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Hollywood Agents Lose the Throne

Personal managers are the rising moguls as they greatly expand their roles and some stars shun agencies altogether. Lack of state regulation is seen as big advantage.


Pity the poor Hollywood agent.

In the '80s and early '90s, talent agents ruled the industry. Movie studios and television networks found themselves beholden to International Creative Management, the Creative Artists Agency and the time-tested William Morris Agency, the "big three" agencies that had a lock on most A-list stars. Agents made big money for both their clients and themselves, charging the TV networks, for example, huge so-called packaging fees to assemble talent for shows.

Even for the most famous actors, it was often unclear who needed whom more: agent or client?

No more. Today, some of the biggest stars don't have agents. Kevin Costner and Sharon Stone use their lawyers to close deals. Winona Ryder, though now represented by ICM, recently went for two years without an agent, letting her personal manager handle her career. Leonardo DiCaprio is represented solely by his manager. So is martial arts star Jackie Chan.

The rising Hollywood mogul is the personal manager, a position once largely seen as an indulgence by actors, and certainly not essential to success. Although the vast majority of "name" actors, directors and writers still have agents, when it comes to representing talent these days, "It's a free-for-all," said one prominent lawyer. Times are changing, and lately, so are a lot of agents--changing into managers, that is.

In recent months, more than half a dozen agents (representing actors and directors such as Chan, Alan Alda, Drew Barrymore, Macaulay Culkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Paul Verhoeven and Vanessa Williams) have quit, packing up their Rolodexes and turning into personal managers.

When Michael Ovitz, once the most powerful talent agent in town, unveiled plans to form a management company--Artists Management Group, which began full operations this week--it only confirmed what most people in Hollywood already knew: "Agents are no longer the kings," said Frank Rose, author of the 1995 book "The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business."

Agents, who are licensed by the state, make their money negotiating contracts. Under long-standing agreements with Hollywood's labor unions, they may charge no more than 10% commissions and may not produce movies or television shows. Managers, by contrast, are largely unregulated. They can charge clients what they like (many take 15%) and can produce clients' projects, taking lucrative production fees as well as on-screen credits. Theoretically, they may not procure work for clients, although they may offer counsel and participate in negotiations with agents.

In recent years, managers have become commonplace not only for actors, but for directors and writers as well. Not only is the field less restrictive and potentially more lucrative than the agency world, but many managers find their services are much in demand.

"It is so hard to get a job," said one 32-year-old actress who employs both an agent and a manager. Even with featured roles in more than a half-dozen recent studio films under her belt, she said, she considers the money she pays her two representatives a necessary cost of doing business. "Basically, the more people you have on your team, who listen to what you're trying to make happen and are out there trying to get it for you, the more chance you have of success."

Moreover, this actress said, big agencies often weigh one client's interests against another's. Managers have fewer clients and are perceived to be more focused on the individual needs of each one.

"They just have that much more time in the day to look out for you," she said.

The trend of hiring teams of advisors has an impact on more than individual careers. It also affects, for better or worse, the way movies and television shows are produced.

For example, several hit TV shows count their stars' managers among their producers. Erwin More and Brian Medavoy, whose More-Medavoy Management company manages actress Jenna Elfman, are credited on her ABC sitcom, "Dharma & Greg." Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein of Brillstein-Grey Enterprises, which represents actor David Spade, are executive producers of NBC's "Just Shoot Me."

The same goes for movies. Referring to Warren Zide, the wunderkind manager of young writers who was credited on Sony Pictures' recent action-comedy, "The Big Hit," one fellow manager quipped: "He's producing more movies than MGM!"

Because producers' fees are covered by the studio or network, managers can sometimes be paid handsomely while costing their clients nothing. This has prompted some managers to become known derisively as "cling-ons" who demand producing credits on projects simply for making their clients available.

And there are conflict-of-interest concerns. Comedian Garry Shandling recently filed a $100-million lawsuit alleging that his manager, Grey of Brillstein-Grey, failed to protect Shandling's interests while furthering his own. Grey has denied the charges, filing a countersuit.

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