New rules of the 21st percentery

Agents of change: reps get angsty rich

I never thought it would come to this, but I miss the musty old William Morris Agency. When you entered its paneled precincts you felt like you’d been invited to a club — not necessarily a friendly club, but one dedicated to advancing the fortunes of its members while also making generous sums of money for itself.

Talent agencies feel colder and more corporate today than the old Morris office.(Agents are also taller and better looking.) When you visit them you sense you might really be at Goldman Sachs. This is relevant in that the top agencies, like the top Wall Street firms, have survived the Great Recession in much better shape than have other sectors of the economy.

Sure their sails have been trimmed along the way, but agenting is still a hugely profitable business. One agency CEO estimates that there are at least 60 agents at the Big Three agencies who earn between $2 million and $6 million a year, with salaries of partners soaring much higher. The top CAA partners experienced a special bonanza from the sale of 35% of their agency to a private equity firm.

There have been turbulent moments in the agency business along the way. The Endeavor acquisition of the Morris office two years ago traumatized scores of agents, sending them into the unchartered waters of personal management (or unemployment). The recent arbitration decision against WME for backing out of its lease on a new building on Beverly Drive reportedly could cost WME some $25 million,but WME hopes to appeal.

The top agencies worry about various long-term trends: The cutbacks in film production, the squeeze on packaging fees and on gross participation deals all impinge on agency profits. Plus, SAG reported a 24% drop in member TV earnings over the last two years. Still, the agencies have found new revenue streams in sports, corporate promotions and other arenas.

Further, the pervasive fear gripping the entertainment community has worked in the agents’ favor. It’s rare these days for a top client to fire his agent and move to a rival, while in the early days of CAA, talent raids were a weekly occurrence. Today agents dismiss their clients, rather than the other way around.

Arguably, talent agents work harder than other denizens of the entertainment community. The neuroses of “Entourage’s” Ari Gold are easily identifiable. Today’s agents may make a great living, but they live with the knowledge that a job loss could be not only harmful but terminal.

Life was easier and more secure in the heyday of the Morris office, when the agency was a cocoon as well as an employer. Agents who stumbled were taken care of — their responsibilities shifted, their mistakes papered over.

That’s one reason why the Morris alumni still cling together. There are alumni dinners. Emails circulate to a network of some 270 alums, who exchange anecdotes and random words of encouragement.

Encouraging words, however random, are gratefully welcomed not only by Morris alums but by their wider fraternity of tenpercenters.

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