Hollywood Agents Lose the Throne
Pity the poor Hollywood agent.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, talent agents ruled the industry. Movie studios and television networks found themselves beholden to International Creative Management, the Creative Artists Agency and the time-tested William Morris Agency, the “big three” agencies that had a lock on most A-list stars. Agents made big money for both their clients and themselves, charging the TV networks, for example, huge so-called packaging fees to assemble talent for shows.
Even for the most famous actors, it was often unclear who needed whom more: agent or client?
No more. Today, some of the biggest stars don’t have agents. Kevin Costner and Sharon Stone use their lawyers to close deals. Winona Ryder, though now represented by ICM, recently went for two years without an agent, letting her personal manager handle her career. Leonardo DiCaprio is represented solely by his manager. So is martial arts star Jackie Chan.
The rising Hollywood mogul is the personal manager, a position once largely seen as an indulgence by actors, and certainly not essential to success. Although the vast majority of “name” actors, directors and writers still have agents, when it comes to representing talent these days, “It’s a free-for-all,” said one prominent lawyer. Times are changing, and lately, so are a lot of agents--changing into managers, that is.
In recent months, more than half a dozen agents (representing actors and directors such as Chan, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Macaulay Culkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Paul Verhoeven and Vanessa Williams) have quit, packing up their Rolodexes and turning into personal managers.
When Michael Ovitz, once the most powerful talent agent in town, unveiled plans to form a management company--Artists Management Group, which began full operations this week--it only confirmed what most people in Hollywood already knew: “Agents are no longer the kings,” said Frank Rose, author of the 1995 book “The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business.”
Agents, who are licensed by the state, make their money negotiating contracts. Under long-standing agreements with Hollywood’s labor unions, they may charge no more than 10% commissions and may not produce movies or television shows. Managers, by contrast, are largely unregulated. They can charge clients what they like (many take 15%) and can produce clients’ projects, taking lucrative production fees as well as on-screen credits. Theoretically, they may not procure work for clients, although they may offer counsel and participate in negotiations with agents.
In recent years, managers have become commonplace not only for actors, but for directors and writers as well. Not only is the field less restrictive and potentially more lucrative than the agency world, but many managers find their services are much in demand.
“It is so hard to get a job,” said one 32-year-old actress who employs both an agent and a manager. Even with featured roles in more than a half-dozen recent studio films under her belt, she said, she considers the money she pays her two representatives a necessary cost of doing business. “Basically, the more people you have on your team, who listen to what you’re trying to make happen and are out there trying to get it for you, the more chance you have of success.”
Moreover, this actress said, big agencies often weigh one client’s interests against another’s. Managers have fewer clients and are perceived to be more focused on the individual needs of each one.
“They just have that much more time in the day to look out for you,” she said.
The trend of hiring teams of advisors has an impact on more than individual careers. It also affects, for better or worse, the way movies and television shows are produced.
For example, several hit TV shows count their stars’ managers among their producers. Erwin More and Brian Medavoy, whose More-Medavoy Management company manages actress Jenna Elfman, are credited on her ABC sitcom, “Dharma & Greg.” Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein of Brillstein-Grey Enterprises, which represents actor David Spade, are executive producers of NBC’s “Just Shoot Me.”
The same goes for movies. Referring to Warren Zide, the wunderkind manager of young writers who was credited on Sony Pictures’ recent action-comedy, “The Big Hit,” one fellow manager quipped: “He’s producing more movies than MGM!”
Because producers’ fees are covered by the studio or network, managers can sometimes be paid handsomely while costing their clients nothing. This has prompted some managers to become known derisively as “cling-ons” who demand producing credits on projects simply for making their clients available.
And there are conflict-of-interest concerns. Comedian Garry Shandling recently filed a $100-million lawsuit alleging that his manager, Grey of Brillstein-Grey, failed to protect Shandling’s interests while furthering his own. Grey has denied the charges, filing a countersuit.
Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents, a 60-year-old group that represents more than 100 agencies, says these issues only become more troublesome as the ranks of managers grow. Especially in light of Ovitz’s latest gambit, she said, the group has informally begun to lobby the guilds to help even up the playing field.
“We have all the regulations, but we’re not getting anything in return,” said Stuart, who said agents have always agreed to guilds’ restrictions in return for the exclusive right to represent their members--a right agents no longer enjoy. “No business person in their right mind could possibly stay in a situation like this, and we won’t.”
Given the immense power--and profits--that talent agencies have enjoyed, it is hard to get too worked up about their current plight. In fact, many see it as hypocritical for agencies to cry foul, considering the TV packaging fees they reap when they deliver the top actors, directors or writers that land a series on the air. ICM, which packaged the NBC sitcom “Friends,” will make an estimated $50 million off that show alone. William Morris is said to have pocketed about the same amount for packaging “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown.”
Producers say agents’ packaging fees and managers’ producing fees are equally abhorrent in that both drive up production costs.
“You’ve got an above-the-line item, a fee, for someone who is [not contributing to the creative process]. So less money is up on the screen,” said Leonard Hill, a producer who is active in the Caucus for Writers, Producers and Directors, a 26-year-old group that has petitioned the state labor commissioner to hold hearings on the issue. “Agents and managers are representing their own interests over the interests of their clients.”
“A producer credit should mean the person performs the function of a producer. It should not be for performing the function of a huckster,” said Charles B. FitzSimons, executive director of the Producers Guild of America.
Managers, meanwhile, are also fretting. The reason: Ovitz.
One agent-turned-manager who asked not to be named said that Ovitz indirectly created the need for more managers by encouraging his agents at CAA to “poach"--to steal clients from other agencies. This manager blamed Ovitz for making the theft of clients--once a rarity--prevalent throughout the agency business. Many believe poaching has permanently damaged the agent-client relationship by removing agents’ incentive to keep clients’ long-term interests paramount.
“As soon as CAA became a megalith, agents’ attitude was, ‘Book the client [in anything] because they’re going to leave you anyway.’ That’s when managers started really catching on,” said this manager.
Another agent-turned-manager said she feared that Ovitz will “make the same ethic [for managers that] he created at CAA. As a manager, I’ve started thinking like a human being. . . . And I don’t want to lose that.”
Ovitz declined to comment. But a source who is aware of his unfolding business plan said the new company’s goals and methods will be very different than CAA’s--and from those of most management firms, as well.
Massive Raid by CAA in ‘80s
William Morris’ Stan Kamen was one of the most powerful agents of his time. He made a leading man out of Steve McQueen in the 1960s and was an aggressive advocate for his clients, at one point persuading Columbia Pictures to change the gender of the lead in the 1979 film “The China Syndrome” so Jane Fonda could play it.
But there were limits to what he would do to bag a client. Which is why Ovitz made him so mad. Kamen had a few rules. He never raided the clients of smaller agencies. And when he pursued another big agency’s client, he thought it only sporting to let the other agent know.
According to Rose’s history of the William Morris Agency, Ovitz was not so courtly. During the mid-'80s, in what became known as one of the most thorough talent raids in industry history, CAA took aim on Kamen’s client list. In the fall of 1985, Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Chevy Chase, Al Pacino and Goldie Hawn began to defect to CAA. When Ovitz learned that Kamen was ill, he refrained from signing more Kamen clients as a gesture of respect. But he continued to talk to them.
“What’s the matter, Mike?” Rose says Kamen cried in one phone call to Ovitz during this period. “Isn’t there enough business for everybody?”
Within three months of Kamen’s death, virtually his entire list had signed with CAA.
The story, which Ovitz will not comment on, is oft-repeated in Hollywood, especially lately. As the industry’s trade papers provide almost daily tallies of the latest talent reps to join Ovitz’s new firm, the threat of poaching is in the air.
“How is it to be an agent now?” asked longtime agent Marty Bauer. “You come home to the love of your life with a bottle of champagne and flowers. You draw a bath, do your whole seduction act. And the next morning, your three best friends call her and say, ‘You’d be better off with me.’ That’s the life of an agent.”
As a manager, by contrast, “You still have your wife the next day,” he said.
Bauer was co-founder of two agencies, United Talent and the now defunct Bauer-Benedek, and he has had many high-profile clients. For years, he kept a fake shark snout in the top drawer of his desk, explaining, “I put this on when I’m making deals.”
But in March, after more than 20 years, he become a manager, setting up shop in the same Beverly Hills building as several other agents-turned-managers: Carol Bodie, Lou Pitt, the partnership of Judy Hofflund and Gavin Polone, and now Ovitz.
“The greatest service an agent can do for a client is telling them to say no to a [bad] project,” Bauer said, lamenting that in an atmosphere where poaching is commonplace, many agents are more likely to say yes. If a client is working, they’re less likely to jump ship.
Working as an agent in this kind of culture, Bauer said, “you can’t guide people’s careers. And as you get older, you get tired of that.”
Sitting in her office four floors above Bauer’s, Hofflund agreed.
As an agent, Hofflund had 35 clients and sometimes spent half her day in staff meetings. Now, she has 13 clients (among them Kenneth Branagh, Cybill Shepherd and Laura Dern). As one of two principals in a small firm, she rarely goes to meetings.
“As an agent, oftentimes my orientation was forced to be, ‘Get it done. Get it off the phone sheet. Make the offer work.’ It’s how you’re trained. I like to think I stood back and said, ‘Is this a good move?’ But . . . as a manager, I have more time to think,” she said.
Hofflund’s client Kim Basinger recently was offered a film role and wanted Hofflund’s help deciding whether to take the part.
“As an agent, I might have just read the script and thought, ‘Well, the director’s worked with some big stars.’ I wouldn’t have had the time to analyze it as much,” Hofflund said. Instead, over a weekend, she watched all the director’s films. Ultimately, she urged Basinger to pass.
Hofflund and many other managers stress that they see themselves as complements to agents, not competitors with them.
“It’s the philosophy of a team,” said More of More-Medavoy, which represents David Schwimmer, Maria Bello and Chevy Chase, among others. “We don’t want the agents not to be involved. We want them to be vested. And you know what? Now that they’ve become aware that managers are becoming a little more powerful, they are. That’s to the benefit of the client.”
“We have great loyalty and incredible relationships with agencies,” said Medavoy, pointing to how closely he works with Schwimmer’s agent, Leslie Siebert of the mid-size Gersh Agency.
“Leslie and I collaborate every single day in terms of thinking about David’s career,” he said of the “Friends” star. Siebert agreed.
“When you’re in sync, it’s the best thing in the world and the relationship can be very productive,” said the agent, who also represents actor Tobey Maguire. Still, she said, enormous changes in the talent representation world may require agents to take action.
“Every meeting I’m in, it’s the topic of conversation: How is [Ovitz’s new venture] going to affect us?” she said, adding that she thinks the big three agencies, who represent the biggest stars, have more to fear than her shop. Her prediction about Ovitz? “He’s going to attack the larger agencies with the huge stars, saying, ‘What the hell do you need an agent for?’ ”
Belt-Tightening Spawns More Changes
Recent belt-tightening in the entertainment world has made people even fiercer, of late, about guarding their turf. The television business is contracting, with some independent production companies disappearing as the networks supply more of their own shows. Fewer runaway hits have meant smaller profits. Likewise, in the movie industry, studios are shelving projects whose budgets are too high and are making fewer films.
There have been layoffs at the major television networks and, lately, at the big talent agencies as well. ICM and William Morris are letting agents go, and year-end bonuses there have been described by some agents as anemic.
Meanwhile, Ovitz has been busy wooing managers and agents around town. Among those seeking to join him are at least three managers from a single firm, Industry Entertainment: Rick Yorn (whose clients include DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Claire Danes), Julie Silverman Yorn and Eli Selden (who together represent Samuel L. Jackson, Teri Hatcher and James Spader). ICM agent JoAnne Colonna is joining Ovitz as well.
In light of these defections and others (Brian Gersh, the former co-head of the William Morris Agency’s motion picture talent department, recently hung out a management shingle) some say the state Legislature should move to regulate managers.
“Talent agents morph themselves into managers in order to avoid regulation,” said Hill, the producer. “The fact is, managers for some time now have been growing into unregulated quasi-agents who do procure and negotiate. It’s a ludicrous loophole and it’s incumbent on the Legislature to close it.”
Sandy Bresler, Jack Nicholson’s agent and president of the Assn. of Talent Agents, says that for now, the few actors who don’t have agents are merely “a dot in the ocean which has a potential to be a tidal wave.” But he’s keeping a keen eye on the horizon.
“Anybody would be foolish not to watch their competition,” he said.
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The Lure of Management
Recently several Hollywood talent agents have transformed themselves into personal managers. Below is a list of the most recent crossovers, and some of the actors and others who are their clients.
Manager and firm: Marty Bauer, The Bauer Co.
Former employer: United Talent Agency (co-founder)
Current clients: Alan Alda, director Tony Kaye (“American History X”), director Joseph Ruben (“Money Train”)
Manager and firm: JoAnne Colonna, Artists Management Group
Former employer: International Creative Management
Current clients: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Adrien Brody, Sean Patrick Flanery
Manager and firm: Emily Gerson Saines, Gerson Saines Management
Former employer: William Morris Agency
Current clients: Vanessa Wiliams, Macaulay and Kieran Culkin, Eric Bogosian
Manager and firm: Brian Gersh, Blue Train Entertainment
Former employer: William Morris Agency
Current clients: Jackie Chan, Sean Penn, director Anthony Drazan (“Hurlyburly”)
Manager and firm: Michael Ovitz, Artists Management Group
Former employer: Creative Artists Agency (co-founder)
Current clients: Unknown
Manager and firm: Lou Pitt, The Pitt Group
Former employer: International Creative Management
Current clients: Gena Rowlands, writers Steven E. deSouza (“Die Hard”) and Walon Green (“The Wild Bunch”)
Manager and firm: Todd Smith, Atlas Entertainment
Former employer: Creative Artists Agency
Current clients: Writers Marshall Brickman (“Annie Hall”), Nat Mauldin (“Dr. Doolittle”), Bruce Feirstein (“Goldeneye”)
Manager and firm: Marion Rosenberg, Rosenberg Melamed Management
Former employer: Herself, as an independent agent
Current clients: Director Paul Verhoeven, actor-director LeVar Burton, Claire Bloom