William Morris Power Play

Dec 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The high-level management changes that rocked the venerable William Morris Agency last week, including the exit of Sam Haskell as worldwide head of television, reaffirmed the internal control of Chairman Norman Brokaw and his likely successor, CEO Jim Wiatt, over one of the most powerful talent representation companies in the global entertainment industry.

Mr. Wiatt’s longtime friend and colleague Dave Wirtschafter, who came over with him from ICM in 1999, was elevated to president (a title Mr. Wiatt now gives up). Former accountant Irv Weintraub, after serving as chief financial officer since 1992, was promoted to chief operating officer.

According to a press release issued Friday by the agency, Mr. Haskell, along with Steve Kram and Richard Rosenberg, “elected to leave due to philosophical differences regarding the focus and direction of the company.” All three sold back to the agency their ownership shares in the privately held company.

Though there had been rumors in recent weeks of an internal power struggle, the resignation of the well-known and well-liked Mr. Haskell came as a surprise to most of the TV industry. Over the past decade he has led William Morris to new heights, which was confirmed in the company’s release: “Mr. Haskell has led the agency’s television department to their most successful years ever.”

His and the agency’s list of clients includes Ray Romano, Debbie Allen, Tim Allen, Delta Burke and Kathy Lee Gifford, as well as producers Danny Jacobson and Beth Sullivan. Among the shows he has recently packaged is “Fat Actress,” starring Kirstie Alley, for Showtime.

Mr. Haskell has been active in the Hollywood community with the TV Academy and many other organizations. He hosts an annual charity event in his hometown of Amory, Miss., for which he flies in a planeload of stars to entertain. It has raised more than $3 million in the past 12 years to aid local students. The town, in gratitude, has named a street after Mr. Haskell.

Two theories quickly emerged on why Mr. Haskell left. The first was that he plans to return to his native Mississippi to enter politics, most likely to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He hinted at that possibility in his prepared statement contained in the agency release: “Everyone who knows me best knows that at some point my final destiny lies in my home state of Mississippi.”

The other is that his political plans were accelerated because he lost out in an agency power struggle. According to sources, Mr. Haskell felt he should be named co-president with Mr. Wirtschafter, who most recently has headed the motion picture department at the agency.

The picture was complicated by the plans of Mr. Brokaw, who at age 76 reportedly is not yet ready to step down as chairman. It is assumed that when he does, Mr. Wiatt, who is also chief operating officer, will be elevated to chairman. Mr. Brokaw has been with the agency since 1943, when he was hired to work in the mailroom at age 15. He has never worked anywhere else.

Over six decades Mr. Brokaw has represented numerous stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Danny Thomas and President Gerald Ford. One of his most famous clients, whom he personally represented over four decades, is Bill Cosby, whose TV series were packaged by William Morris and became among the most lucrative deals in TV history.

Mr. Wiatt came to William Morris after 22 years at rival agency International Creative Management, where he was on the losing end of a power struggle with ICM Chairman Jeff Berg. Mr. Wiatt signed a five-year contract with William Morris at that time, and he was due to re-up his contract this year.

Columnist Nikki Finke reported in L.A. Weekly magazine last month that Mr. Wiatt promised Mr. Wirtschafter that he would be named president. That assumed Mr. Wiatt would become chairman. However, it was held up when Mr. Brokaw declined to step aside. Mr. Brokaw chaired the board meeting last Thursday, during which the promotions and exit agreements were all approved.

The agency said Mark Itkin, executive VP and worldwide head of syndication, cable and nonfiction programming, would head TV operations and take on additional responsibilities alongside Mr. Wirtschafter and Mr. Wiatt. That raised eyebrows in Hollywood, where Mr. Itkin is considered a powerhouse in nonfiction and reality TV but is known to have little experience on the scripted side.

It also fed rumors that the reorganization is a prelude to a major move by William Morris to acquire another talent agency. The target agency most often mentioned is Endeavor, which is in the process of selling off a division (see story, Page 8), possibly as a streamlining move in advance of a sale. In that scenario, top agents at Endeavor would take over running the Morris TV department.

William Morris has a history of acquiring other agencies to improve or regenerate areas in which it is lacking. For instance, Mr. Rosenberg joined in 1992 after William Morris acquired the Triad Agency, primarily to get Triad’s active music department. Mr. Rosenberg, who has headed the music area since, is said to be retiring. His duties at the agency are being assumed by Peter Grosslight.

A spokesman for the Endeavor agency in Beverly Hills adamantly denied there is any pending deal for Morris to acquire the agency. The spokesman did not deny there have been conversations but said that “happens all the time. Every agency talks to every other agency, but nothing substantive has occurred. It’s just not true.”

Mr. Kram had been COO and a member of the board since 2002. He joined William Morris in 1987 from Capitol Cities/ABC. At the agency he specialized in corporate consulting and international expansion. After Mr. Weintraub assumes his duties, Michael Dates, who has been senior VP of finance, becomes chief financial officer.