By Andrew Davidson
Hollywood super-agent Jim Wiatt talks on the risks and rewards of doing business in Tinseltown.
Beware the shark that offers a fin in greeting. “Is that rain or sweat?” asks Jim Wiatt, grasping my hand.
His smile is cheery but the shiny teeth behind it certainly look a little threatening.
Admire him while you can — Hollywood super-agents don’t often come up for air. Wiatt, chief executive of the William Morris Agency (WMA), America’s oldest and biggest talent-representation business, usually operates well below the media radar.
This time last week, he was at the Oscars, celebrating as his client Forest Whitaker pulled off that best actor award. But don’t expect him to have been caught on camera, because good agents, like PR men, never come between their clients and the limelight. And few come any bigger than Los Angeles-born Wiatt, whose agency jostles with a clutch of others — CAA, Endeavor, ICM and UTA — to represent Hollywood’s best-known writers, directors and stars. To describe Wiatt as well connected would be somewhat understating things.
“Jim’s tough, but he never loses his sense of humour,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, the American boss of Dreamworks and producer of Shrek. Bob Iger, chief executive of Walt Disney, describes him as “a student of the business, who always behaves well”. They both called me last week from Hollywood to tell me so — at Wiatt’s request.
When we met, on a rainy afternoon in London’s Soho, Wiatt was passing through to attend the Bafta awards. “More fun than the Oscars. Much looser,” he says graciously. In fact, despite the stories about the cutthroat nature of Hollwood agents — just watch the hit American television series Entourage, about an up-and-coming actor and his ruthless representative — thrice-married Wiatt is a charmer to meet. Tanned and trim, wearing an immaculate dark suit, red tie and white shirt, he also looks considerably younger than his 60 years.
He’s here to talk because WMA wants to handle more than just “talent” now. Under Wiatt, it has started a drive to sign up major corporations as clients — it has already got 33, including General Motors (GM), Anheuser-Busch, Starbucks and website MySpace.
In London, where it runs an office representing the European interests of its American clients and the American interests of European clients, it has signed up Chelsea Football Club. It is keen for more. Wiatt’s pitch is this: as media converge, the talent agencies are well positioned to broker the beckoning new opportunities. It means that WMA, 109 years old, can now put together deals, bring money into productions, advise on rights, and set up agreements at many different levels.
Wiatt says he sees the company “mor-phing into more of an entertainment business”, and becoming “a gatekeeper of intellectual property”. For his corporate clients, that can mean an introduction to the Hollywood elite and “early access” to a raft of projects that they can back, or tie their products into.
“The world is changing so fast,” says Wiatt. “This is not celebrity-driven, this is idea-driven. It’s about how to have a greater impact, to be more involved with intellectual property. You can see that already a lot of corporations are doing that. There are so many opportunities...”
But doesn’t advising “big corporates” bring WMA into competition with the vastly bigger marketing groups that already service the sector? Wiatt grins. Not competition, he says — partnership.
“Any idea of us being in the branding business, how to market things and make them more powerful — yeah, it’s certainly something we are suited to do,” he says. “But I’d rather do it with groups like WPP than without them. We don’t need to be adversarial.”
Groups like WPP are already on the case. WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell says he has just done a deal with WMA’s rival Endeavor and others to buy the rights to Sasha Baron Cohen’s next movie, Bruno, and sell them on to Universal Studios. Sorrell says he can see why Wiatt wants to diversify this way.
“Jim’s personable and aggressive and works very hard for his clients,” says Sorrell. “But the issue with the agency business is: how do you scale it?”
WMA is privately owned — Wiatt is its biggest shareholder — and doesn’t release figures. It is thought to have revenues of about US$240m. Pushing up income by bringing together corporate cash and intellectual property makes sense.
But won’t there be conflicts of interest? Wiatt cites GM’s backing of John Travolta’s film Be Cool — in return the star posed in character for automobile ads. What if clients wonder whose interests come first?
Wiatt shrugs. Deals can work well for all parties. “We just join the dots.”
But might corporate clients not be put off by the reputation of Hollywood agents? It’s a rough world; client-poaching and backstab-bing are commonplace. When a star can make US$20m a movie and an agent takes 10%, tempers often get frayed. It’s a long way from the somewhat tweedy world of agents in Britain.
Yeah, Hollywood can be rough, he concedes. Anything is negotiable. But clients can behave just as ruthlessly. Wiatt, who used to work at ICM, still personally handles actor Tommy Lee Jones, director Ridley Scott and musician Willie Nelson, but WMA was dropped by actress Halle Berry two years ago after details of her financial demands were revealed in a press interview. Wiatt pulls a face. “Sometimes the client doesn’t even ring you. They get a lawyer to send a letter. It hurts.” Being in charge of other agents can be even rougher. Wiatt has a reputation as a stickler for detail. He also has his quirks. He recently outlawed dress-down chic for WMA staff, and he hates beards and designer stubble.
But he likes to be liked — which is clever, when at any moment key earners could walk out of the door, taking clients with them. The results can be severe. In an episode of Entourage, pushy agent Ari is caught plotting a breakaway from his agency and immediately locked out of his office, his mobile phone cut off, his car impounded.
Does that really happen? Wiatt gives me a cool look. Ari was based on real-life agent Ari Emanuel, who did just such a flit from Wiatt at ICM in 1995 to set up Endeavor. This being Hollywood, the series Entourage was put together by Emanuel and his client, actor Mark Wahlberg.
“It doesn’t happen with offices being locked and phones switched off,” says Wiatt tersely. “It happens with people leaving in the middle of the night taking belongings that are company property, and being caught by security guards, so stories can get a little bit reversed. But I don’t watch Entourage — I suspect it’s more of a cartoon version of what goes on.”
It’s all a long way from his original ambition to work in politics. Born in Los Angeles to liberal activist parents who ran a clothing business, Wiatt volunteered for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 after college. He was in the Los Angeles hotel where Kennedy was shot — the subject of a recent film, Bobby, handled by WMA.
He later worked for Senator John Tunney, before quitting politics after becoming disillusioned by the Watergate scandal. After a year off “trying to figure out what to do”, he took a job at a small talent agency representing television writers, and found he loved it. By 1980 he was working in ICM’s movie division.
Is he an agent who wishes he was an actor? “No,” he says. “I just like the business side of it.”
On the way up, he says, he witnessed all the things sharp-toothed agents are reputed to do: targeting insecure stars, whispering in their ears, telling them their current representation is lousy, promising them an Oscar. “Yeah, everything. It’s the yin and yang of this job. It’s the least tasteful part of it.”
He left ICM in 1999 to head WMA “because it was an extraordinary opportunity”. WMA was the oldest but stodgiest of the big talent agencies, sitting on valuable real estate in Beverly Hills, but needing a kick-start to rebuild its business. Wiatt has provided it, widening its interests, and capitalising on its strengths abroad.
In London, where its European arm is now run by Caroline Michel, formerly at Harper-Collins, it will shortly move into refurbished offices in the Centrepoint building, with a newly expanded music division. It also has an office in Shanghai. The glamorous Michel points out that it is the only agency to offer clients a global reach across so many fields.
In Hollywood, Wiatt keeps a tight grip on his ties to the top. He was instrumental in negotiating the exit of Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein from Walt Disney two years ago. He is respected for his pragmatic touch. “Jim’s easy to reach, he’s easy to reason with as well,” says Disney’s Iger pointedly.
But if WMA wants to expand, why not just buy another of the Big Five agencies? Wiatt shakes his head.
“We have fought hard to have a collaborative culture that works very well indeed. To buy somebody else, they would have to have the same culture, and that’s difficult. In future we are likely to do it just by hiring new people.”
Anyway, time’s up, he’s got another meeting. He helps me on with my raincoat and jokes that if he doesn’t like the photos we take of him, he’ll give my proprietor a ring. Yeah, yeah, point taken. He knows everyone. Come to think of it, he’s just the man to negotiate my next contract — fins and all.
Copyright The Sunday Times 2007