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Suit illuminates talent agencies' clash

Richard Abate says he's leaving ICM for Endeavor. But ICM is putting up a fight.

March 10, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — It's a case of life imitating "Entourage." When Richard Abate, a prominent New York literary agent, made plans to leave ICM and move to the Endeavor Talent Agency, he had no idea the transition would unleash so much drama. Not only has he become the target of internet gossip and speculation, he's also been slapped with an ICM lawsuit alleging that he violated the terms of his contract -- which runs through the end of this year -- by moving to an arch-competitor ahead of time.

The lawsuit, reported Thursday on Gawker.com, asks that Abate not be allowed to work for Endeavor through December. And the case, headed for a hearing this month in Manhattan federal court, underscores the highly competitive, often backstabbing world of super-agents who leapfrog from one agency to another, taking prized clients and contacts with them. Abate and his Rolodex, ICM charges, could do irreparable harm to the firm's book division by setting up shop this year with Endeavor.

But the stakes are also high for Abate, whose more than 50 clients include Dale Peck, Evan Wright, James Swanson, Ian Kerner, Yiyun Li and Lisi Harrison. He is expected to dramatically boost the literary clout of Endeavor -- whose founder, Ari Emanuel, is said to be the real-life model for Jeremy Piven's uber-agent character on HBO's "Entourage."

The Los Angeles-based agency had previously brokered book-to-movie projects by dealing with independent literary agents and representing their clients with Hollywood studios, much like United Talent Agency and Creative Artists Agency. Now Endeavor plans to compete as a full-service agency handling all aspects of such deals -- including signing its own authors and handling film and television rights -- like ICM and the William Morris Agency.

Neither Abate nor officials at Endeavor or ICM would comment on the matter. But other New York agents, although they asked not to be identified, seemed fascinated by the clash, which has also been followed closely by Variety and the Galleycat.com publishing industry website.

"This kind of lawsuit normally doesn't happen in the publishing world unless you're playing at a very high level in the business," said one veteran agent. "Usually these disputes get settled quietly. But when you're a big agency and you're threatened by the loss of clients, you don't just take it sitting down. You have to make a statement -- and that's what this is really all about."

The lawsuit offers some juicy details about Abate's rise at the agency, beginning with his hiring in 1996. At the time, he had been working as an assistant with a book publisher for $20,500 a year. Since then Abate's salary has soared tenfold, to an average in excess of $200,000. Abate's good fortune "is in large measure the result of the business training and confidential contacts provided to Abate by ICM," the lawsuit said.

josh.getlin@latimes.com

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