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THE BIZ / JAMES BATES

Company Town : Morris Finds New Life Under Rifkin

August 05, 1994|JAMES BATES

In one pocket of his Armani trousers, Arnold Rifkin always carries something that undoubtedly sets him apart from most Hollywood agents: paper clips.

Each day he selects a handful of them--not the small flimsy ones he detests but the thick, tough kind--and stuffs them into a pocket. Throughout the day, he twists them, links them together, pulls them apart to release his abundant nervous energy.

There was a time not long ago when it seemed that Rifkin had little more than paper clips to keep the motion picture group at the venerable William Morris Agency from unraveling altogether. The operation he walked into in October, 1992--when Morris spent $25 million to buy the Triad Artists talent agency where Rifkin was a partner and subsequently head of its highest-profile unit--was in tatters.

Recently departed were such stars as Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer and Mel Gibson, as well as directors such as Tim Burton and John McTiernan. Usually they left in tandem with their agents, who could not resist the siren-like calls of hotter rivals Creative Artists Agency and International Creative Management. Morris wasn't doing much to help: One agent already making $350,000 a year was said to be unable to get a $15,000 raise.

The problems had their genesis when agent legend Stan Kamen died in 1986, leaving a huge void. Kamen had represented a host of top stars, including Warren Beatty and Barbra Steisand. With nobody to fill his shoes, stars soon left.

Defections of stars and agents are any agency's worst nightmare--Hollywood's equivalent of a bank run. A client or two leave and the whispering starts. A few more defections and you become George Bailey blocking the building and loan door in "It's a Wonderful Life," appealing to the loyalty of customers ready to head down the street.

It got so bad that the joke around Hollywood was if you were wanted by the police, Morris was the place to hide because nobody would find you. "The abyss," recalls veteran Morris agent John Burnham, who with colleague Mike Simpson had to hold the department together during its worst period.

The irony was that Morris remained financially strong. It is virtually debt-free, is one of Beverly Hills' bigger landlords, remains a major force in television with such shows as "Cosby" and "Roseanne," and continues to collect checks like an annuity from decades-old deals ranging from Elvis Presley projects to "MASH" episodes.

But the public image took a beating, and the Triad acquisition was meant to change that. On a practical level, Triad brought much needed clients--Danny Glover, Emma Thompson, Daniel Day-Lewis and the actor most closely associated with Rifkin, Bruce Willis--to join such longtime clients as Clint Eastwood. Triad also brought a first-rate music department that included top groups Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

It also brought Rifkin, 47, who became worldwide head of Morris' motion picture department. The former New York fur salesman at times makes agenting seem more like New Age-nting. For his first staff meeting, he insisted on using a screening room rather than the usual Morris conference room. "There had been too much negativity in that room," he says now.

To change the feel of the conference room, Rifkin strolled down the street, bought some Ralph Lauren bedsheets and covered the chairs with them. To get the right mood in his office, he supervised all details of the furnishings, including how deep guests sink into his couch.

Locker-room-like exhortations became common. One message was to "change channels, turn up the volume," intended to drown out the bad talk about the place. He printed T-shirts for the staff that said "Commit and Execute."

The merger--dubbed "Armani meets Brooks Bros.," referring to Rifkin's stylishly dressed crew and the conservative Morris crowd--survived most expectations. The two sides bonded as Rifkin had hoped. Agent Burnham, who today freely admits he couldn't stand Rifkin the first six months, became a big fan. Rifkin also controlled a notorious temper that had him screaming at everyone from studio executives to other agents.

"We have good fistfights, but at the end of the day we try to do what is best for both of us," says producer Andy Vajna, a Rifkin friend. Rifkin credits therapy with helping him control his temper."

If nothing else, the hemorrhaging stopped, though Morris lately has been fighting to keep one of its agents from jumping to CAA. There were some signings of new clients, notably director Walter Hill and actor Robert Duvall. Morris has been working to develop independent filmmakers and was especially buoyed by the recent Cannes Film Festival where "Pulp Fiction"--with director Quentin Tarantino and actors Willis and John Travolta, all Morris clients--was the big winner. As for Rifkin, in a vote of confidence he was recently made a member of the agency's board of directors.

There are still detractors. The most pointed criticism is that Morris remains thin when it comes to bankable stars and directors that studios feel they need to make blockbusters--a gap evidenced by their limited participation in some of the highest-grossing movies.

Crawling out of an abyss is no easy task. One lawyer says the agency's motion pictures group "used to be a low third, now they're a high third."

An insider adds, "On a scale of one to 10, it was a minus 5. Now it's a 5."

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