Power plays in Hollywood talent agencies -- International Creative Management scores new agents, Julia Roberts, Anjelica Huston, and Andie MacDowell

If Hollywood’s major studios are competitive, the rivalry among the industry’s top three talent agencies is cutthroat. An agency is only as powerful as the stars it represents, so score a couple dozen power points for International Creative Management. In its ongoing battle to catch top dog Creative Artists Agency, ICM just raided the venerable William Morris Agency of four of its senior agents, 10-year veterans Elaine Goldsmith and Risa Shapiro, the less well known Toni Howard, and New York’s Boaty Boatwright. ”They are hanging black bunting around WMA,” says one studio production exec. ”These women had major clients.”

”Our decision to leave was not a strategic move against WMA,” Goldsmith says. ”The people at ICM have been incredibly supportive. It was a selfish decision for our careers and our clients.”

The quartet (who are used to working closely together) did indeed bring ICM a dazzling array of talent, including Julia Roberts, Anjelica Huston, Anne Bancroft, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, James Spader, and Andie MacDowell. Moving from one agency to another won’t really affect the stars careers, but it will make ICM more competitive with CAA, and it certainly has hurt WMA, which has nurtured — and lost — a number of big names over the years. ”They will do what they always do,” says WMA spokesman Harry Clein. ”Rebuild.”

It remains to be seen if this exodus of agents will become an avalanche: At press time, WMA superagent John Ptak, who assembled the financing behind Driving Miss Daisy, Green Card, and Dances With Wolves, left the agency for the greener pastures of CAA.

In many ways the agency wars are a struggle between the old order and the new. Ninety-three-year-old WMA made its reputation as a literary agency (and remains a leader in the field), then tried Hollywood. It’s reportedly still the nation’s wealthiest agency due to its real estate holdings and booming TV department. (The Cosby show reportedly brings in some $50 million a year; the company gets a fee for packaging the show, and it handles the star as well.) But its aged nine-member board believes in development, not acquisition, and in rewarding employees with job security and interest-free home loans, not huge bonuses. Thus many of its hottest agents have left over the years, including Michael Ovitz and the four partners who together founded CAA in 1975, and Ed Limato, who in 1988 took Michelle Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson, and Richard Gere to ICM with him.

Many credit Limato and ICM chairman Jeff Berg with offering the kind of guidance agents crave. ”These four women were running to Daddy,” says one female agent from a smaller agency. ”They felt they needed a man to protect them from losing their clients. They were afraid of being clobbered by the big guys.”

”WMA hasn’t figured out how much agents can make,” a rival comments. ”It was an opportunity to make the kind of money that studio executives get. In a successful year, a studio president can land a $500,000 bonus.” With the departure of the four agents and their rosters, WMA ”lost 70 to 80 percent of (its) sought-after people in features,” estimates one producer. ”WMA drops down a tier. Now it’s a two-agency town.” In a statement, WMA president Norman Brokaw defended his agency. ”Though it remains a rare thing in today’s Hollywood, we believe in looking at the long-term picture and our continuing success has proven the power of that philosophy.”

Not everybody’s convinced that will last, however. ”I think William Morris will reexamine what it’s doing,” suggests Tri-Star Pictures chairman and ex-agent Mike Medavoy (who just cast Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell in Hook, a CAA package), ”and make some changes.”