From Hollywood Hotshot to Invisible Man

A decade ago, Bill Block was considered one of the hottest young agents in Hollywood and certainly one of the most ambitious.

With slicked-back hair, trademark black attire and fast-talk hustle, he fit the part well. He practically pioneered the agent's use of the telephone headset and rarely missed a Monday night at Mortons.

"He did the game better than anybody," says pal and former associate Jeremy Zimmer, an agent and partner at United Talent Agency. "I was always so jealous of him and his ability to pull the strings of Hollywood."

In a 1993 Vanity Fair article, "The Players," it was said of Block: "He lives his life being an agent. No wife, no kids, no pets of his own--just clients and more clients and deals and more deals. He thinks like a shark. Without forward motion, he will die."

Last week, it was announced that the 43-year-old agent at International Creative Management was leaving the representation business after 17 years for an entrepreneurial venture. He's going to be part of a new four-person management team seeking to revitalize Live Entertainment, a financially struggling independent film and video distribution company taken private recently by an investment group led by Boston-based Bain Capital.

Block joins a list of onetime quintessential Hollywood insiders--among them Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer--reinventing themselves in new roles.

Block's career has had an interesting trajectory, especially given the ambitious path he had pursued since becoming a junior agent in the late 1970s. Smart, quick-witted and aggressive, he was recruited by ICM in 1983 and became known as a tenacious hotshot during his five years there.

In 1988, he left ICM to form his own smaller agency, InterTalent, with two of his competitors, Creative Artists Agency's Judy Hofflund and David Greenblatt. But after 4 1/2 years, he wanted a bigger playing field. Against the wishes of several of his partners, he disbanded the agency in October 1992 and rejoined ICM with 12 others from InterTalent. (Six talent agents--including partners Hofflund, J.J. Harris and David Schiff--joined rival United Talent Agency.)

At the time, Block was banner-headline news in the Hollywood trade papers, not to mention the subject of a national magazine piece for Vanity Fair.

Last week, news that he was leaving ICM to join Live barely registered on Hollywood's Richter scale. Many of his friends and former colleagues say they are confident Block will be a success in his new venture because of his fearless, unstoppable nature.

When he first rejoined ICM it was with great expectations. He was given a lofty title--head of West Coast operations--and it was hoped he'd have a major impact at the agency and on a broader, global playing field.

But Block--who friends like to say has a flair for the theatrical--quickly and surprisingly receded into the background.

What happened to Bill Block? It's a question that still comes up at the occasional Hollywood dinner party or power lunch.

"Bill became invisible at ICM," a former colleague says. "Things didn't pan out the way he wanted."

For starters, it became almost instantly clear to insiders at the agency that although Block might have been an inspirational leader at his own agency, he was less effective at a larger company, mostly because he was lax at follow-through and hated confrontation.

Perhaps even more significantly, his New Age-ish "we're all a team" pep talks fell on deaf ears. For one thing, ICM had a far different culture, consisting of strong personalities who weren't the "let's join hands" types. For another, because Block didn't have the client base that rivaled those of fellow agents representing such big stars as Mel Gibson or Julia Roberts, he eluded their respect.

Block represented mostly writers and directors, among them Sam Raimi, Peter Hyams, Larry Ferguson and Menno Meyjes. His main actor client was Steven Seagal, who he signed away from CAA.

In hindsight, Block might have taken seriously ICM Chairman Jeff Berg's warning to him at a breakfast when he and a dozen of his ITA peers joined the agency.

"Bill--I mean this--you have no idea what you're getting into," Berg was quoted as saying to Block in Vanity Fair, which reported on the breakfast.

Although some say Berg and ICM President Jim Wiatt never gave Block the authority necessary to lead the troops, others suggest that that wasn't the issue.

"Authority is totally conditional. You can't just say, 'Hey, this guy is your new boss.' That person has to earn the respect of his peers, and he didn't, because the clients he represented weren't as big as theirs," one veteran agent says.

Says a top ICM agent: "He never achieved the level and stature as an artist representative that would have brought him to that next level."

Wiatt says he looked to Block "to develop young agents and help train them to be more proactive and out there in the community--especially mixing it up with young talent." Wiatt was hoping Block could inspire younger agents to be as "energetic and social as he was."

Says one ICM peer, "He didn't have the impact they had hoped he'd have in attracting new business--it didn't happen."

Friends say that once Block realized he didn't have the ability or clout to motivate the agency as he had hoped, he grew restless and less interested in the personal service side of his job--that is, representing talent.

He began concentrating on other business opportunities, specifically building ICM's interactive and technology businesses.

For the last year, Block worked with ICM client Bain, advising the company on its media investments, which eventually led to last week's buyout of Live and his decision to join the venture as its co-president. Along with Amir Malin, formerly of October Films, Block will oversee new production and acquisition of modestly budgeted independent films.

However, it's a far cry from his onetime ambitions to be one of the most influential players in Hollywood.

"He, David Hoberman [former agent and Touchstone Pictures president-turned producer] and I were labeled 'wolverines' by Berg--we'd go mix it up," recalls Zimmer, the former ICM colleague.

And now?

Says Zimmer: "The warrior hangs up his sword."

* More Company Town: D22

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