Talent Agents Have Lost Their Leverage in a Buyer’s Market

Fear and gloating abounds in the land of commissions

Bette Midler - "I'll Eat You Last"

The most important fact about talent agents today is that no one is scared of them anymore.

In years gone by, studio chiefs and network buyers were intimidated by Lew Wasserman at MCA, Abe Lastfogel at William Morris, Michael Ovitz in his CAA prime and, now and then, Sue Mengers. (There’s even a new Broadway play about her megalomania. Pictured above, Bette Midler plays Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last.”)

Today’s top agents still have plenty of swagger, but even the Ari Emanuels and Richard Lovetts of the agenting trade characterize business in Hollywood in two unpleasant words: buyer’s market.

Back in his day, when Wasserman decided to set up a project, he essentially redefined the market — hence MCA’s reputation as “The Octopus.” Today agents come in with an “ask,” not a mandate. Their buyers are not undercapitalized studios but multinational behemoths.


Ovitz used to boast that his power base stemmed from the most finite of commodities: talent. When he orchestrated his exit from the venerable William Morris office in 1975, he set out to sign Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and every other star he knew or wanted to know.

Drop in on an agency meeting today and the lexicon you hear reminds you more of Wall Street or Madison Avenue than of Hollywood. The dialogue is about funding and branding, not casting.

The seminal changes in the agency business date back to the Ovitz era and beyond, but the biggest recent convulsion occurred precisely four years ago. The formation of WME was announced as a merger; it was in fact an implosion. The end of the Morris office triggered waves of anger and a chain of lawsuits (some still pending).

Not long ago some 250 former William Morris agents gathered for a reunion and an unofficial celebration of that agency’s 100-year history. Beneath the surface conviviality was an undertone of outrage from agents who felt that the deal was a sellout that enriched an in-group with payouts of $15 million to $17 million but left many agents unemployed. A Google group of some 350 William Morris veterans still exchanges updates and tirades.

Before that, the two biggest blows to the William Morris legacy were the defections of Ovitz and Ron Meyer to form CAA, and the 1986 death of Stan Kamen. Kamen was a quiet, unpretentious man who represented the town’s biggest stars. He and Mengers earlier had an unwritten deal never to raid each others’ clients without six months’ advance notice.

In a desperate effort to regain some traction after Kamen’s death, the taciturn senior statesmen who controlled William Morris signed Mengers to a five-year deal as their new president. Mengers’ career at her previous agency, CMA, had been devastated by the defection of several major clients, led by Barbra Streisand, supposedly Mengers’ closest friend. Streisand was affronted when Mengers steamrollered her into a dreadful movie, “All Night Long,” directed by Mengers’ husband, Jean-Claude Tramont.

In her new perch at William Morris, Mengers tried desperately to re-sign Streisand, and ink Redford, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and every other major star. None wanted to go with her. As one agency veteran recalls, “Our weekly film meeting consisted of Mengers smoking dope and telling us which stars had turned her down that week.”

Mengers disastrous two-year reign at the William Morris office was left out of the new Broadway play, “I’ll Eat You Last,” which opened April 24 on Broadway. The show concentrates on her glory days at CMA, with her boasting exuberantly about how she muscled studio chiefs into rich deals with her clients.

Toward the end, Mengers ran into more and more pushback as studio chiefs exhibited ever more resistance not only to her, but to macho dealmaking in general. Ovitz had gone too far when he’d warned Joe Eszterhas (a writer client who had fired him) that “my foot soldiers will go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day and they will blow your brains out.” Jeremy Zimmer (then of ICM but now boss of UTA) reflected on the lines crossed when he told a panel, “The big agencies are all like animals, raping and pillaging.”

Pillaging clearly was falling out of fashion. Unless, that is, it was the multinationals applying the chokehold.