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Agency’s Talent Pool Is Fast Becoming an Ocean

Times Staff Writer

The agents from Creative Artists Agency had barely returned from a corporate retreat in Ojai when rumors started spreading across Hollywood. Already the town’s most formidable talent agency, CAA wanted to solidify its dominance and, as the chatter inside rival talent agencies held, it had pledged at its March gathering to go after “100% market share.”

CAA won’t comment, but the results speak for themselves. The agency is well on its way to becoming the talent agency equivalent of a category killer such as Microsoft.

In a yearlong blitz that rival agents say they have not witnessed in decades, CAA has signed a multitude of writers, directors, actors and, most noticeably, a number of top talent agents from competitors.

Although client and agent comings and goings are not unusual, the magnitude of the moves to CAA has startled the industry. Its competitors say the current run even eclipses the agency’s meteoric rise in the 1980s under co-founder Michael Ovitz, whose take-no-prisoners style and aggressive packaging of talent changed show business deal-making forever.

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Now marking its 30th anniversary and its 10th year since Ovitz’s departure for a disastrous run as president of Walt Disney Co., CAA, under Richard Lovett, has over the last 12 months recruited seven prominent agents from the ranks of William Morris Agency, United Talent Agency, Endeavor and International Creative Management -- the four agencies considered to be the most powerful after CAA.

As is common practice, those agents arrived with many of their clients in tow, a tally that includes Will Ferrell and Kate Winslet; the directors of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Bruce Almighty,” “Batman Begins,” “Lost in Translation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Finding Neverland” and “Starsky & Hutch”; and the writers of “Meet the Fockers,” “Freaky Friday” and “Troy.”

A number of actors and filmmakers have joined CAA on their own, including Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey and directors Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), Catherine Hardwicke (“Lords of Dogtown”), Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) and Vadim Perelman (“House of Sand and Fog”).

Interviews with nearly three dozen producers, agents, managers, studio executives and filmmakers suggest that CAA is transforming itself in a bid to remain dominant in an era of media consolidation and fewer filmmaking jobs. The agency with the most tools, in other words, can build the best machine with the least amount of trouble.

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A firm that once represented only a few dozen of Hollywood’s highest echelon, director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks among them, CAA now negotiates on behalf of several hundred individuals and corporations, including such up-and-coming TV actors as “Desperate Housewives” costar Eva Longoria, who joined CAA this month. A new seven-member marketing team helps promote the creative work of its clients, and a beefed-up international financing group looks for investors.

CAA has been able to expand its reach without yet damaging its reputation as the industry’s best-run and most strategic agency, according to studio executives and even several rival agents.

“They get teamwork,” says Nina Jacobson, president of Disney’s Buena Vista motion picture group. "[They] don’t work at cross-purposes with each other, unlike some people in the business.” Says “Catch Me If You Can” producer Walter Parkes, “It’s so chaotic in the agency business. There’s a stability in senior management at CAA [that] you don’t have in other agencies.”

But Jeremy Zimmer, a United Talent Agency board member and head of UTA’s motion picture literary department, says CAA’s play for increased size may hurt the very people it is designed to benefit. By Zimmer’s estimate, CAA has added as many as 60 new directors to its roster in recent months, and it may not have adequate staff to represent so many filmmakers, he says.

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“If I were a client of CAA, I would really be asking myself if I am going to get the service and attention I need,” Zimmer said. “It’s a real question: Is it good for the directors? Is it good for the business? And is there anything in here about making good movies?”

Some rival agents also wonder whether CAA’s rich salaries for its recently added agents -- which several people outside of CAA estimate at $2 million a year and more -- could create resentment within CAA. For the time being, though, more people seem inclined to join CAA, rather than to leave it.

A Powerful Draw

When people are asked why they made the move to CAA, the answers inevitably hinge on the agency’s muscle.

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Director Fuqua has long dreamed of making a movie about “Monster” Kody Scott, a Los Angeles-area gang member who became a political activist while behind bars.

Once represented by CAA, Fuqua had been wooed away by ICM’s David Unger in 1999. Unger promptly connected Fuqua with ICM clients Denzel Washington and screenwriter David Ayer, who wrote “Training Day.” The film about a crooked cop won Washington the best actor Academy Award. Fuqua emerged as one of Hollywood’s hottest directors, soon commanding $6 million a movie.

All the while, making the “Monster” story into a movie remained a dream. Frustrated, Fuqua last month left ICM and Unger and returned to CAA.

“If ICM can’t get that movie made, then you have to go somewhere else where you can,” Fuqua said.

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Within days of rejoining CAA, Fuqua said, his new talent agency arranged for him to meet with half a dozen financiers interested in backing his gangbanger story. “Whether or not the movie happens,” Fuqua said, “CAA put me in a room with them.”

ICM declined to comment.

But the creative brain drain is not just running in CAA’s direction. Reality television kingpin Mark Burnett left CAA in April, and when former UTA agent Dan Aloni started at CAA a week ago, he imported a pack of prominent directors, but client Judd Apatow, who directed and co-wrote the summer hit “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” wasn’t among them. “I’ve been with UTA since 1992, when we finished ‘The Ben Stiller Show,’ ” Apatow says of the TV series he wrote and produced. “And I have achieved everything I have ever wanted to do. You don’t need a better situation when you’re doing very well. I’ve chosen to stay with the agency, not the agent.”

Aloni declined to comment.

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Michael Bay (“Pearl Harbor,” “Armageddon”) left CAA, annoyed by its refusal to consider him anything but a director for hire. Bay said the agency showed no enthusiasm in helping him launch Platinum Dunes, a now-successful producer of low-budget genre films, including “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake.

“They didn’t believe in [Platinum Dunes],” said Bay, who is now represented by William Morris, which also represents former CAA client Ridley Scott, the director of “Gladiator.” “It was trouble to try to do new ventures there. It would fall on deaf ears.”

Rivals’ Stables Still Grow

No matter how powerful CAA may be, the other agencies continue to attract and represent an array of prominent actors, filmmakers and TV producers.

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UTA, which represents “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, has grabbed a number of former CAA filmmakers and actors, including actor-directors Christopher Guest (“Best in Show”) and Harold Ramis (“Analyze This”) and actors Seann William Scott (“American Pie”) and Don Cheadle (“Crash”).

William Morris’ client list includes Russell Crowe, “Rush Hour” star Chris Tucker, Tommy Lee Jones, “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams and writer-director Paul Weitz (“In Good Company”).

In addition to Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Hugh Jackman, Endeavor represents Adam Sandler, directors Martin Scorsese and Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardener”). While ICM has built the careers of directors Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge!”) and Danny Boyle (“28 Days Later”), among many others, it also has arranged financing for “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Pianist” and Steve Martin’s upcoming “Shopgirl.”

Part of CAA’s strategy is that by aligning so many writers, directors and actors under the same roof (CAA moves into a new, 150,000-square-foot Century City office in October 2007), it can group together many clients for a single movie and give its talent the first shot at a hot property other agencies mightn’t have seen yet.

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But as often happens, a CAA client may just make a movie with another agency’s director, as is currently the case with Nicole Kidman, a CAA client starring in UTA director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “The Visiting.”

“The great myth of packaging is that somehow actors can be corralled,” producer Michael London (“Sideways”) said. “Yes, packaging has a real power. But actors do what they want to do, and will follow material, and talented filmmakers, wherever they are.”

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Going to CAA

A sampling of agents, actors and directors who have joined CAA:

2003

* Nick Styne, agent, with client Cameron Diaz

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* Julia Roberts, actor

* Tracy Brennan, agent, with client Kate Beckinsale

2004

* Bart Walker, agent, with client Sofia Coppola, director of “Lost in Translation”

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* Hylda Queally, agent, with client Kate Winslet

2005

* Spencer Baumgarten, agent, with client Gore Verbinski, director of “Pirates of the Caribbean”

* Jason Heyman, agent, with client Will Ferrell

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* Martin Lesak, agent, with client Tony Shalhoub

* Todd Feldman, agent, with client Todd Phillips, director of “Starsky & Hutch”

* Antoine Fuqua, director of “Training Day”

* Matthew McConaughey, actor

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* Dan Aloni, agent, with client Christopher Nolan, director of “Batman Begins”

Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times


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