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Agency upheavals

Agency upheavals — Top dogs Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer, and Bill Haber left Creative Artists Agency last year

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Power players abhor a vacuum. So last year, when Creative Artists Agency’s three top dogs all left the company they founded — Michael Ovitz to join Disney, Ron Meyer to head MCA, and Bill Haber to help run a charity — the agency business was thrown into a frenzy. CAA’s major rivals, International Creative Management (ICM), William Morris Agency, and United Talent Agency (UTA), geared up to woo clients away.

”To say we were busy is an understatement,” says CAA cochairman Lee Gabler. While CAA’s agents rushed to reorganize, elevating Richard Lovett, one of the firm’s Young Turks, as their leader, they also had to reassure clients. Even so, some decamped: Barbra Streisand and Steven Seagal moved to ICM, while Whoopi Goldberg, Alec Baldwin, and Geena Davis shuttled over to Morris. Some stars passed through several agencies with lightning speed: Sylvester Stallone moved from CAA to ICM (for just three months) to Morris.

Though some may have hoped CAA would implode, the agency not only hung on to most of its clients but also added Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, and Jennifer Aniston. ”CAA still has the best list of actors, directors, and writers in motion pictures,” says UTA cochairman James Berkus. ”But you don’t have a single person enforcing his will anymore.”

Jeffrey Berg at ICM, arguably the most diversified of the majors, has emerged as the leading statesman among agents: He introduced the DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen to the L.A. developer who will build their studio in Playa Vista; he has advised clients Samsung, Apple, and Mercedes-Benz; and at last year’s Oscars, he applauded as ICM talent won for Braveheart, Dead Man Walking, and Leaving Las Vegas.

At William Morris, worldwide motion picture head Arnold Rifkin has reenergized the faded agency. His strategy: Inject new life into careers by fixing stars up with young filmmakers (John Travolta and Bruce Willis in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and Stallone in James Mangold’s upcoming Copland). Though its momentum was threatened last month when Rifkin flirted with a job offer from Sony, his new, long-term Morris contract, as well as such signings as Ellen DeGeneres, have kept the agency moving forward. Similarly, the burgeoning UTA survived the noisy departure of Gavin Polone (his partners accused him of ”inappropriate behavior” toward a female colleague, then withdrew the charge and apologized) to establish itself as a home for young celebs like Jim Carrey, Sandra Bullock, Ben Stiller, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

But with all the agencies staying healthy, the fighting has become relentless. ”Agents are so focused on bagging new clients that in many instances they’re no longer properly servicing existing clients,” complains one industry attorney. ”It’s a much more competitive environment,” admits Morris’ Rifkin. One result is that the old gentleman’s agreement — don’t poach another’s client unless the client signals interest — is kaput. When actress Lela Rochon scored with Waiting to Exhale, she was besieged with offers, even though she was happily represented by the smaller Paradigm agency. ”The ICM guys were offering to send me my favorite champagne,” she laughs. ”An agent from William Morris got my home number and wanted to represent me for endorsements overseas.” Out of loyalty to the firm that had groomed her, Rochon decided to stay put. In today’s agency wars, such devotion has become a quaint anachronism.