Hollywood’s golden talent agents

Walk along Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills on a weekday lunchtime and you just may come across what is, for Los Angeles, a comparatively rare sight. Here, in a city that prizes itself on its relaxed approach to business, where casual attire is practically de rigueur in the workplace, there are men wearing suits – smart suits, sharp suits – moving rapidly, mobile phones clamped to ears or heads bowed over fingers stabbing at BlackBerrys and iPhones.

These besuited men are talent agents and their stomping ground is the stretch of Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards that links Beverly Hills with the skyscrapers of nearby Century City, the business district built on land formerly owned by the nearby 20th Century Fox studio.

Hollywood’s four biggest agencies, representing more than 70 per cent of the entertainment industry’s actors, directors, musicians and writers, are headquartered here. Creative Artists Agency, the biggest player in town, is in an imposing Century City building widely referred to outside the company as “the Death Star”. A short distance away in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tower is International Creative Management, the agency that is home to, among others, Beyoncé and rising Hollywood starlet Megan Fox. Back in Beverly Hills, a stone’s throw from the gleaming Beverly Wilshire hotel, are the offices of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, formed last year by the merger of Hollywood’s most venerable agency with one of its youngest. Across the street are the headquarters of United Talent Agency, where clients include Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford and Gwyneth Paltrow.

It is actors’ faces that appear on the billboards along Sunset Boulevard but agents are the oil that make the entertainment industry’s engine run smoothly. They identify good scripts and put them in the hands of their clients, whether they are actors, directors or producers, and then they strike deals with the studios so that movies can be made. They are the dealmakers in a town that needs deals like oxygen. They can drive up their clients’ pay, and their own, by “packaging” movies – attaching a director, star and script – so that all the studio chief has to do is sign the cheque.

Over the years the agent’s role has evolved but the basic principles are the same as they were in 1912 when Abe Lastfogel, a son of Russian immigrants, was hired as an office boy in the William Morris office in Manhattan. He slowly rose through the ranks to run the agency, where he turned talent representation into a fine art, training and employing eager men and women who were willing to crawl over broken glass for their clients.

Good agents will always put the client first, a trait that is drummed into them from their first day on the job which, more often than not, is in the mailroom, an unforgiving place where the hours are long, the work tough and the pay meagre. Yet the mailroom has become a rite of passage in Hollywood and anyone worth their salt in the industry will have passed through one.

David Geffen, the former music label boss and billionaire co-founder of the DreamWorks movie studio with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, started his career in the William Morris mailroom in New York, which he has referred to as the “Harvard School of Show Business – only better: no grades, no exams, a small stipend and great placement opportunities”. Barry Diller, the former head of Paramount Studios, also got his first break there; so did Ron Meyer, a founding partner at CAA and now head of Universal Studios.

Each year dozens of top MBA students and qualified lawyers try to break into the entertainment industry by starting in the mailroom at one of the big agencies. “There’s a paying-your-dues process,” Jeremy Zimmer, a 51-year-old partner at UTA and an alumnus of the William Morris mailroom, tells me. “If you’re not prepared to go through some tough stuff, then you don’t really love the business enough. And you have to love it to be successful.”

Loving the deal is another prerequisite of agent life. A New Yorker magazine profile of the late, semi-legendary ICM agent Sam Cohn remarked that most Hollywood agents were named “Morty or Marty and go around wearing shirts that show off their chest hair saying things like, ‘We’ll max it at three hundred thou’”. Though visible chest hair may have gone and Rolodexes been replaced by BlackBerrys, other stereotypes endure. If anything, today’s agents are even more aggressive than in previous decades.

Before five ex-William Morris partners launched CAA in 1975, competition among agencies was genteel. According to Sue Mengers, who leapt to the top of the male-dominated agency world of the 1970s with clients who included Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman and Ali McGraw, “In England, if a star actor was represented by an agent, that agent had to die before another agent approached the client. That seemed so stupid,” she tells me.

It was the creation of CAA in 1975 by Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer, Michael Rosenfeld, Bill Haber and Rowland Perkins that ushered in a new hyper-competitive era and a series of battles known as the “agency wars”, in which CAA, ICM and William Morris tried to pummel each other into oblivion. The five agents – all working at William Morris – were thinking of starting their own firm when a senior William Morris partner got wind of their plan and fired them. Without clients they had to work quickly and aggressively to build a business, promising clients better pay deals and more critical success. The clients arrived in droves: Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda and Tom Hanks all came on board.

The man who epitomised CAA was Michael Ovitz, who helped carve out a larger role for agents thanks, in part, to the firm’s vast list of bankable clients, which gave it unprecedented leverage with the studios. He had expensive tastes and a fondness for paintings by Picasso, Lichtenstein and Rothko; he commissioned a new headquarters from IM Pei, the architect who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. He also negotiated enormous pay for his clients, securing “first dollar gross” deals that ensured the stars got paid a chunk of the movie’s box-office receipts before the studio had recouped a penny of its investment.

CAA’s dominance was briefly threatened in the mid-1990s when the founding partners began to leave. Ron Meyer went to run Universal Studios, where he found himself discussing pay deals for stars from the other side of the negotiating table – often with former CAA colleagues sitting opposite him. Ovitz, meanwhile, departed for Walt Disney as the number two to then chief executive Michael Eisner.

A new team, led by Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Richard Lovett and David O’Connor, took up the reins at CAA. And, though many in Hollywood forecast the end of the agency, Ovitz’s successors have flourished. The threatened exit of top clients did not transpire and today CAA has an enviable pool of talent with clients that include Steven Spielberg, Will Smith, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, James Cameron, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey.

The might of CAA notwithstanding, Hollywood is no longer a one-horse town and there are plenty of options for both up-and-coming actors and established A-listers seeking representation. William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, for example, is home to Ari Emanuel, a lean 48-year-old with short, greying hair – and the brother of White House chief of staff Rahm. Emanuel, whose long-term clients include Mark Wahlberg, Larry David and Martin Scorsese, is probably the best-known agent in Hollywood thanks to Ari Gold, the character he inspired in HBO’s hit show Entourage. Like Gold, Emanuel has a repertoire of colourful phrases; his reputation also rests on a willingness to go to extremes to get the best deal for his clients.

A former TV agent, he first struck out on his own in 1995 when he and three colleagues left ICM to form Endeavor, shaking up Hollywood much as CAA had done two decades earlier. The early days were modest, with Endeavor based in an office above a restaurant, but it quickly grew. The signing of CAA agent Patrick Whitesell in 2001 brought Christian Bale and Matt Damon into the fold, giving Endeavor real A-list credibility, while last year’s merger with William Morris bolstered the agency’s strengths in music and TV, giving it a client base to rival CAA.

While CAA and WME2 slug it out, opportunities have emerged for UTA and ICM. “Our competitors get into these brand wars like Coke v Pepsi,” says Zimmer at UTA. But agencies have to worry about more than what their competitors are doing: pressure is coming from other areas too – notably, the studios that pay their clients. Across Hollywood, studios are looking to cut costs to absorb sharp declines in DVD sales which, for the past decade, generated most of their profits. Talent pay soared in the 1990s thanks to an explosion in home entertainment and soonstars were securing “20 and 20” deals – a $20m fee plus 20 per cent of the gross. For a blockbuster movie this could be upwards of $100m for the star or the director – and a sizeable chunk would go to the agent.

But with the DVD market in sharp decline, the studios have been forced to cut marketing and production budgets. They are also releasing fewer movies: the number coming out of Hollywood last year was 520, a fall of almost 20 per cent on the previous year. There is less work out there for agency clients.

“Studios are retrenching and pushing back a lot of the gains we have made [for our clients] in pricing and profit participation,” says Zimmer. It is no longer enough to simply place clients in hotly anticipated projects. “Real agents aren’t bookers any more, they are job creators. There are fewer movies being made and fewer opportunities out there. So we have to be creative.”

And in turbulent times for the film industry it pays for agencies to have money coming in from other areas: while movie studios slash costs, television is booming, creating big opportunities for the agencies and their clients. WME2, which put together shows such as Lost, packaged more than half of the 80 scripted drama and comedy pilots commissioned this year by America’s TV networks. CAA, meanwhile, helped its client Simon Cowell negotiate the transfer of his UK show The X Factor to the US. ICM has a growing TV business, acting for, among others, Shonda Rhimes, producer of network hit Grey’s Anatomy, and David Shore, who created House MD, which has topped ratings in Europe and the US. UTA, which put together acclaimed shows for HBO, such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, recently scored again with the vampire series True Blood.

The agencies are also involved in helping their clients sign branding and other commercial agreements: UTA helped create a clothing line for the singer Gwen Stefani, while CAA recently won a contract to secure marketing deals for the New York Yankees’ new stadium.

Bryan Lourd, a dapper 49-year-old who regularly appears in the best-dressed lists, is a managing partner at CAA, where his clients include Brad Pitt and George Clooney. He says there have been “real shifts” in Hollywood’s business environment in recent years. “Technology and the economy have clearly been two of the most important factors. But some things have not changed, most importantly, that great talent will always be in demand.” CAA, he adds, has “evolved”. It has diversified into new areas: the agency has spent the past three years building a sports practice that represents some of the biggest stars in basketball, American football, soccer and baseball. “We have many resources and experts under one roof to help our clients succeed in any areas they choose to pursue,” says Lourd.

So though the Oscar-nominated clients of CAA and the other big agencies will spend the next few weeks anxiously awaiting this year’s ceremony on March 7, when the statuettes have been handed out the talk will return, as it always does, to deals and packages. One hot topic may be Dear John, a romantic drama that became the latest example of the packager’s art when it knocked Avatar off its perch at the top of the box office charts. The film was put together by UTA with clients Lasse Hallström directing, Channing Tatum starring and Nicholas Sparks writing the book on which the screenplay was based. As a veteran movie producer put it to me at a party the other night: “In Hollywood, the golden rule is that gold rules.” Talent agents know that better than anyone.

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent

The top four talent agencies

Founded: 1975.
Chief players: Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Richard Lovett, David O’Connor.
Top talent: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Will Smith, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham.
2010 Oscar nominations: 35 including all five best actor nominees: Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Renner. Best actress: Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep. Best director: Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron.

Founded: 2009 via the merger of William Morris with Endeavor.
Chief players: Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell.
Top talent: Martin Scorsese, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Wahlberg, Danny Boyle, Russell Crowe, Larry David, The Killers, Britney Spears.
2010 Oscar nominations: 14, including Matt Damon (best supporting actor, Invictus), Jason Reitman (director, Up in the Air), Lee Daniels (director, Precious) Quentin Tarantino (director, Inglourious Basterds).

Founded: 1991 following the merger of Leading Artists and Bauer-Benedek.
Chief players: Jeremy Zimmer, Jim Berkus, Tracey Jacobs, David Kramer.
Top talent: Owen Wilson, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, the Coen Brothers, Judd Apatow.
2010 Oscar nominations: 9, including the Coen Brothers (best director) for A Serious Man, newcomer actor Gabourey Sidibe for Precious and director Wes Anderson for Fantastic Mr Fox.

Founded: 1975.
Chief players: Jeffrey Berg, chairman, and Chris Silbermann, president.
Top talent: Megan Fox, Beyoncé Knowles, Jon Stewart, Claire Danes, Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino, Paul Giamatti, Steve Buscemi, Jon Hamm, January Jones, Diane Kruger.
2010 Oscar nominations: 8, including Christopher Plummer (The Last Station) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Matthew Garrahan

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