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Agency's Talent Pool Is Fast Becoming an Ocean

CAA's blitz to sign stars and agents may reflect a bid to stay on top in a changing industry.

October 14, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The agents from Creative Artists Agency had barely returned from a corporate retreat in Ojai when rumors started spreading across Hollywood. Already the town's most formidable talent agency, CAA wanted to solidify its dominance and, as the chatter inside rival talent agencies held, it had pledged at its March gathering to go after "100% market share."

CAA won't comment, but the results speak for themselves. The agency is well on its way to becoming the talent agency equivalent of a category killer such as Microsoft.

In a yearlong blitz that rival agents say they have not witnessed in decades, CAA has signed a multitude of writers, directors, actors and, most noticeably, a number of top talent agents from competitors.

Although client and agent comings and goings are not unusual, the magnitude of the moves to CAA has startled the industry. Its competitors say the current run even eclipses the agency's meteoric rise in the 1980s under co-founder Michael Ovitz, whose take-no-prisoners style and aggressive packaging of talent changed show business deal-making forever.

Now marking its 30th anniversary and its 10th year since Ovitz's departure for a disastrous run as president of Walt Disney Co., CAA, under Richard Lovett, has over the last 12 months recruited seven prominent agents from the ranks of William Morris Agency, United Talent Agency, Endeavor and International Creative Management -- the four agencies considered to be the most powerful after CAA.

As is common practice, those agents arrived with many of their clients in tow, a tally that includes Will Ferrell and Kate Winslet; the directors of "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Wedding Crashers," "Bruce Almighty," "Batman Begins," "Lost in Translation," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Finding Neverland" and "Starsky & Hutch"; and the writers of "Meet the Fockers," "Freaky Friday" and "Troy."

A number of actors and filmmakers have joined CAA on their own, including Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey and directors Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"), Catherine Hardwicke ("Lords of Dogtown"), Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") and Vadim Perelman ("House of Sand and Fog").

Interviews with nearly three dozen producers, agents, managers, studio executives and filmmakers suggest that CAA is transforming itself in a bid to remain dominant in an era of media consolidation and fewer filmmaking jobs. The agency with the most tools, in other words, can build the best machine with the least amount of trouble.

A firm that once represented only a few dozen of Hollywood's highest echelon, director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks among them, CAA now negotiates on behalf of several hundred individuals and corporations, including such up-and-coming TV actors as "Desperate Housewives" costar Eva Longoria, who joined CAA this month. A new seven-member marketing team helps promote the creative work of its clients, and a beefed-up international financing group looks for investors.

CAA has been able to expand its reach without yet damaging its reputation as the industry's best-run and most strategic agency, according to studio executives and even several rival agents.

"They get teamwork," says Nina Jacobson, president of Disney's Buena Vista motion picture group. "[They] don't work at cross-purposes with each other, unlike some people in the business." Says "Catch Me If You Can" producer Walter Parkes, "It's so chaotic in the agency business. There's a stability in senior management at CAA [that] you don't have in other agencies."

But Jeremy Zimmer, a United Talent Agency board member and head of UTA's motion picture literary department, says CAA's play for increased size may hurt the very people it is designed to benefit. By Zimmer's estimate, CAA has added as many as 60 new directors to its roster in recent months, and it may not have adequate staff to represent so many filmmakers, he says.

"If I were a client of CAA, I would really be asking myself if I am going to get the service and attention I need," Zimmer said. "It's a real question: Is it good for the directors? Is it good for the business? And is there anything in here about making good movies?"

Some rival agents also wonder whether CAA's rich salaries for its recently added agents -- which several people outside of CAA estimate at $2 million a year and more -- could create resentment within CAA. For the time being, though, more people seem inclined to join CAA, rather than to leave it.

A Powerful Draw

When people are asked why they made the move to CAA, the answers inevitably hinge on the agency's muscle.

Director Fuqua has long dreamed of making a movie about "Monster" Kody Scott, a Los Angeles-area gang member who became a political activist while behind bars.

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