Shark attack!

ICM superagent Jim Wiatt defects to William Morris. Hollywood watches as all-out agency war looms.

By Nikki Finke
Published August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Hollywood is on full alert for a shark attack. But will the reality just be a minnow bite? That's the speculation heating up cell phones after Jim Wiatt, the co-chairman of International Creative Management -- and a Great White among Hollywood talent agents -- defected to the William Morris Agency to become president and co-CEO.

Though the actual address change is just several hundred yards of over-priced Beverly Hills real estate, in terms of corporate culture the two agency competitors are miles apart. And it's rare, nearly unheard of, for an agent at such a top level to switch loyalties, especially one who as a consequence will give up a large equity stake in the company he helped build. Nevertheless, Wiatt's defection was not a complete surprise. He has made no secret of the fact that in recent years he has been unhappy at ICM, and he lobbied Universal and Sony about coming on board as a top studio executive. (Their response? Thanks, but no thanks.)


The day-to-day rigors of being an agent can wear on even the most successful practitioner of this curious craft. It's a world filled with intrigues, betrayals and, alas, 2 a.m. "emergency" phone calls from clients kvetching from luxury hotel suites halfway around the world. In return, agents get something virtually no one else has in Hollywood: job security. Wiatt was one of the town's best agents -- with clients such as Eddie Murphy, Nora Ephron, Sylvester Stallone and Tim Allen -- and one of the most popular inside and outside his agency. It was difficult not to imagine the 53-year-old Wiatt, with two ex-wives and a baby on the way from his third marriage, staying on at ICM well into his dotage.

But that was not to be. Wiatt wanted a lot more money and a higher public profile. "He kept griping that no one in the media was writing articles about him," one source explained. The reason was simple: Reporters were focusing instead on ICM's No. 1, Jeff Berg; or ICM's highest-ranking woman, Nancy Josephson (who, as handler for Bright/Kauffman/Crane, oversaw such TV fare as "Friends," "Jesse" and "Veronica's Closet"); or ICM's star agent, Ed Limato (whose celestial client list includes Mel Gibson, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer, Denzel Washington and Richard Gere).

ICM did what it could. In an uncharacteristic gesture of generosity, chairman Berg tried to assuage his longtime president's ego by agreeing to share his title and power with Wiatt. Yet in return Wiatt gave the agency only a one-year extension on his contract; the rumors of his imminent departure continued. Then, ICM expanded its uppermost management ranks to include Josephson and Limato -- a move that Wiatt felt marginalized his leadership of the agency. That, combined with a salary demand for at least double the $1.5 million upfront money on his current contract, made Wiatt's recent contract talks arduous.


The feeling among Hollywood players was that this was merely a game of chicken between Berg and Wiatt to see who would blink first. After all, Berg and Wiatt were considered a great team, with Berg the far-sighted cerebral manager and Wiatt the glad-handing consensus-maker. Wiatt also had to consider his 10 percent equity stake in ICM; that would have been worth a small fortune when ICM, recovering from a bruising leveraged buyout, turns profitable next year. Sources say that as late as last month, Wiatt's attorney was urging his client to take the big pay raise ICM was offering. But Wiatt was reluctant.

After three months of nonstop chattering about Wiatt's future, Berg felt he had to put an end to it once and for all and set a deadline. On Friday morning, phone calls were exchanged, and Berg sent an "It is with great regret ..." e-mail to the staff about the collapse of his contract talks with Wiatt. Both Wiatt and "Iceberg" were emotional over the abrupt end of their long and successful partnership. "Change is tough for everyone," explained Wiatt.

Technically, Wiatt left ICM without another job in place. But, in truth, he had been exploring his options and taking meetings with possible employers for some time. First he had to decide if he would stay as an agent or turn manager, following the latest fashionable trend in Tinseltown. (Legally, managers are allowed to produce TV shows and movies for their clients; agents aren't.) After long walks and many meetings, all the while fielding dozens of calls from the same reporters who previously had all but ignored him, Wiatt opted to remain a traditional 10-percenter. That decision made, the only logical place for him, and the only place that could really afford him, was the William Morris Agency, Hollywood's oldest and richest agency. By late Sunday, an agreement was firmed up. So quick was the deal that Wiatt doesn't even have an office; he's using a conference room as temporary digs.


In fact, WMA had approached Wiatt a year earlier, but at that point Wiatt wasn't ready to defect. The company has been looking to damage ICM as payback for a 1990 raid against Morris, in which ICM took several female agents, including the negotiator for Julia Roberts. And just three years ago, WMA made an unsuccessful play for ICM's Limato. Fortunately for Wiatt, Morris' governing board has been deeply concerned about its movie division. While the company is the undisputed No. 1 in the television business, its big-screen star power lags behind its two bitter rivals, ICM and Creative Artists Agency. Seven years ago, WMA enlisted Arnold Rifkin, best known as Bruce Willis' agent, to effect a turnaround of its motion picture division. But Rifkin -- as enigmatic and tempestuous as he was hard-working -- turned out to be a disappointment. He created more personnel problems than he solved, and he turned out to be not nearly as well-connected within the industry as WMA had thought. It was clear that neither side was keen to renew his five-year contract when it expired next year.

Exit Rifkin -- and enter Wiatt, whose arrival at Morris was announced with another e-mail. Wiatt's deal includes a reputed $5 million salary and a seat on the 11-member WMA board as well as a token amount of agency stock and a wealth of perks. Wiatt starts his new job with assurances that all of Morris is his to run -- but then again, the Morris board is not known for its hands-off governing style. It may just turn out that Wiatt has swapped one boss -- Berg -- for 11 new ones.


So is this the first wave of an all-out agency war? It might be, particularly if Wiatt starts bolstering Morris' lineup by stealing rival agencies' clients. But right now, the other companies aren't losing a lot of sleep. CAA has experienced remarkable stability since 1995, when both agency chairman Michael Ovitz and president Ron Meyer jumped to studios. Besides, CAA has its hands full in its current feud with Ovitz's new management company, Artists Management Group: CAA declared it wouldn't share clients with AMG after Ovitz stole away Robin Williams. Since then, directors Sydney Pollack, Richard Donner and Barry Levinson, among others, have left CAA for AMG. Nor is stalwart ICM worrying who might follow Wiatt out the door. Wiatt's own client list, with a few exceptions, isn't exactly white hot: Besides Murphy, Stallone, Ephron and Allen, there are actors Tony Danza and Don Johnson; directors Donner, Penny Marshall, Renny Harlin and Kevin Williamson; producer Lorne Michaels and writer Neil Simon. Ironically, most of these clients are booked for the next year or two, and ICM will reap the commissions for the work landed on its watch.

But ICM will sorely miss Wiatt's ability to get people who don't like each other to work together as a team, a trait that should benefit WMA. It's also expected that one or two ICM agents might follow Wiatt to WMA when their contracts run out. Wiatt's
other principal strength is his relationships in town; a party animal, he is one of the most social agents in Hollywood, friends with everyone and anyone. Now he is counting on a lot of loyalty, and perhaps even new clients, courtesy of his many pals.

So who will lose by Wiatt's jumping ship? The studios. In their heyday, in the 1980s, the ultracompetitive agency shark tanks produced higher paydays for actors, directors and writers. This in turn inflicted enormous financial pain on the Hollywood studios. They were caught in the crossfire and forced to absorb the higher costs of making movies -- a hit that today's stagnant Tinseltown stocks can ill afford. Now that a Great White has moved its feeding ground down Wilshire Boulevard, don't be surprised if, for the next months, Hollywood talent agencies hang signs on their doors that say, "Gone fishin'."


Anyone have a spare rod?

Nikki Finke

Nikki Finke is Salon's Hollywood correspondent and the West Coast editor for New York magazine.

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