Shaking up the agency rosters

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood’s most competitive business is getting even more dog-eat-dog.

On most days, client-and-dealmaker defections at talent agencies are as commonplace in showbiz as plastic surgery and private jets. But in the last few weeks, the swaps have grown so frequent and significant that many in the industry have been startled by all the big moves, which some say are a reaction to an overall contraction in the movie business.

In the last week alone, longtime Creative Artists Agency client Robert De Niro left the agency for the increasingly powerful Endeavor, which also landed United Talent Agency co-owner Nick Stevens and his UTA client Ben Stiller. Earlier transfers included actors Ashton Kutcher (from Endeavor to CAA), Chris Rock (Endeavor to International Creative Management), Vince Vaughn (UTA to CAA) and Jennifer Connelly (ICM to CAA). Several writers and directors also have jumped ship, including “Men in Black’s” Ed Solomon (William Morris Agency to CAA) and “Babel’s” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Endeavor to CAA).


In the instant handicapping that drives water cooler -- or is it now bottled water? -- conversations around Hollywood, Endeavor was proclaimed the biggest net winner by a wide margin, while UTA was seen as taking the toughest hit to its much-heralded comedy business. No one believes CAA has lost its grip as the town’s dominant deal maker.

But interviews with more than a dozen managers, agents, producers and studio executives suggest that the intra-agency trades are related to growing anxiety over the future of the film business. With movie admissions flat, DVD sales stalled and international growth slowing -- all against the backdrop of a looming economic recession -- revenue for filmed entertainment is hardly surging. The recent Writers Guild of America strike crippled television production, and a potential Screen Actors Guild walkout this summer has postponed the start dates of countless feature films, making acting jobs scarce and many clients restless.

Instead of gambling on a broad and eclectic slate of movies, the studios are making creative decisions as much on spreadsheet projections as gut reactions to great screenplays. Not that long ago, the major studios might have reserved half of their 20-odd annual productions for movie stars: the Julia Roberts comedy here, the Matt Damon drama there.


Quest for market share

These days the studios not only are making far fewer films but also allowing concepts and marketing hooks to govern greenlight decisions rather than a specific actor’s availability and interest. Warner Bros., in other words, decides to make a Batman movie first and casts Christian Bale as the Dark Knight second.

If the movie pie isn’t getting any bigger, then the only way for talent agencies to expand their film business is to gobble up more of the jobs by representing more of the actors. And that quest for market share (with some personality clashes thrown in) is driving most of the defections.

At the same time, agencies are investing in new businesses and new directions. CAA has made a huge bet on representing sports stars. William Morris is pushing harder into music and brought on CAA agent Don Muller, who represents Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and Weezer. ICM joined with television agency Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann in 2006 and is hinging part of its future on the series “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “House,” among other shows. In addition to hiring UTA’s Stevens, Endeavor took on UTA’s Marc Korman, whose TV clients work on “Heroes,” “Cold Case” and “Nip/Tuck.”


All of the moves come with a sometimes steep price tag. Thanks to all the raiding, talent agents themselves have grown almost as highly compensated as some of their clients. To grab coveted stars from a competing agency, a talent agency may simply hire the actors’ representative, in the time-tested belief that the performers will follow in lock-step.

When Stevens and colleagues Lisa Hallerman and Sharon Sheinwold left UTA for Endeavor, the exodus included clients Stiller, “School of Rock’s” Jack Black, “Knocked Up’s” Jonah Hill, “My Name Is Earl’s” Jason Lee and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s” Jason Segel. In leaving ICM for William Morris, Ed Limato brought along Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington and Richard Gere.


Paying for talent agents

Like baseball sluggers who know their home-run power is desperately needed by another team, these talent agents can command whopping salaries when they switch sides -- often multiple millions of dollars. Top agents also rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenses, often require several assistants, and demand other pricey benefits.

Rather than pay 10% of their income to foot the overhead and another 10% to managers, some up-and-coming actors and filmmakers are abandoning their agents altogether, letting just their managers -- who operate much like agents but sell themselves as more strategic thinkers -- oversee their careers. When agent Brian Sher recently left ICM to start Category 5 Entertainment, clients including rapper-actor Tip “T.I.” Harris (“American Gangster”) and screenwriter Kevin Bisch (“Hitch”) came with him, and no longer carry agents.

Getting squeezed from both sides, some agencies have quietly begun culling underperforming clients from their rosters, while a few are having to have the awkward conversation of informing an actor he’s not getting paid what he once did. Even CAA is telling its agents they should fly business, not first class.

“Market forces are affecting the agencies,” said Scott Harris, the head of Innovative Artists, a boutique outfit that represents top Broadway actors (Patti LuPone, Adam Pascal) and a number of established names, including Frank Langella, Ving Rhames and Marilu Henner. “Sometimes we have to manage expectations down. What someone made five years ago, the market may no longer bear.”

The head of production at one studio said that when his movie budgets now grow too expensive, he insists that actors give up one of their prized perks: a percentage of every dollar that comes in. Several managers said that many actors who were once guaranteed to open a film at the box office are no longer a sure bet, as was proved by the poor openings for Will Ferrell’s “Semi-Pro” and George Clooney’s “Leatherheads.”


To secure comedy stars

Part of Endeavor’s thinking in hiring Stevens, Hallerman and Sheinwold was to secure the next generation of comedy stars, who cost less than most A-list actors and, as the massive returns of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” prove, can often yield big hits with relatively small budgets. In addition to looking to its TV business for growth, ICM, with few A-list stars in its fold, hopes it can build a future with young stars such as Jim Sturgess (“21”), Ben Barnes (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”) and Chris Brown (“Stomp the Yard”).

Innovative’s Harris said that for all the efforts at market share, bigger isn’t necessarily better. “You are not going to be faced with an agent playing God,” he said of his smaller agency. “Someone who says, ‘I’ve got you, but I’ve also got 17 other people who make more money and have more credits than you.”

Several managers -- and more than a few agents -- said the recent poaching is having a deleterious impact on the business. Rather than focusing on carefully building a career, these people say, some agents nowadays favor high-profile deals over strategic advice.

It’s one thing to get a client a private jet and a fat cut of a film’s profits, said UTA partner Jeremy Zimmer, “but it’s also really exciting and emotionally satisfying to see someone’s first movie premiere at Sundance or put someone to work who hasn’t worked in a year.”