with a $10 million lawsuit.
At Writers & Artists, Brownstein represented the agency’s highest-profile actor, “The Sopranos” star James Gandolfini. The agent is accused in the lawsuit of “gross breaches of fiduciary duty, fraudulent misrepresentations and bad faith” in his negotiations with the shop.
At the center of the dispute is whether Brownstein is still a Writers & Artists partner: Writers & Artists announced it was severing all connections with the agent and partner; Brownstein alleges his contract provides for arbitration, making the litigation inappropriate.
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According to Writers & Artists, Gandolfini remains a client who is now repped by Steve Small.
Meanwhile, Brownstein attorney Gerry Fox of Fox & Spillane says Gandolfini remains a Brownstein client and the agency owes Brownstein hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a statement faxed to Daily Variety, Brownstein said, “Over two weeks ago, I initiated arbitration proceedings against Writers & Artists … in order to collect significant monies the agency has owed me contractually for some time. Rather than respond to the arbitration demand, as is required under our contract, Writers & Artists unfortunately elected to file a claim in Superior Court containing numerous allegations which are wholly baseless and patently false.”
History of rancor
The fracas reps long-simmering acrimony between Brownstein and his Writers & Artists partners, bad blood that boiled over during the painful renegotiations of Gandolfini’s “Sopranos” contract earlier this year.
Talks to return Gandolfini to the role of Tony Soprano were often bare-knuckle, ugly and personal with HBO chairman Chris Albrecht.
Gandolfini filed suit against HBO to void his contract after the cabler turned down his demand for $16 million for the fifth season. Furious, Albrecht and HBO then filed a $100 million countersuit. After producer Brad Grey intervened, Gandolfini was paid more than the $11 million he was originally offered, but less than $16 million.
According to the Writers & Artists suit, filed in L.A. Superior Court, Brownstein tried to have his client Gandolfini pay commissions directly to him, cutting out the agency.
The complaint also alleges Brownstein directed other clients to pay commissions directly to him and tried to extort money from Writers & Artists.
A tough-talking former New York prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, the often-brash Brownstein was made partner in November 2001 based largely on the success of “The Sopranos.” He repped not only Gandolfini but also supporting cast members Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Steven Van Zandt and Tony Sirico.
In creating Brownstein’s partnership, CEO Norman Aladjem praised him as “an extremely productive agent” who “has exhibited the leadership and vision which (we) want in a partner” (Daily Variety, Nov. 4, 2001).
The Writers & Artists complaint alleged that Brownstein offered his resignation on May 21 and agreed to work out an amicable departure.
Instead, the Writers & Artists suit said, Brownstein “subsequently sought to repudiate those promises … and, on information and belief, has sought to misappropriate assets of the company while continuing to hold himself out as a representative of Writers & Artists since his resignation.”
“We deny all causes of action and intend to countersue for defamation of name and character,” Fox told Daily Variety. “Writers & Artists owes David Brownstein hundreds of thousands of dollars under express written contract, monies that are long past due. We will clear his name and collect the money that’s owed.”
W&A’s attorney, Peter Haviland of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, said: “The suit was brought to protect Writers & Artists from continued wrongdoing. Writers & Artists accepted Brownstein’s resignation nearly a month ago, but, as the suit states, rather than move on he has been engaging in misconduct.
“It was important to get this problem out of the office and into a forum where it can be resolved without further disruption to the company.”
Writers & Artists has offices in Los Angeles and New York. Its client list includes William H. Macy, Damon Wayans, Denis Leary, Reginald Hudlin, playwright David Auburn and screenwriters George Wing and Will Rokos.
(Janet Shprintz contributed to this report.)