Some years ago I dropped by the William Morris Agency to visit an old friend named Stan Kamen. A modest, soft-spoken man whose office was a bit frowzy, Kamen interrupted our meeting to take a call from a client, Jack Lemmon. It was a quiet, reassuring sort of client-agent conversation and, when Kamen put down the phone, he told me, “Mine is basically a very simple job. I get work for my clients.”
Today the Kamen-style agent is becoming an anachronism. Confronted by rising costs and soaring ambitions, today’s angst-ridden tenpercenter is focused on re-inventing the agency business. This means foraging for new revenue streams and orchestrating megamergers.
And how does the talent view these initiatives? Some applaud their reps’ entrepreneurial zeal and their determination to challenge the growing power of the majors. Other players, however, fear that the basic need of actors, writers and others in the talent community — the need to get a job — will inevitably take second position to all the wheeling and dealing.
“My new agent promises to build me into a brand, but I’m an actor, I’m not toothpaste,” one star confided to me last week. “I miss the old days when someone just sent me a script, not a spiel.”
It’s not hard to recall the moment of transition in the agency business. When the accomplished Stan Kamen became ill, and the William Morris Agency became tired, some of its key reps set up Creative Artists Agency and the balance of power quickly shifted.
Under the new world order, the talent rep was no longer the little guy in the black suit who coveted his anonymity. CAA’s bold leader Michael Ovitz wanted star billing along with his star clients. CAA’s job wasn’t just to get star salaries for Cruise and Spielberg but also to serve as marriage brokers for Universal and Matsushita.
Michael Ovitz did such a great job running CAA that he decided to run Disney and then the world. The Disney gig didn’t go down well, so the world was put on hold.
There is intense competition to be the next Ovitz, and that fact causes alarm in the talent world. Given the harsh economy, working actors and filmmakers feel oppressed by the realities of the job market. There are fewer jobs around and the pay keeps shrinking. There’s also a growing gap between the working actor and the star. Whether you’re a character actor or a writer, you’re dead meat if you find yourself in that ominous zone known as “the middle.”
The middle used to support talent agencies. Today, mid-level agents are being fired and their clients abandoned.
That’s why the William Morris-Endeavor merger causes apprehension in some quarters as well as applause in others. Many hope the surviving entity will be energized and become a vital force in challenging the power of the major networks and studios.
But meanwhile, there’s concern about the short-term traumas. What will be the impact of all the agent angst — the job switching, the client raiding, etc.?
And who’s going to do the grunt work described by Stan Kamen. Who’s going to get the jobs?