Managers realign dealmaking domain

While other showbiz realms retreat, new gurus widen their footprint

Consider this Hollywood anomaly: While fewer movies are being made, fewer writers are being hired, fewer actors are finding gigs and fewer filmmakers are closing deals, one job category is expanding in numbers and in clout: managers. There are more managers around than ever — more career gurus charged with guiding talent through a lousy economy.

It’s not uncommon for an actor or filmmaker to pay out 25% of his income to assemble a team of agent, manager and attorney in the hope of building a healthier payday. The upshot: The dealmaking process is growing ever more combative, the rivalries more intense.

Managers are increasingly moving beyond basic strategizing — more are actively producing, running companies and orchestrating deals. The Talent Agencies Act specifically anoints agents with the task of “soliciting, procuring and negotiating,” though it has not been enforced (a manager named Rick Siegel was in the court of appeals last week trying to put “teeth” into the act).

These lines have become even fuzzier because many new managers are former agents cast adrift by Endeavor’s takeover of William Morris. Indeed, one selling point of managers is that, as ex-agents, they can help steer a project through the mega-rivalries of CAA, WME, UTA and ICM. “The savvy manager can build collaboration for a client’s project and prevent it from being stalled by competitive agency agendas,” observes Paul Young of Principato Young Entertainment. (Young has worked for a studio but never been an agent.)

Clients are signing on with managers not only because they’re intimidated by the big talent agencies but also because they feel they don’t get enough tender loving care. “Sure, part of our job is holding hands and kissing butt,” acknowledges one manager. However, some management firms, such as Mosaic, 3 Arts, Management 360 or Untitled have themselves become big entities, with scores of clients. “I don’t know how a manager can have as many as, say, 50 clients and still do the up-front-and-personal job he’s expected to do,” says Chuck Binder, whose boutique firm started in the 1970s repping the likes of Sharon Stone and Daryl Hannah.

Various managers have earned their niches for specific idiosyncrasies. The hard-charging Jimmy Miller produces and packages comedy; Rick Yorn is renowned for coming up with great gigs for Leonardo DiCaprio and his cohorts but rarely returning phone calls; Alan Gasmer, a William Morris emigre, is active on Broadway as well as in TV.

The companies being formed by some ex-agents define their agendas in such a complex way that it’s difficult to figure out their business plans — witness Factory-Made Ventures, launched by ex-WME agent John Fogelman as a “business development and consulting firm” that will, among other things, develop shortform programming.

Whatever their strategy, the reality is that managers are confronting the same cost pressures as the talent agencies. Indeed, many look back longingly at the banner days of the ’80s and early ’90s when Brillstein-Grey achieved ascendancy, not only for its client lists but also for its production fees (sizable chunks of the gross that are inaccessible today).

The colorful Bernie Brillstein, who died in 2008, was executive producer of films like “Ghostbusters” and “The Blues Brothers.” Brad Grey was brilliantly adept at building TV alliances, first with Sony (which put up deficit financing), then with ABC (which acquired a 50% stake in Brillstein-Grey). Grey basically ended up selling his TV and management business three times and still put his name on shows like “The Sopranos” and “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.” (Grey is now chairman and CEO of Paramount).

Grey, who started as a manager while still in his late teens, redefined both the role and the expectations of his business.

Today’s managers have to continue that process of reinvention — but in a much more corporate and competitive environment. Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Peter Caranicas/Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson