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Backlash Against the Backlash

Mar 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When Dave Wirtschafter graduated college his parents got him a subscription to The New Yorker magazine, and he has kept it up ever since. He has always considered it one of the most prestigious magazines in the world and a kind of cultural icon, said an associate at the William Morris Agency, where Mr. Wirtschafter was named president this past December.

So when a reporter for The New Yorker, Tad Friend, asked William Morris for cooperation on a story about the talent agency business today, he was welcomed. It was a reversal of form for Mr. Wirtschafter, who throughout his career at ICM and William Morris has been press-shy to an extreme. It was also unusual for the venerable 107-year-old agency, which since the days when the late Abe Lastfogel ran things, from about 1932 to 1984, has preferred to let the client be the public face for any story. The roughly 10,000-word article, published in the March 21 issue, focuses on Mr. Wirtschafter, covering both his cool, businesslike, somewhat unorthodox approach to his job and his casual, somewhat shy personal style. It quotes him analyzing the careers of some of his clients as he might do behind closed doors with other agents or managers. Unfortunately, this time the clients read it, and two high-profile stars-Sarah Michelle Gellar and Halle Berry-were so offended they terminated the agency as their rep. Another minor film director is said to have left as well over comments about a former colleague of his.

As the 12-page article ground through every fax in Hollywood, it quickly became the No. 1 subject from Burbank to Rockefeller Center and beyond. The backlash against Mr. Wirtschafter began almost immediately. There was a nasty item in the New York Post’s gossip column Page Six (repeated on the Defamer Web site and others) that stoked the flames. And there was a finger-pointing article in Variety.

One studio topper called it “about as deep a breach of confidence as you can imagine an agent making,” adding: “I can’t imagine the board of William Morris can look at it as anything other than sheer stupidity at a minimum and incredible arrogance at a maximum.”

“I love Dave. He’s a nice guy,” said a former William Morris agent who is now a prominent personal manager. “But anyone who would talk about his client being ‘cold’ in front of a reporter is insane. … Who is going to go with them when they’re talking about stars to reporters? I don’t think it was a positive article at all.”

Mr. Wirtschafter, according to his rep, felt “absolutely terrible. … He apologized publicly and to the other agents. He didn’t mean to cause these kind of problems.”

Agenting is a tough game. Some competitors seized on the article as a sign of weakness and began scheming to grab off some Morris clients. “Dave is a hot agent,” said his associate, “so the knives came out.”

“Trust me, all the other agencies are laughing their asses off at the whole thing,” said the studio topper. “This article is getting used against William Morris by every other agent in town.”

“Yes, it’s obvious other agents are using it to foment dissent so they can sign those clients,” said an agent at a smaller agency. “They love watching [William Morris] squirm.”

Still, some at Morris put things in a positive light. They pointed out the article actually is quite benign, if you aren’t the star whose career is being dissected. And it does help dispel the belief that William Morris is run by a lot of old men who are out of touch with the times.

One Morris agent insisted there is a backlash against the backlash. “There’s a lot of positive stuff that has come out of this,” the agent told me last week. “We’re getting tons of calls from people, including buyers who have never met Dave, saying, ‘Please set up a lunch or breakfast or meeting. I want to get to know him.’

“You have a 47-year-old president who understands the feature business, the television business, the marketing business, that this is a global business, and understands the value of teamwork. The article that should be written is what has happened in the last eight days since the article came out and a couple of clients left. With the amount of clients we have at this agency, after an article comes out that opens up everything, and only two people leave, you should write about that.”

Of course, those two are high-profile stars, a category in which WMA is weak compared with archrival CAA. On the other hand, it does showcase the reinvigoration of the oldest talent agency in showbiz since Jim Wiatt and Mr. Wirtschafter moved over from ICM in 1999. What had been a wealthy but stodgy operation has new vibrancy, especially in the television area, where WMA remains a top-tier player in everything from network series to syndicated programming. As the article pointed out, the bulk of WMA’s revenues are from TV, not from movie stars like Halle Berry, even if they do add to the agency’s overall reputation.

The truth is agents’ relationships with the media have traditionally been tenuous for the same reasons that made Mr. Lastfogel nervous. Stars have big egos, are usually insecure and become frustrated when not the center of attention. One star dropped his agent because the ten-percenter had a bigger house than he did. It’s ego, but that translates into money.

That doesn’t mean agents don’t use the media. When I was editor of The Hollywood Reporter in the ’90s, I quickly realized those dozens of calls every day from agents to provide tips were part of the game. If a star’s negotiations to do a TV show or movie weren’t going well, one way to force the studio’s hand was to leak the story to a trade paper, which made any reversal messy and public. The trades, as competitive and jealous of each other as agencies, are happy to be part of the constant trading of information that goes on daily in showbiz.

So the calls will continue, predicts the William Morris agent: “Agents care about two things-getting credit for what they do and getting paid for what they do. [Publicity] raises your profile in the community. Then other people want to be in business with you. So the fact is, I don’t think it will stop people from talking to the press. However, I think more of those conversations will begin, ‘This is all off the record.'”