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Ovitz, Kuehl Rocking Boat for Agents, Managers

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While battle lines have been forming between Hollywood’s talent managers and agents, the truth is that neither side wants to go to war.

Despite long-simmering tensions, managers and agents need each other and most have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship when they share clients.

The problem is that some recent developments--namely the rebirth of former uberagent Michael Ovitz as a talent manager and legislation to regulate managers that’s about to be introduced in Sacramento--has upset a status quo that both sides found very comfortable.

Ovitz has been a flash point. Some top agents believe he’s acting as an unlicensed de facto agent in building his new company, Artists Management Group. Regulations worked out by the talent guilds restrict managers from procuring or negotiating jobs for the actors, directors, writers and others they represent.

The heads of Creative Artists Agency, which Ovitz co-founded, have lambasted their former boss for what they view as unfair competitive practices. Ovitz triggered a war when he lured one of CAA’s biggest clients, Robin Williams, and his then-agent to his management company. Williams and some other AMG clients, including Leonardo DiCaprio, do not have agents.

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Privately, some top agents have criticized the Screen Actors Guild for not enforcing its own regulations stipulating that none of their members deal with a non-franchised agent. According to SAG’s definitions, agents procure employment and negotiate deals, while managers’ services are limited to advising.

But managers cross the line all the time, commonly working with agents to solicit jobs for their clients.

Agents fear that more people in their profession will jump to being managers, which might cut the remaining agents out of the financial loop.

SAG has been quiet on the issue, but sources suggest that the union is hesitant to crack down on managers in part because some of its many members who cannot get agents rely on managers.

“We have an absolute interest in protecting the health and viability of our franchised agents,” said SAG President Richard Masur. “The relationship between SAG, the members of SAG and the franchised agents has served this industry well.”

Masur added that while “many people are seeing lots of potential problems precipitated by these recent events, at this point it’s a very small issue for the vast majority of agents and managers.”

Karen Stuart, executive director of the Assn. of Talent Agents, which represents about 100 agencies with more than 1,000 agents, contends, “It’s a mistake to point fingers at the guild.” She believes the memberships of ATA and SAG need to work together to sort out the issues.

“Maybe we need to look at the trends and look at the agency regulations and ask, ‘Do they still serve the membership? Are they too far-reaching?’ I believe they offer protection to the membership.” As does Masur.

“There are advantages for both sides in the franchised relationships between SAG, its members and the agents,” said the SAG president, suggesting that’s particularly true when it comes to settling disputes for either side.

Also causing high anxiety among managers is legislation being introduced this week by California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila J. Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) that would subject them to substantially the same regulations that agents must follow.

The proposal would amend the state labor and employment code by requiring managers, who now are largely unregulated, to get a license, post a bond and record their agreements with artists. Agents are already required to do those things.

Last week, representatives from all of Hollywood’s leading management firms met to form a coalition much like the ATA, hiring two legal top guns, Bertram Fields and Ron Olson, to represent their interests.

Both Masur and Kuehl were puzzled by what they see as managers’ overreaction to the bill.

According to Kuehl, the impetus behind the bill had nothing at all to do with Ovitz or other current issues being debated by Hollywood’s managers and agents.

Rather, the legislation was pushed by law enforcement officials in Los Angeles and is intended to target unscrupulous talent managers who prey on aspiring actors and the parents of wannabe child thespians.

Nonetheless, managers are up in arms about a provision that would mirror SAG rules preventing managers from soliciting jobs for clients unless they are working with an agent.

In a phone interview Monday, Kuehl said her bill has caused more consternation than it should and that some managers believe the proposal is far more Draconian than it really is.

For starters, some managers are worried that the legislation would routinely impose strict criminal penalties, even possible jail time, on those who violate the law.

Kuehl said the only criminal aspect to the bill--a portion that is yet to be written--would make it a misdemeanor when outright fraud is committed, again a sanction aimed at “fly-by-night” operators, in her words.

Any dispute involving mainstream managers would probably be handled by the state labor commissioner in a civil hearing.

Another misconception, said Kuehl, is that the bill would prohibit managers from producing movies and TV shows just as agents are prohibited under current law. The assemblywoman said that’s not in the bill.

She also equated the introduction of the bill to an “opening bid in bridge,” meaning it will evolve as managers give their feedback.

Kuehl, a former child-actress-turned-lawyer who played Zelda on the late-1950s sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” was shocked that her bill is being openly debated in the trade press yet no top manager has contacted her directly to discuss it.

“It’s very odd. It’s not like you can’t find a legislator,” Kuehl said. “It’s like they’re all telling each other ghost stories around the campfire and there are no ghosts.”

It may be that the mere threat of any government interference is behind managers’ fears.

“Our government could spend its time better than trying to determine whether to protect millionaire clients from their millionaire managers and agents,” said one top Hollywood manager.

Just as managers would rather not have the government breathing down their necks, agents don’t want the state reexamining some of their more sensitive issues, namely their entitlement to lucrative TV packaging commissions.

So far, state officials have rejected recent efforts to reopen the packaging fee issue.

Even as managers are marshaling their forces for the first time, they realize they need to preserve their close working relationship with agents.

“Everyone is recognizing that it’s in their own best interest to coexist,” said one source who attended last week’s meeting of managers. “It can’t be managers against agents.”

Another source remarked: “We want to figure out how we can work together and not allow any new bill or provocative action to be taken by anyone that could adversely affect us. . . . We’ve all been enjoying success.”


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