Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: When I was a young reporter on The New York Times, Abe Lastfogel, the august chief of the old William Morris Agency, consented to meet with me with one proviso — I could never reveal that the meeting had taken place. Agents must remain invisible, Lastfogel told me. It was the unspoken rule.
I thought of Lastfogel’s rule of invisibility this week as I read excerpts from James Andrew Miller’s new book about CAA and, shortly thereafter, The Hollywood Reporter’s interview with Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell. In Miller’s book, Bill Haber, one of CAA’s founding partners, is critical of Michael Ovitz’s growing quest for celebrity in the early 1990s, saying “the moment you become more important than your clients, your company is finished.” Miller also cites Irving Azoff’s observation on the CAA boss: “Ovitz started believing his own press and getting ego’d out.” Miller’s new book, titled Powerhouse: The Untold History Of CAA, was written with the cooperation of CAA agents but was not an authorized book.
Emanuel and Whitesell, the co-chiefs of WME, also seem unconcerned about the issue of invisibility in agreeing to a THR cover story and are eager to herald their $2.4 billion acquisition of IMG. Yet THR asks Emanuel for his reaction to a quote from an unnamed head of a TV network who observes, “Ari’s head is getting too big, he thinks he owns the world.” Emanuel’s typically blunt response is, “I don’t.” On matters of ego, he says simply, “Patrick has to put up with it.” Whitesell patiently explains that his partner is in fact well-grounded and that “no one works harder, no one’s more loyal.” But both acknowledge that their relationship to clients has undergone a subtle shift. Given their added corporate responsibilities, do they still take calls from important clients? Of course they do, says Whitesell, but “it would be like Bob Iger used to do programming with ABC and now….”
FLEMING: Reading that THR interview made me recall the days of labor stoppages, and agencies pledging they would try to carry their deal makers and support staffs for as long as they could even though the revenue flow slowed to a trickle. Showbiz commissions now make up no more than one-quarter of the bottom lines of CAA and WME. The difference between their top guys, and Ovitz, is the latter drank his own Kool-Aid. He took that “most powerful man” in Hollywood stuff too seriously, and he thought because he built one business it meant he would succeed in anything. How wrong he was. Whether it’s Emanuel and Whitesell, or Bryan Lourd, Richard Lovett, Kevin Huvane and their gang, these guys are doing what Ovitz should have; they stayed where they belonged and are building to huge heights. They are a bit like Iger, who has made more out of Disney’s film division than could be imagined by buying Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm for billions of dollars, and basically setting up that studio up for dominance for the next 20 years. Any agency not in this rarified stratosphere might say they would rather focus on clients, not empire building. But CAA and WME seem to do that pretty well, also. The directions they are taking their agencies feels forward thinking and bold, and in this moment in time where nobody knows exactly what the future holds, fortune favors the disruptors. All the people here are rich already, but imagine their value if either successfully goes public, which many feel is inevitable?
BART: Could clients still fire them? ”My response is just that I’m pissed off at hearing it,” says Emanuel. So did Lastfogel have a point? He did, in my view, but his agency just wanted to rep talent and today’s mega-agencies have come to be structured more like multinational corporations with diverse interests. Hence their leaders inevitably have become public figures. As a prospective client, however, am I comfortable calling the head of a multinational corporation about a development deal? Not exactly.
FLEMING: CAA and WME have plenty of agents to service their big clients. You could look at Mark Wahlberg’s reality show Wahlburgers, or Scorsese’s Apple endorsement deal, or Dwayne Johnson’s Under Armour clothing line, Kim Kardashian’s mobile game, or the money raised for Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Important Studios and Vice Media as evidence that WME clients are benefiting from the agency’s many tentacles. CAA certainly has similar examples, and UTA is doing it in a different way for enterprising and entrepreneurial clients like Kevin Hart. Things were so different in Lastfogel’s days. TV packaging commissions were huge. Stars got first dollar gross deals, a lot of that due to Ovitz’s vision and aggressiveness. The economics of film and TV have been crunched by conglomerate-owned studios, and their favoring of concepts over the star system that empowered big salaries. Does any star matter at the box office right now beyond Leonardo DiCaprio? Back before the last strike, there seemed to be more scrutiny of how far agencies could and should go, in terms of creating mechanisms to fund projects vs conflict of interest. Those statutes expired, and nobody even brings that stuff up, anymore. Those two agencies have indie film divisions with guys who function almost like producers on prestige films that otherwise might not get made. At script stage, they help put together the package, they go get the funding, they sell distribution. They will those movies into existence.
Both those agencies have hatched investment banks, and they own sporting events. They are doing things that their predecessors only dreamed of. In the process, they’ve avoided the boredom that caused Ovitz and Ron Meyer to move on. They are not beholden if a client or 10 walks out the door, which happens, or if unions go on strike. We saw what happened when Jeff Berg tried to launch a traditional full-service talent agency in Resolution. If he couldn’t do it, it’s next to impossible. THR’s Matt Belloni did a good job provoking Ari and Patrick to drop the statesman-like attitude they walked in the room with. Ari’s as brash as when he did his first big magazine piece in Talk, and described the mindset at Endeavor: “We fight and we fu*k.” That hasn’t changed, but his ambition is larger and he’s getting to fully explore his vision for WME. Sure there’s debt, and maybe he’ll fail, maybe CAA will fail. I doubt it. There’s something admirable in taking the big swing.
Next topic: I saw you had an onstage conversation last week with Jerry Bruckheimer to kick off a monthlong retrospective of his movies. It reminded me of the day when there were 800-pound gorilla producers. He and Don Simpson were two, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin, Arnold Kopelson, they were all out-sized characters with egos who wielded so much clout and put their stylistic imprints on pictures so that you knew what kind of movie you were getting when you saw their names on the films. There are prolific producers out there nowadays, from Mike De Luca to Scott Stuber, Jason Blum on down, but they are not newcomers. Why do you think new versions of the super-producer aren’t coming up the ranks, and how much does it have to do with the quality of films these days?
BART: I agree with your premise, Mike. The producer’s voice is by and large missing in today’s process. One of the first producers I dealt with in my years as a studio executive was Hal Wallis, the strong-willed (and loud-voiced) producer of Casablanca and onetime production chief under Jack Warner. From Wallis’ point of view, the role of producer was to control the development of the script, supervise the production and the cut and then turn it over to the studio. I optioned the rights to True Grit and turned the whole project over to Wallis and he delivered the finished product — no studio interference along the way. (I also gave John Wayne a copy of the manuscript, which helped.) Today’s producer is more of a studio functionary, dealing step by step with the politics and intrigues of the company he is serving. In the future, I would look to the billionaire newcomers to the movie game to exercise the role of the Wallis-type producer. They have the money and potentially the control, but usually not the experience to make the “big decisions.” Then, too, it is unclear how the Amazons and Netflixes of the media universe will deal with producers. Early signals indicate that these entities want to deal with the hot young filmmakers but don’t necessarily welcome the voice of the producer.
FLEMING: The attrition of producer deals surely has made producers beholden to studios, much the way that writers in one-step deals are, and directors as well. Studio execs seem to be the creative authors on films, and everybody is there to execute their vision. Deadline just ran its third annual movie revenue tournament, and if you look at the vast net profits returned to studios on blockbusters, the system works for the bottom line, at least.
BART: Meanwhile Jerry Bruckheimer continues on the prowl, mobilizing a remarkable volume of important product and eliciting the respect of his studio partners — respect for his choice of filmmakers, his taste in scripts and even his selection of make-up. Who else would have let Johnny Depp look that way in the first Pirates and defend the actor when the studio went crazy. Bruckheimer is, in a sense, a vestige of an earlier era. The studios have all but eliminated their producer deals — foolishly, I think. Jerry is unique in that he built his TV interests so adeptly —the CSI shows, Amazing Race, etc — even though he remains primarily a features guy. At one point he was producing five of the 10 top network shows. When I needled him about the profusion of movie sequels — Bad Boys, Pirates Of The Caribbean, now Top Gun 2 — his reply was typical: “That’s what the studios want to make.” As a producer, Bruckheimer has won and lost some big battles. When the Disney execs first saw Depp’s extravagant make -up for Pirates, they raised hell after the first week of dailies. Bruckheimer held firm. He was right. On the other hand, when the studio wanted him to take half an hour out of The Lone Ranger cut, Bruckheimer refused. I think he was wrong. That movie could have been a big success if it had been tighter. But Jerry Bruckheimer, unlike most of the producers you listed above, has always been calm and restrained. He’s never been a yeller and screamer or a serial killer of assistants. That’s yet another reason for his longevity.
Next topic. When Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed a financial scammer in Wolf of Wall Street, he apparently didn’t realize that his movie itself was part of a financial scam. DiCaprio even collected an Oscar for doing Wolf, but it wasn’t his Oscar and wasn’t for his movie. Confused? An article published this weekend in The Wall Street Journal reveals that over $100 million used to finance the risky R-rated film had been diverted from a Malaysian fund whose purpose was to spur local economic development, not fund films. Introduction of Leonardo to the key producers was pivotal in gaining the funding. The financiers cemented their ties with the star by giving him an unusual gift: an Oscar statuette that had been presented to Marlon Brando in 1955 for On The Waterfront — it had been acquired for around $600,000 through a memorabilia dealer. Malaysian money is now figuring in several investigations; one seeks to find out what happened to $3.5 billion in bonds sold by a government investment fund in 2012. None of that involves DiCaprio, however, who, I suspect, will now hide his Brando Oscar and instruct his advisers to be more careful in their research on money sources.
FLEMING: My Deadline colleagues broke the burgeoning Red Granite Malaysian money scandal back in February, revealing that Red Granite was being investigated by federal authorities over all those missing government funds. Tying DiCaprio to this mess is a real stretch. He threw himself fully into that movie, creatively as star and producer. Is he supposed to smell the money too? You imagine there might be a vetting process on movie funding, but I think the priority is that checks don’t bounce and cameras roll. You see money coming in from China and Russia and the Middle East and I doubt anyone looks that hard, or has ever looked that hard. I thought DiCaprio should have won his own Oscar for Wolf, but it is funny if he at least has Brando’s trophy. He can put one on either side of his fireplace mantel, offsetting it with the shiny new trophy he won for The Revenant. That’s a great symmetrical look.