WMA flexes media muscle

Agency sics legal bulldog on Post to quell buzz of instability

Perception isn’t always everything.

The notion that the William Morris Agency, founded in 1898, is financially unstable is about as convincing as saying Vegas is dull.

But that was in the insinuation that ran in the New York Post May 8, prompting WMA to throw a punch of its own by enlisting attorney Bert Fields to demand a retraction.

As of May 12, the Post had not responded.

The Page Six story — which said WMA was considering selling its Beverly Hills digs to “raise cash” and that an “emergency meeting” was being convened — was the last straw for WMA. The agency has taken a beating from the Gotham tabloid, which ran eight stories on WMA in the two months since the New Yorker profile of WMA prexy Dave Wirtschafter, which resulted in the defection of Halle Berry and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Since the article was published, the agency has also seen other defections that WMA says are unrelated, such as Reese Witherspoon, helmer Matthew Vaughn and a few agents.

There’s no question it’s been a rough time for WMA, which is more accustomed to criticism that it’s old-fashioned and a little boring compared to flashier rivals like Endeavor and CAA.

Cash, however, isn’t a problem for the company, which gets hundreds of millions in receivables from TV shows that date back to the 1950s. Remember that little program “The Cosby Show”? WMA still gets checks courtesy of the Cos.

William Morris is also financially secured by its real-estate holdings, which one industryite characterizes as “about half of Beverly Hills.”

That said, the agency’s motion picture division took a hit it didn’t need — its talent department is already regarded as behind the CAA-led pack — due to all the negative press, which went beyond the Post.

Yet anyone who knows agency math understands that big-name film stars do not a profitable agency necessarily make. “William Morris could lose all of its film clients and even all its film agents and it’d still make money,” says one manager.

However, perception is still a factor in showbiz, or else why bring in Fields?

Not lost on WMA is that the Post is read dutifully by the New York media — i.e. powerful opinionmakers who aren’t necessarily up on agency annual reports.

So far, Fields’ threat has been at least partially effective. Since his letter was sent to the Post, the prankstery paper, uncharacteristically, hasn’t made a peep.