COMPANY TOWN : For CAA and Television, It’s One Step Forward and Two Back
Few clients have generated more money for Creative Artists Agency than Aaron Spelling, the prolific television producer who counts among his credits “Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” So a collective sigh of relief went up among the new owners of CAA this fall when Spelling renewed his contract after two decades of personal attention from Bill Haber, TV agent par excellence and part of the powerful founding triumvirate of CAA that was selling out.
But Spelling’s show of faith has not necessarily eased the transition to new management at CAA or its television department. While the defections of high-profile movie stars and directors like Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin, Steven Seagal and John Hughes have grabbed headlines, the quiet exodus of two top television agents and nearly two dozen clients, including “Chicago Hope” creator David Kelley and “News Radio” creator Paul Simms, may signal an equally serious problem for CAA.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 08, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 8, 1995 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Financial Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Edward Zwick--Director, executive producer and writer Edward Zwick of Bedford Falls Co. (“Legends of the Fall,” “thirtysomething”) has been a client of International Creative Management since 1980. His partner in Bedford, Marshall Herskovitz, is a client of Creative Artists Agency. An article in Tuesday’s editions misstated Zwick’s representation.
“CAA’s television group has definitely been weakened,” said one network executive. “The balance of power is now shifting, opening the door for United Talent and Endeavor, and helping build up the more established agencies like William Morris and ICM. There are now five or six strong contenders in television.”
CAA acknowledges the losses, but casts the situation as a natural evolution. “There is a lot of cohesion here,” said Lee Gabler, the new co-chairman of the company and head of its TV department. “Everyone is rallying to move forward and put the past behind us in the most positive vein.”
CAA has never dominated TV as it has the feature film business, where its list of top-flight directors and actors is unparalleled. But sources estimate that about 40% of its billings come from television.
“What CAA is missing in TV is the high-level executive producers, writers and show runners,” said one of CAA’s television clients. “Those elements drive TV packaging and packaging is the biggest score for agencies.”
While agents typically earn 10% commissions from movie and TV stars, producers, directors and writers, those earnings can pale beside television “packaging” fees, which typically include 10% of all syndication profits from a series. “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown” are said by television sources to have reaped $25 million apiece in syndication fees for the William Morris Agency, the grandfather of all agencies in television.
Packaging fees typically are awarded to the agency that delivers the element that lands a series on the air. Historically, the production company was key, but the landscape of the industry has changed in recent years to favor writer-producers.
But sources say CAA’s TV business was built to serve its large independent production clients like Spelling and Witt-Thomas Productions (“The John Larroquette Show”). At least that is how many rival agents pitched hot young writers. “A writer at CAA might get a better deal at TriStar, but CAA would never pursue it if Witt-Thomas or Spelling wanted them,” said one competitor. “That has backfired for CAA by driving the best writers to other agencies.”
Sources say it is one reason Witt-Thomas is shopping itself to other agencies. The company worked on a project with William Morris two years ago, another jointly with ICM and CAA last year and is now in talks with United Talent Agency. The company’s loyalty to CAA further diminished with Haber’s departure this month.
Rivals and clients have seen a change at CAA in the last two years. For the first time, they say, CAA targeted TV stars, luring Heather Locklear (“Melrose Place”) from William Morris. It signed a litter of hot producer-writers, shoring up a weakness in comedy with the additions of Rob Ulin of “Roseanne” and Matt Williams, who created “Home Improvement.”
But some of CAA’s best writers have left in the transition. In September Marty Adelstein took about 15 clients with him to Endeavor, a new agency founded by three refugees from International Creative Management. Adelstein was considered one of the most aggressive television agents at CAA, responsible for more than half of the agency’s 10 or so new TV packages, including one of the two strongest shows of the season, NBC’s “The Single Guy.”
His biggest client, David Kelley, is about to announce a deal worth more than $30 million over five years with multiple networks. CAA, which has represented Kelley for several years, is expected to make a claim to a commission on that fee.
Sources say Adelstein was a misfit at CAA, seen as out for himself rather than for the team. They say he felt slighted by the board entrusted to run the company by outgoing CAA co-founders Michael S. Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber.
Adelstein was apparently at odds with Lee Gabler, the one member of the nine-person board from the television group, who inherited his clients, Spelling and Witt Thomas from Haber and David Letterman from Ovitz.
Still, Adelstein is not the only one to capitalize on the management turmoil and the loss of the magical draw of an Ovitz or a Haber. United Talent Agency has lured six writer-producers, including Barbara Hall (“Northern Exposure”) and Bruce Paltrow, co-creator of “St. Elsewhere.”
And others could be on their way out. Witt-Thomas is thought by many to be vulnerable, as are the clients handled by Michael Rosenfeld, another top CAA agent who last week announced plans to join ABC Entertainment. One of his clients, Paul Simms, the creator of “News Radio,” has severed ties to rely on his lawyers for representation.
“The question is who is doing the signing and schmoozing,” said one entertainment lawyer. “Marty and Michael were the maniac signers.”
CAA still has a slew of high-octane television clients, and many of them will stay put because of the agency’s pull in feature films. Sources say producers like Matt Williams, Brand-Falsey Productions (“Northern Exposure”), The Bedford Falls Co. (“Thirtysomething”) and Miller/Boyett Productions (“Happy Days”) have retained CAA mainly to prospect for films. CAA client Edward Zwick of Bedford Falls has added several movie credits to his resume because of his association with CAA, including “Legends of the Fall.”
And networks will keep pounding on CAA’s door for a similar reason--the ability to get access to feature talent, like director Barry Levinson, who has lent cache to NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
“Ted Danson wants to do a series this year and Michael J. Fox is hovering on the periphery,” said one network executive. “With Helen Hunt (“Mad About You”) and ‘Friends’ and ‘ER’ stars booking major movie deals, it is short-sighted for actors to look down on television. The feature crossover is one reason CAA remains so important to us.”