It’s one thing when entertainment executives--even the highest paid ones--defect and go to rival companies. It’s another thing when Hollywood agents do it. In that case there are financial ramifications for the company left behind because agents often walk out the door with many of their highly paid clients.
Over the weekend, three young agents from Creative Artists Agency were discovered to be in secret talks with rival agency Endeavor to become full partners with the five owners of the 19-month-old, Beverly Hills-based literary boutique.
The agents, David Lonner, 34, Doug Robinson, 33, and Adam Venit, 33, who represent some of Hollywood’s promising younger talent, including directors Jon Turteltaub (“Phenomenon,” “While You Were Sleeping”) and Brad Silberling (“Casper”) and actors Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Leonardo DiCaprio, resigned Sunday afternoon after CAA President Richard Lovett uncovered their plans to leave. They had originally planned on officially resigning Monday.
Some, but not all of their clients, will be joining the trio at Endeavor. Those they say are committed to go right now include Snipes, Sandler, Kudrow, Turteltaub, Silberling and possibly a few others.
It’s unclear, even to their own agents, who among the clients have active contracts with CAA, which would require them to continue paying commissions to that agency for a designated time. Such contracts usually run one to three years.
By adding actors and directors to its client roster Endeavor potentially becomes a stronger force in the agency business since it will now have the power to package actors and directors with their literary clients in movies and TV shows. CAA built its success this way under its departed founders Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber.
Endeavor has begun to make a name for itself particularly in the TV arena with such writer-executive producer clients as David E. Kelley, creator of “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope,” Bonnie and Terry Turner (“3rd Rock From the Sun”) and Jay Tarses, co-creator of “Public Morals.”
While the agency also represents highly-paid screenwriter Shane Black, who received $4 million for his script “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” and some up-and-coming feature directors, it has no A-list filmmakers or top movie stars like those at CAA and the other top agencies.
This weekend’s development, reported in Variety on Monday, underscores the continued instability of the highly competitive agency business. The agencies typically receive 10% of the multimillions of dollars that talent is paid, and the last five years has seen ever more client poaching and agent defections.
Endeavor was formed in March 1995, when four key agents from CAA rival International Creative Artists--David Greenblatt, Tom Strickler, Ariel Emanuel and Richard Rosen--were abruptly fired after their plan to launch a competing firm was discovered by ICM brass in the dead of the night as they tried to make off with their files.
Such defections reflect the cutthroat, high-stakes nature of the talent representation business. Greenblatt and his former colleague Judy Hofflund left CAA to form InterTalent with ICM agent Bill Block in 1988. InterTalent fell apart in 1992, at which time Greenblatt, Block and Strickler and nine other agents from that boutique joined ICM.
The most famous defection on record was when Ovitz, Meyer, Haber and two of their colleagues left the William Morris Agency in 1975 to start CAA--which became Hollywood’s most powerful agency over the next two decades.
The latest defections are not only a financial blow to CAA but an emotional one as well. They are the first collective resignations since Ovitz left last year to become president of Disney, Meyer departed to join MCA as its president and a new agency management team was formed.
Last fall, Marty Adelstein left CAA to join Endeavor as a partner.
Lonner, Robinson and Venit have told friends and colleagues that they would not have considered leaving CAA if Ovitz and Meyer had stayed at the agency’s helm.
Their leaving comes during the month when CAA handed out its annual bonuses. Some agents, including Lonner, were known to be upset at their allotments, which run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. All three said their leaving had nothing to do with their bonuses but with their desire to own their own business.
Sources say the three had been restless for some time and were just waiting until they collected their bonuses to make a move.
Lonner was the only one of the three who had expressed any hint of discontent to Lovett before the CAA president was tipped to the Endeavor plan this weekend. Lonner’s decision to leave was complicated by the fact that his father-in-law, CAA senior business affairs executive Ray Kurtzman, and brother-in-law, agent Ray Kurtzman work for the agency.
Endeavor tried to hire Lonner a year ago, but he said that at the time he “didn’t want to abandon the ship.” He began talking with the Endeavor partners in the last month. Robinson and Venit had been in discussions with Endeavor for the past six months.
Lonner worked at CAA for four years and before that was an agent at ICM for six. He started in the William Morris mail room. Robinson worked at CAA for 11 1/2 years and Venit for 10 1/2. Both started in the agency’s mail room.
Lovett, who was sitting at home Sunday watching a ballgame when agents started calling with news of the planned defections, said, “I am sad to see them go, they’re my friends, but at the same time I understand people being entrepreneurial and wanting to pursue their own dreams.”
The CAA president also said he did not believe their leaving or the loss of clients would have any significant long-term negative impact on the agency.
While CAA has by no means been dismantled as many of its rivals had hoped and predicted in the wake of Ovitz and Meyer departing, the agency has lost a number of big money clients over the last year, including Barry Levinson, who left last week to join ICM, Kevin Costner, Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvestor Stallone, Alec Baldwin, John Singleton and Joel Schumacher.
CAA--once the bastion of stability--still has the strongest top talent list in Hollywood with such clients as Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis. Over the last year, it has added to its roster such new clients as Sharon Stone, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Aniston (“Friends”), among others.