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The New World Order

It's been about a year since the departures of Creative Artists Agency honchos Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer--and the agenting game just hasn't been the same.

June 23, 1996|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Creative Artists Agency President Ron Meyer jolted the entertainment industry last July 10 when he announced that he would leave the outfit he co-founded to assume the presidency of MCA. Five weeks later, CAA's Michael Ovitz, considered by many to be the most powerful figure in Hollywood, accepted the No. 2 spot at the Walt Disney Co. The agency business, industry observers predicted, would never be the same.

A year later, CAA--which had dominated the landscape for the past decade--has largely avoided the meltdown anticipated by rivals. But according to high-ranking executives interviewed by The Times, the testosterone-filled agenting arena has turned into a free-for-all. Client mobility is on the rise, with backbiting and sniping the order of the day.

"Until a year ago, the agency world was like the Old West," says Joe Roth, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. "CAA's dominance made for a moral order. There was no expectation you could steal clients away since people were afraid to leave. When Ronnie and Mike left, however, chaos became the norm."

Arnold Rifkin, worldwide head of motion pictures at the William Morris Agency, agrees: "Flux leads to confusion . . . and there's a lot of confusion now."

Even prior to the frenzy, traditional loyalties had begun to erode. Early last year, Madonna left CAA for William Morris, where she spent four months before bolting to International Creative Management. With Meyer out of the picture, longtime CAA client Sylvester Stallone headed for ICM, where he lasted three months before William Morris roped him in. Arsenio Hall went from CAA to United Talent Agency to ICM. Eddie Murphy went from ICM to CAA and back to ICM.

Some high-powered talent opted to avoid the entire agency scene, preferring to rely on a manager or lawyer instead. At present, former CAA clients Kevin Costner, Winona Ryder, directors John Hughes ("Home Alone") and Joel Schumacher ("Batman Forever"), as well as ex-ICM clients Sharon Stone and director James Cameron ("Aliens"), have no agency representation.

"The business today is not about getting clients work but about which clients you get--who can collect the most toys," a top agent says.

Without the prospect of a long-term relationship, industry observers say, agents may be tempted to put clients in substandard projects, heading off defections by keeping them employed. The most successful Hollywood careers, a top executive suggests, belong to Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford--stars with long-standing ties. Eastwood has been with William Morris' Leonard Hirshan for 35 years, Nicholson with Sandy Bresler for 35, Ford with Patricia McQueeney for 26.

Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter ("My Favorite Year") who became a psychotherapist, compares the situation to the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. "Every Balkan nation you never heard of was trying to get hold of nuclear weapons, strutting their stuff," said Palumbo, 90% of whose clients are show business folk. "Now that CAA is no longer the superpower it was, everyone is going for the big score. Burnout is a factor across the board."

One high-profile casualty was Ovitz protege Jay Moloney, who represented Bill Murray and David Letterman and was a leader of CAA's brash "Young Turks." After open heart surgery and, his spokesman confirms, months of drug rehabilitation, the 31-year-old Moloney resigned May 12. In February, ICM suffered a more radical jolt when agent Jon Sepler, also 31, hanged himself from a window of his Los Angeles home. Attentive as always to the needs of his clients, he had suggested alternative agents with whom they could sign in one of his suicide notes.

"Sepler's death resulted from personal demons," says a source familiar with the situation. "But they were exacerbated by the fact that he couldn't talk about them. Everyone has to put on the best face possible when representing clients. They want to know that your life is together so you can take care of theirs."

The real pressures, many believe, kick in after a client is snagged. "After the hunt and the capture, you have the honeymoon--a limited time . . . to make good on all the promises you've made," one insider says. "And because agencies spend 80% of their time servicing the top 20% of their client lists, mid-level actors such as Danny Glover or Patrick Swayze can get lost in the mix."

Changing financial realities have added to the squeeze. Now that the average film costs $54 million to produce and market, the stakes--and risks--are higher than ever.

The bigger the budget, the more demand for A-list actors and directors, who serve as practical and psychological safety nets. Still, with mergers whittling down the number of major players and profit margins at an all-time low, killer deals may also kill the buyer. And Hollywood's new credo--making fewer films--means less work down the road.

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