Hollywood Hustlers Talent Agents




Hollywood’s Hustlers
Tad Friend discusses a new breed of Hollywood agent
Issue of 2005-03-21
Posted 2005-03-14

This week in the magazine, Tad Friend writes about Dave Wirtschafter, the president of the venerable William Morris Agency and an exemplar of a new breed of Hollywood agent. Here Friend talks to Ben Greenman about Wirtschafter, his agency, and how the role of the agent has evolved.

BEN GREENMAN: The layman’s view of the agent is of a fast-talking, profane, deceitful character who will do absolutely anything to get his client ahead of the competition. How close to the truth is that?

TAD FRIEND: There are plenty of thoughtful, well-spoken, ethical agents in Hollywood. But people don’t tend to tell stories about them. And the truth is that they can find it harder to get ahead, as many stars and directors want a real shark acting on their behalf—someone who will tear into the studio’s soft underbelly without compunction.

In your article, you look at the William Morris Agency, and at its president, Dave Wirtschafter. Wirtschafter is portrayed as a new kind of agent. How does he differ from the old-style agent? Could he have been an agent in 1950?

Dave Wirtschafter is untraditional in two ways. He loves delving deep into the subparagraphs of contracts and figuring out new and complex ways for his clients to make money, a side of the business that most top agents leave to their agency’s lawyers. And he hates going out to parties and premières and visiting sets, which is traditionally seen as very much part of an agent’s day. His theory is that he can actually help his clients more by using the evenings to read scripts and think about their careers. In the nineteen-fifties, he would have been a superb State Department analyst.

How important is an agent, really? Isn’t talent enough for an actor or actress?

Without an agent, it is nearly impossible to audition for a film or to get your screenplay read. The highest barrier to success in Hollywood is the first one: getting someone to represent you.

Put another way, can you be a successful movie star without a high-powered agent? Without a good agent? And is there any real distinction between high-powered and good?

No, no, and no. Very few stars stick with the agent who got them their first jobs. Once they surface as a phenom, the five large agencies come calling, waving dollar signs and dropping the names of all the famous clients at their agency who want to work with the phenom. Since a great many films are now put together by an agency using only that agency’s talent—“Closer,” for example, stars four C.A.A. clients and was directed by another—this is a real selling point.

What is an agent’s agenda? To build a career over the long run or to grab the big money, under the assumption that most Hollywood careers aren’t very long-lived?

The client believes it’s the former, and yet agents often get fired for trying to build a career, rather than getting the talent the maximum dollars and exposure on a more commercial project. Agents also get fired for getting the client the maximum dollars and exposure but not building his or her career. Basically, agents get fired a lot. But they take comfort from the fact that their careers are usually much longer than those of departing clients.

How do they deal with stalled careers?

A really good agent will work twice as hard for someone who is in so-called “movie jail,” having had a few bombs. What an agent does is set up meetings with the studios, and coach the talent on how to position himself. The usual strategy seems to be either the Vince Vaughn rehabilitation (“He’s going to be the funny ‘Swingers’ guy from now on, no more serial killers”) or the Renny Harlin repositioning (“Yes, he was arrogant, but he’s newly humble and motivated”).

Wirtschafter seems to be a different kind of agent partly because he is so selective in the properties he sends to his clients. During a six-month period, you write, he sent the director F. Gary Gray only one script, and he ended up directing it. Why don’t directors and stars pick their own projects?

They do. And they usually have production companies to help them gather scripts. Agents help with the choice of a client’s next movie in several ways. First, they see every script, and a good agent will funnel the appropriate ones to his client. They give their clients background on directors and studios they haven’t worked with before (“So-and-So is a pain in the ass, and he always makes his actresses look bad”). Finally, they work the phones to persuade the studio to hire their director or star instead of the two hundred other people who want the job.

What about ethics? Your piece opens with a scene of Wirtschafter attending an event in the hope of poaching Ewan McGregor. Talk a little bit about this practice and the kind of climate it creates.

Most stars receive a number of calls each month from agencies who are eager to poach them away from their current representative. The poaching come-ons range from the bald (“That’s all he got you?”; “We would never have let you appear in ‘Troy’”) to the subtle, long-term play. That goes something like this: “I know you’re happy with So-and-So, and I respect you too much to try to make you feel bad about how your career is going. But, in the future, just keep in mind that I’m a huge fan of your work, and that if you ever want access to more material than you’re getting now, or just want to be able to exchange ideas with people like Tom and Steven, well, that’s something we’d love to facilitate.”

Why do so many agents start in the mailroom? It’s a Hollywood cliché that seems to be true.

Most agents start there, literally wheeling mail around the corridors to agents, for the mundane reason that “mailroom guy” is the entry-level job in an agency. Your goal in the mailroom is to get out of the mailroom as fast as possible, by keeping track of what’s going on and suggesting how you can help. David Geffen, who began his career in the William Morris mailroom, has said that he learned, while there, to steam open mail and to read memos on desks upside down.

There’s one fascinating bit of Hollywood trivia in your article—that agents traditionally tend to be short men. Is this really true? Aren’t movie stars also short? Is this a midget empire? What do tall guys in Hollywood do?

There are a lot of short agents, and short everythings, for that matter. (Michael Eisner famously termed Jeffrey Katzenberg a “little midget.”) It may just be that the stars, who are equally slight, don’t want anyone around who makes them feel small.

Hollywood is portrayed as an incredibly competitive environment. There’s the poaching, but, what is more interesting, there’s the issue of precedent-setting deals. How aware are stars and agents of other stars’ contracts?

Very often, when a studio agrees to a new threshold or perk—paying for a star’s jet fuel, for instance—it makes that concession part of a side agreement, hoping to keep it secret so that it doesn’t have to give every other star the same deal. But too many people see every contract, and those people are constantly moving to new studios or new agencies, so no secret lasts long.

In your piece, you mention an “agent named Michael Eisner (no relation to Disney’s C.E.O.).” How tired is he of saying “no relation”?

He’s counting the days until that other guy retires, next year.

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