Is Hollywood loyalty an oxymoron?
It’s a question being pondered this week throughout the industry by those who were stunned that Arnold Schwarzenegger had terminated his longtime agent after a 15-year run that catapulted the Austrian bodybuilder into arguably the biggest star in the world.
His firing of Lou Pitt, a veteran agent at International Creative Management, came only days after Sylvester Stallone left his agent, Arnold Rifkin, at William Morris Agency, though that relationship lasted barely a year.
In recent weeks, a number of actors, including Carrie Fisher and Nathan Lane, also fired their longtime agents and jumped to other agencies.
One in particular that drew industry notice was the decision by Cuba Gooding Jr.--the Oscar-nominated actor who portrays a fiercely loyal client to his sports agent (played by Tom Cruise) in the current box-office hit “Jerry Maguire"--to fire his real-life agent just as his career is taking off.
Anyone in Hollywood will tell you that switching agents--be it after 20 years or 20 minutes--is part of the business. It is rarely about disloyalty but invariably about clients believing they can do better. In some instances, clients panic and flee, only to later re-sign with the very agencies they once left, as was the recent case with Stallone, Eddie Murphy, Tim Burton and directors Adrian Lyne and Joel Schumacher.
But, contrary to the conventional wisdom--that loyalty in Hollywood is elusive at best--all of the agents and other industry observers interviewed by The Times say they firmly believe loyalty exists in more cases than not.
“As horrible as it is for Lou, Arnold making the move is not disloyal. Fifteen years is loyal,” says a top talent agent who represents a number of major stars.
One veteran agent suggests: “Loyalty in this town is based on performance. If you do a good job, the clients are going to stay loyal.”
Many of Hollywood’s most successful stars have been with the same representatives for decades, some as much as 25 years or more, as is the case with Clint Eastwood and Walter Matthau and their agent, Lenny Hirshan, of William Morris; Jack Nicholson and his Encino-based independent agent, Sandy Bresler; Bill Cosby and Norman Brokaw of William Morris; and Harrison Ford, who is the sole client of Pat McQueeney.
In a statement, Cosby said of Brokaw: “If we were brothers, we couldn’t be closer. I rest easily with Norman because I know he always thinks of me--not just for now but for the years ahead.”
Brokaw, a 54-year vet who at 69 joined the Morris office at age 15 and still represents Loretta Young after 45 years and Kim Novak after 37, observes: “Movement has always been part of our business. When high-profile clients make changes, it sounds the media bell, but in truth there’s plenty of business.”
Industry sources believe that Schwarzenegger, who’s about to turn 50, is seeking fresh ideas to help reinvent his career. Those who know him say his decision to leave his agent was carefully thought out, based not on a singular event but cumulative. Some speculate that Schwarzenegger is upset that his latest movie, “Jingle All the Way,” bombed and that he wasn’t getting roles being offered to other ICM star clients such as Mel Gibson.
Whether or not that’s true, agents invariably get blamed when things go wrong.
“It’s totally unfair to blame an agent when a film doesn’t do well or to take praise when one does well,” says McQueeney, who’s represented Ford for 27 years, first as a manager then as an agent for the last 10 years. “I think it’s appalling that clients leave agents when they try to reinvent their careers when in reality they’re the ones who ultimately chose which films they’re in.”
Schwarzenegger was overseas and not available to comment.
Although there are numerous reasons a client changes agents, it’s human nature to think the grass is always greener. In such an ego-driven business as Hollywood, where insecurity runs deep, celebrities often second-guess themselves and their representatives and can be swayed not only by their agents, lawyers and managers, but by their hairdressers and drivers.
Agents often prey on those insecurities when trying to poach a client from a competitor--making an actor question why he didn’t get the part that went to Cruise or Tom Hanks or why no one ever suggested directing movies, like Eastwood or Robert Redford.
“By and large, two or three good agents can always tempt and make an actor feel insecure about his future if they spend enough time thinking about it,” says Bresler, suggesting that the evolution of CAA “created a competitiveness between agencies that was fierce.”
Although client poaching is increasingly prevalent in the cutthroat, high-stakes agency business, where top talent represents tens of millions of dollars in commission, the sword is double-edged. There isn’t an agent in Hollywood who wouldn’t agree that losing a client is the single most painful aspect of their profession.
Though agencies are well-compensated for the services they provide--receiving 10% of the talent’s fee--most agents also make genuine personal investments in their clients. It’s not uncommon for clients and their agents to take their families on vacations together.
When and if that client-agent relationship goes bust, it’s similar to a marriage ending in divorce, some agents say.
“These are not commodity relationships where services are bought and sold,” says one prominent agent. “These are very deep, unique, complex relationships.”
Agents say the most hurtful part of losing clients is when there’s no forewarning or when a client doesn’t personally deliver the bad news. Agents usually find out they’ve been fired through a client’s attorney.
ICM President Jim Wiatt says that although he has no idea why Schwarzenegger left, the loss of a valued client to anyone in a service business--be it an agent, lawyer or publicist--"is the worst--it hurts . . . all of a sudden it’s over. Like somebody got shot.”
The natural question a person in that position asks himself or herself, says Wiatt, is, “Where did I go wrong?”
“While there are a lot of pluses, clearly one of the tougher parts of the business is losing a client,” says Bob Gersh of the Gersh Agency, whose client Sharon Stone left after she became a major star with her role in “Basic Instinct.”
Days after escorting his client to the Golden Globes with no sense that anything was amiss, agent Sam Gores of Paradigm was fired by Gooding, who left for CAA. Although he was disappointed and surprised because his client was riding high on the success of “Jerry Maguire,” he wasn’t altogether stunned because Gooding has long had agency jitters. He was with Paradigm in 1991, then less than a year later joined Triad Artists (later bought by William Morris). He left Morris for ICM in 1993 and two years later signed again with Paradigm.
“I’m turning the page and putting my focus on the loyal clients we represent,” says Gore, who also handles actor Laurence Fishburne and director Jonathan Frakes.
Fred Specktor, a highly regarded senior agent at CAA whose list of longtime clients includes Danny DeVito, Robert De Niro, Pierce Brosnan, Glenn Close, Beau Bridges (28 years) and Bruce Dern (25 years), has a philosophic view of loyalty.
“Everyone starts out with a loyal relationship and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate that my clients have been loyal to me, as I have been to them.”