The Morris code

Tremors jolt the tenpercenteries

On Dec. 15, Sam Haskell looked at the William Morris Agency press release with dismay, though not disbelief. Agency CEO Jim Wiatt had given the president title to Dave Wirtschafter. Not to Haskell.

Haskell was a 26-year vet of the tenpercentery and a revered, courtly figure in the industry. But Wiatt, backed by the board, chose as his worldwide head of motion pictures a hard-driving and single-minded dealmaker.

The two couldn’t be more of a contrast in terms of personality and approach.

Ever since Wiatt took the helm of WMA five years ago, his vision of the agency seemed to put movies first, an attitude resented by Haskell and his TV team.

The agents Wiatt brought with him from ICM, including Wirtschafter, were all motion picture reps, and they brought a number of clients with them.

Wirtschafter, whose list has since grown more eclectic, reps the Wachowski brothers, Halle Berry and Bryan Singer but also basketball star Kevin Garnett, singer Alicia Keys and novelist James Patterson. George Freeman brought Russell Crowe and Dennis Quaid; Steve Dontanville lured Reese Witherspoon and Meg Ryan; and Todd Feldman reps up-and-coming helmers Marc Forster and Todd Phillips.

Also added in the last five years are helmers Ridley Scott, Michael Bay, Bill Condon, Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven and Alexander Payne, plus actors Eric Bana, Brendan Fraser, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker.

Once ensconced at 1 William Morris Place, Wiatt began working to update the tenpercentery’s fusty image, trying to encourage more aggressive dealmaking, a hipper talent roster and fewer boundaries between departments.

In that respect, Wirtschafter’s no-holds-barred technique seemed a better fit than Haskell’s smoother, less contentious approach to the biz. Wirtschafter relishes putting together complex interdisciplinary deals for his clients, poring over every last detail of a contract before agreements are hammered out.

By contrast, TV topper Haskell often advised young agents to leave a few dollars on the table even when they had all the leverage. That way, the network might cut you a break when it had the upper hand on another deal. Nobody apparently ever left a meeting with Haskell feeling as if their pockets had been picked.

But that pay-it-forward philosophy didn’t make sense to Wiatt. He saw other agencies building stronger, or at least flashier, operations by being single-minded in the pursuit of clients and deals. And he increasingly wanted the agency to speak with a consistent voice and reflect a unity of purpose.

Soft-spoken and amiable, Wiatt cultivated many friendships among the town’s power players. Days before Tom Freston’s appointment of Brad Grey atop Paramount Pictures, Wiatt, Brian Grazer, Robert Evans and Freston were seen dining together at the Palm — which only fueled the repeated rumors that the agency topper himself was a candidate for the Par job (as for almost every top executive opportunity in Hollywood).

Back at the tenpercentery, Wiatt is known to get his way through quiet persuasion, but he can also wield the hammer. His exit from ICM in 1999 was a stormy one, and associates recall that he vowed to cause as much trouble for his old ICM partner Jeff Berg as possible.

According to the Wiatt faction, Haskell’s department

at WMA wasn’t collaborative enough. Others counter this assessment, saying Haskell represented the best traditions of the 107-year-old agency. (He was Continued from page 1

apparently offered the vice chairman title, but felt it wasn’t sufficiently hands-on.)

Both sides say conflicting attitudes over how to run the agency resulted in frequent clashes between teams Wiatt and Haskell. And in December, Haskell, chief operating officer Steve Kram and music chief Richard Rosenberg threw up their arms and quit.

Taken at face value, the management shuffle might seem simply a matter of “philosophical differences,” as per the press release. However, the moves are emblematic of transformations in Hollywood.

Aside from CAA, virtually every tenpercentery is in flux.

Costs are rising; profits aren’t. Across the board, income on the film side has been sharply curtailed as studio modifications a la MGM and Miramax result in fewer buyers. Salaries are dipping for everyone except a few top names and co-productions are redefining fiscal structures — including the amounts paid to agents.

WMA was the last holdout for the 5% TV packaging fee. Now that such fees threaten to become extinct, WMA must make do with 3%, or even 1.5% when the fee must be split with other agencies. Meanwhile, income has been hit hard by the dearth of overall deals for TV scribes as well as diminishing returns from the syndication market.

In short, this is not an easy time to be in the agency biz.

“Not everyone who’s here now will be here several months from now,” one William Morris agent says. “We’re working in an incredibly competitive environment. Every agency’s got to get lean.”

Agents find themselves increasingly using the ‘M’ word: merger. Speculation continues to run rampant on mergers and acquisitions, with every major agency emerging as buyer and/or seller.

Among the possible permutations, Endeavor began last year to examine the possibility of a hookup with several agencies, including WMA. The current rallying cry at WMA, as at other agencies, is that in a crossover culture — think CAA client Jerry Bruckheimer, who successfully straddles both film and TV — departments must work together. While that mandate may make sense in the long run, it’s difficult in the short term as latent prejudices bubble to the surface.

At many tenpercenteries, agents on the more-lucrative TV side resent financially supporting their film counterparts. Film agents, on the other hand, sneer at TV for being crass and less glamorous than the pic biz.

That’s the kind of civil discord Wiatt wanted to end with Wirtschafter’s appointment.

WMA’s also looking to bolster its talent and TV lit biz, both of which have taken hits over the years.

On the talent side, WMA’s losses over the last five years include a number of high-profile film folk — Hilary Swank, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, Sean Penn, Anthony Minghella, Michael Douglas, Billy Bob Thornton, Taylor Hackford, Wesley Snipes and John Madden — and a lesser number on the TV side, including Peter Tolan and Michael Borkow.

The agency also needs to beef up its scripted TV business. Producers often say, while they respect the WMA roster, it’s not their first port of call.

“They’ve had a lot of bad breaks lately,” one observer says of WMA’s scripted biz, referring to a number of WMA-packaged frosh series that haven’t gone the distance. “But like the networks, this is a cyclical business.”

Indeed, WMA has added several major TV names to its client roster in recent years — J.J. Abrams, David E. Kelley and Darren Star among them.

And, as at most agencies, the TV wing under Haskell at WMA was far more profitable than the film division, though exactly how much more is in dispute. (Most say “at least twice as much,” though a few say three or four times as much in certain years.)

The TV coin comes largely from WMA’s reality and syndication unit, headed by Mark Itkin. Staples like “Fear Factor,” “Live With Regis and Kelly,” “Big Brother” and the syndie version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” are paychecks worth millions to the agency every year.

The tenpercentery has a number of lucrative profitmakers, including half-packages on hits such as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Las Vegas” and “King of Queens.” It still makes money from reruns of “The Cosby Show,” which flooded WMA with riches during the 1980s.

Despite the high-profile exits, most agents at WMA believe they’re primed for an upward turn. Wiatt has already dissolved the long-running, long-criticized executive committee. As a subset of the board, it rendered board members irrelevant and kept power in the hands of a few execs.

“The old-line William Mor
ris school said, ‘Our departments are profitable, so we’re doing just fine. We’ll make the decisions of how we coordinate,’ ” says one WMA agent. “Those days are over.”

As for Wirtschafter, he doesn’t resemble an old-style agency topper, the quintessential “suit” who wore nothing but, had a hand in everything (film, TV, music) and avidly cultivated a cool image.

Instead, Wirtschafter, 47, has worked hard to downplay the glamour. He often comes to work in sneakers and short-sleeved mesh polo shirts and was rarely, if ever, seen at premieres or black ties events. Suitably, his clients include the press-loathing Wachowskis.

As in their days at ICM, Wirtschafter at WMA has been unswervingly loyal to Wiatt — and to his clients. The man who brings a golden retriever to the office is a dogged dealmaker who works long hours and shuns the limelight. In his spare time he plays tennis, surfs, fishes or visits his second home in New Zealand.

At least until recently.

Once openly disdainful of the press, he recently allowed the New Yorker writer Tad Friend to spend a month in his office researching an upcoming WMA profile for the weekly mag.

One longtime acquaintance puts Wirtschafter’s gifts in perspective: “He’s a terrific agent and honorable. He’s not warm and fuzzy, but you don’t need to be warm and fuzzy to be a leader.”

Meanwhile, Peter Grosslight has been working as Rosenberg’s equal in the music department since they came over from Triad and will continue to run that department. Irv Weintraub has replaced Steve as COO and Michael Dates has assumed Weintraub’s CFO duties.

As for Mississippi’s most prominent son in Hollywood, Haskell, 49, had planned to work another 10 years, then repair to the Magnolia state to enter politics and spearhead philanthropic causes. It’s still unclear what he might do in the meantime.

And who will replace Haskell as the top TV gun at the agency is unknown, though Itkin has (temporarily?) picked up most of those duties.

The agency biz is abuzz with talk that WMA is looking to woo a big gun from another agency to head up its TV assets.

The agency biz went through a major quake in the 1970s. Since then, there have been a series of subtle aftershocks. Now everyone in Hollywood is waiting to see what happens at Morris — and what it means for the rest of the agencies in town.

Claude Brodesser and Elizabeth Guider contributed to this report.