CAA's big-fish position has the other agencies fighting for lures

By Josh Young
Updated October 24, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s an idea for a science-fiction thriller: Hollywood is invaded by swarms of identical-looking white men in dark suits and sunglasses (sort of like the multiple Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded, except these ones lunch at Barney Greengrass) who take control of the careers of every player in town. Maybe we could get Keanu to star? Who represents him these days?

Like we need to ask. Along with practically every marquee name right now, Reeves is represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), currently the undisputed King of Talent Agencies. In the last year alone, CAA picked up Julia Roberts, Tobey Maguire, Adrien Brody, and Cameron Diaz (joining the two Toms, Renee Zellweger, and Nicole Kidman). Its directors and producers include Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Jerry Bruckheimer, John Wells, and Phil Rosenthal.

Not that the agency has completely recaptured the awesome power of its past. Gone are the days of genuflecting to Michael Ovitz, the fallen ”superagent” who cofounded CAA and ran it with a platinum fist, enforcing pricey packages on studios (i.e., supplying — to put it nicely — a movie’s screenwriter, director, and actors). New economic realities (bigger budgets, tighter-fisted studio overlords) have drained power from the agencies, ending the era of Machiavellian ten-percenters that Ovitz helped turn into a caricature.

”It’s not the ’80s anymore,” explains an agent. ”The price of movies and TV has skyrocketed. You can’t jam [a package] into the studios anymore. So you’re seeing the agencies getting kinder and gentler.”

Well, kinder and gentler relatively speaking. But being No. 1 and representing so much top talent does come with a risk — as in big-fish stars in a crowded pond fighting over the same scraps. Such potential conflicts of interest tend to breed dissatisfaction — and defections. Witness J. Lo leaving Endeavor to join CAA, then returning to Endeavor two months later.

Which makes CAA’s competitors even hungrier for a kill. But while Endeavor and the rest have turned CAA’s tactics to their own advantage (raiding not only each other’s clients but also each other’s agents), they’re also discovering that the best way to counter CAA’s monolithic image might be specialization. Each agency (listed below, in no particular order) has its own tactics for dealing with CAA’s army of invincible Smiths. So far, none has perfected the art of popping into phones.

WILLIAM MORRIS CEO-President Jim Wiatt has tried to shake up WM’s old-school image with an office in Miami, a stronger literary department, and the addition of Endeavor defectors David Lonner and Steve Rabineau (who brought along J.J. Abrams, Alexander Payne, and a few dozen other clients). But there’s no denying a shallow pool of top actors. Still, age has its advantages, even in Hollywood. ”A nuclear bomb could go off in there and it would survive,” says a rival agent. ”With all the TV packaging from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, they’ll be around forever.”