"Stars come and go," says the Wise Old Man of Hollywood. "Only agents last forever." You will never see them on the marquee, or even in a movie's credits. Yet in Hollywood, the art form is The Deal, and the artists are the agents who, through an endless round of breakfasts at the Polo Lounge and dinners at Morton's, wheedle, cajole, tease, trick, persuade and bullyrag the studios into making movies for their clients.
Which, on each fine Los Angeles day, is what Jim Wiatt does for a living.
"So how's biz, bowaaah?" Wiatt says into the telephone. On the other end is a producer looking for a screen writer. "You want to get somebody before the strike, don't you? What are you really looking for? Uh huh. And you need somebody who can go fast. Well, let me see if I can think of somebody good for you."
Ma Bell's styrene crescent is Jim Wiatt's horn of plenty. Last summer, it rang for him and his colleagues at International Creative Management (ICM), Hildy Gottleib and president Jeff Berg. It was Paramount calling to say yes, they would like to sweeten client Eddie Murphy's exclusive deal, and yes, the agency's commission would be an estimated $1.5 million.
Dark, blunt of feature and sharp of dress, the 38-year-old Wiatt might be cast as one of those suave villains in a James Bond movie, until he opens his mouth and lets loose in the high, cheery voice of a third baseman whose upbeat yakkity keeps the pitcher's blood pumping. An L.A. native with a stable of Texas clients, he addresses everyone as "bowaaah" ("boy" in Texanese), and his office at ICM features a large Joe Baker painting of cowboy and squaw taking a hot tub -- Texans gone L.A. for an Angeleno who is Lone Starstruck.
Talking on the phone, he looks like a pile of laundry; feet up, head tucked into phone, arms tucked into sides, he's as low slung as a parked Ferrari on Rodeo Drive, as if all his energy is being saved for . . . The Deal, the click, the magical Yes that means money and power and membership in the small club of people who get movies made.
"He's in a meeting and on the phone," says Wiatt's secretary, and the calls-on-hold make the console next to his tray of Tareytons flicker like a game-show scoreboard. He is talking to a producer; Wiatt represents a director. So Wiatt rattles on about the director's enthusiasm for the script, his responsibility to stay under budget, all of which may or may not be true.
If the deal goes through, ICM will make 10 percent of what Wiatt's client makes (the maximum mandated by California statute has become the norm). And at current rates, that could be more than $100,000. ICM's revenues, in 1984, totaled almost $40 million. "We all do pretty well," Wiatt says. "It's kind of out of whack with what normal people do for a living."
What does Wiatt do that allows him to drive a Porsche and live in Malibu, and make maybe a quarter-million dollars a year? Is this phone call worth $100,000?
Agents traffic in information. Which director is looking for a good screwball comedy? Which studio executive is dying to work with that director? Which producer has an idea for a movie, and what kind of writer is he looking for?
"Jimmy is exceedingly good at staying on top of the ball," says producer Don Simpson. "He knows who's where and why, and what it is they want. His advantage as an agent lies in the area of being able to go to lunch, go to breakfast, go to dinner, enjoy himself, make other people feel good, make them talk."
"Jim's very good at 'fishing,' " says one production executive. "He'll call me up and say, 'Why did you give that project to so-and-so?' and I'll hem and haw and he'll say, 'Oh, so you did give it to him!' He's caught me a couple of times like that."
There are agents who represent a single client; and there are agents who work alone (like Irving Swifty Lazar), or with a few others. Although about 800 agents are registered to do business in California, most are on the scale of Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. Hollywood is dominated by three large agencies -- Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the William Morris Agency and Wiatt's ICM. Internally, they are divided by industry: motion pictures, television, music (Wiatt heads ICM's motion picture department). Within the motion picture department, agents tend to specialize either in performing or nonperforming talent. Wiatt's specialty is the latter, although he represents such actors as Gary Busey, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
The power of agents comes from their client lists; Wiatt's includes directors Hal Ashby ("Shampoo") and Adrian Lyne ("Flashdance") and writers Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake (two of his Texas menagerie, who are writing the sequel to "Beverly Hills Cop") and Bo Goldman ("Shoot the Moon"). Wiatt can reach people because of whom he represents, and almost as important, because he's their buddy. "It's a very small business, and the people running the studios usually are friends of the key agents," says superagent Stan Kamen of William Morris.
"A lot of shorthand goes on," says one mogul. Because he knows Wiatt well, he says, "I understand when he's just selling me something because he has to be selling. He's got a list of five or six anteater directors that he represents, and he calls me up and says, 'How about so and so?' and I say, 'Well, you made your phone call. He can direct traffic in front of the gate if he wants.' And he laughs."
The relationship with clients is even closer, sometimes falling under the category of "handholding." "I've got very close personal relationships with a lot of my clients, and they've become friends. A lot of my social life and personal life is dictated by those relationships," Wiatt says.
"There is an old Texas saying," says writer and client Bill Witliff. " 'He'll do to ride the river with.' And I would say that about Jim. When things are rough, Jim is there. And that crosses a lot of boundaries -- I'm not just talkin' business there at all. That's pretty strong in Texas terms."
Wiatt and some of his ICM charges are meeting with a director -- call him Ned Bilbo -- who, after one box-office flop, is still trying to break into the movie business.
"I need something to get my teeth into," Bilbo says.
The young agents start to pitch script synopses at Bilbo. "It's like a 'Dr. Strangelove' rock 'n' roll martial arts 'Death Wish,' but with a character -- they were thinking of Huey Lewis starring in it, or somebody like Chuck Norris."
"It's a rock 'n' roll 'Rambo,' " says Jeremy Zimmer, a curly-haired wisenheimer whom Wiatt calls "Harpo."
"Jeremy, you're gonna make it big," Bilbo says.
"What you're going to have to do, I think, realistically," Bill Block, another young ICM agent, says to Bilbo, "is just hook into one of these pictures and make something good out of it. You're gonna have to take base lead and make it into gold, in a way."
Bilbo asks about another project he had been interested in, and is told that another ICM client has taken it. He snorts in disgust.
"Hey Bill, we're just agents, man," Harpo says.
"The agent's motto," Bilbo says. " 'Sell them, don't smell them.' "
" 'Smell them, delicately,' " corrects Harpo, " 'and then package them intelligently.' "
The meeting proceeds as a sort of good cop-bad cop routine as performed by the Three Stooges. Anarchy pervades the office, as Wiatt takes phone calls and gossip and ribald giggling zing around Bilbo, who begins to look as distraught as a dog that fell off a boat. "Guys -- seriously! I drove all the way over here! This is about my career, this meeting, you understand, that I came here to get a movie going!"
At which point Wiatt gets off the phone, leans forward earnestly, and, good cop that he is, begins to talk in a tone that is very serious. Bilbo has to have videocassettes made of his film so the studio executives who missed it can see it at home, and he has to find a script he wants to make. "The way to really get in a meeting," he says, "is to read something that you think you'd like to do, and then get you in a meeting with the producer and/or the studio executives. Jeremy's job is at stake over this."
Suddenly, Bilbo is awash with calm. He gets up, shakes hands. "I'm glad I came in, guys. I really feel secure again and comfortable. And you can quote me."
The popular image of the agent -- a fast talker with a cigar and a loud sports jacket, a huckster cheated from a life of petty crime -- is a stereotype from the past. Modern agents are chilly, "professional" to an almost absurd degree. Wiatt affects this kind of cool, but he never quite hacks it; the boy-next-door is always bubbling through, and that failure seems to be the secret of his success. "I think of the movie business as high school," says a Wiatt client, director Randall Kleiser. "And Jim would be president of the student body." Wiatt has a kind of Jimmy Stewart quality -- when California magazine named him one of "the 25 hottest young comers in Hollywood," it blurbed, "Mr. Wiatt Comes to Hollywood," as if his life were a Frank Capra movie. It's the old Hollywood trick of casting against type.
Form follows function; agents' style has changed because their role in the business has changed. The ascendancy of the agencies dates to the disintegration of the studio system in the '50s. For a Daryl Zanuck, making a movie was as simple as looking at a chart he kept under the big glass top of his desk, which told him when each of his employes was available. The agent's role was simply to get the best possible deal for his client.
Today, the negotiation of the particulars of a deal is a relatively trivial part of the agent's chores. "The studios all talk to each other, and agents all talk to each other, and we all pretty much know what everybody else is getting in town," says Wiatt. "If you're gonna make a writer a deal at a studio and you know the guy's experience is X, you pretty much can calculate what will cause certain deals to happen."
What agents have done is to step into the void left by the studio system. "Sometimes it starts with a book," says Kamen of William Morris. "You've got a book, written by a client, and you think it's a motion picture, so you take it to a director client or a star client, and you put the whole thing together and take it to a studio and say, 'Do you want it?' We're in the packaging business, doing what the studios used to do." Which is what ICM did, for example, with "48 Hrs." The writer, director and star were all ICM clients, and when Gregory Hines was suggested for the role of Nolte's sidekick, ICM agent Hildy Gottleib reportedly said, "Hey, what about this kid Eddie Murphy we have?"
The leverage of the agencies is especially acute right now, with the shake-ups at most of the studios creating massive insecurity at the same time that everyone is increasing their output. "I've never seen the market as difficult as it is now," says one studio head. "It's crazy, man, crazier than it's ever been. So that when anything even marginally decent comes on the table, everybody dives for it, like throwing a piece of red meat into a shark pool. The agents are having a great time with it."
At the same time, the balance of power among the three big agencies has decidedly shifted. CAA, the youngest (it was founded in 1975), is clearly the leader now, with clients like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone and Bill Murray; the Morris office is a distant third; ICM is holding its own. "CAA has taken their business from someplace -- they've certainly hurt us over the years," says Wiatt. "But the fact of the matter is that there's plenty of business to go around."
Competition among the three is hot. "It's great if you can go out and get a director or an actor and convince them that you can do a better job than their current representation," says Wiatt. "Whether you call it stealing -- I guess you could. Nobody likes to lose a client, but it happens."
Because agents are, in some sense, doing the same thing as studio executives, and because they have "relationships" with the talent, several agents have gone over to the other side. Today, three ex-agents run major studios (Guy McElwaine at Columbia, Mike Medavoy at Orion, and Alan Ladd Jr. at MGM-UA). And Wiatt, according to some, was considered for the Tri-Star production prexy job that ultimately went to Jeff Sagansky. (Wiatt says he was never interested.)
Being an agent, though, has little to do with making good movies. "It's a very difficult transition to make," says one studio big shot. "A good salesman does not make a good buyer." Agents think in terms of who's hot and who's not; for them, making successful movies is as simple as finding a director on the A list, an actor on the A list, and putting them together. Why someone's on the A list doesn't figure in the equation.
Then again, almost everyone in Hollywood thinks of movies this way. "Agents don't have a monopoly on bad decisions," says one celluloid czar. In the end, agents are as ready for the job as anyone else. "There simply is no training ground for a studio head," says Medavoy.
Jim Wiatt grew up comfortable in the San Fernando Valley, then went to Beverly Hills High School, where he was, in classmate and author Daniel Yergin's words, "a very popular guy, not in the sense of being a campus folk hero, but that people from lots of different tribes were friends of his."
His first love was politics. After USC, he worked for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign; when Kennedy was assassinated, he cofounded an organization called the Kennedy Action Corps, lobbying for stronger gun control laws. Through these efforts, Wiatt became friendly with John Tunney; when Tunney decided to run for the U.S. Senate, Wiatt joined the campaign. Tunney won, and Wiatt became an administrative aide in his Los Angeles office.
A political background is not unusual in Hollywood -- Jeff Katzenberg, chairman of Disney, and Craig Baumgarten, who heads Lorimar, both worked for New York Mayor John Lindsay, and Walter Mondale's chief speech writer, Martin Kaplan, was recently hired as a production executive at Disney as well. "A lot of the entertainment business is a people business, and that's the way politics is," says Tunney.
When Tunney lost his reelection bid in 1976, Wiatt decided to leave politics. "It's impossible to make a decent living working in that arena," he says. One of his first clients was a politician who Wiatt thought would be a good commentator for the local ABC affiliate: John Tunney.
Wiatt and his agents' den are meeting with a producer -- call him Alex Bialystock. The idea is to catch up with what Bialystock is doing, in the hope of matching up ICM writers, directors and actors with his projects.
Bialystock talks about the things he's working on. One is "an 'African Queen' kind of story"; another is "one rewrite away from being an enormously packageable thing."
"You have a first-look deal, right?" Wiatt asks. (A "first-look deal" gives the studio the right of first refusal on any of the subject's projects -- it's a modified form of the old studio system.)
"I have a first-look deal, but it's up in April, and I'm going to be, you know, making some changes. They're great people and they're nice and everything, but my experience in making pictures at Universal has been so good, in the context of just someone saying yes or someone saying no. Where I am now, you're constantly in this gray area."
Everyone jumps back in, pitching directors and writers. Wiatt steers the conversation back to Universal's Frank Price.
"Frank really is the most impressive guy I've worked with," says Bialystock. "He loved the first draft of the movie I'm doing now and then we rewrote it and he didn't like it. And he took eight hours out of his day, just closed down and went over the script line by line, scene by scene. And he actually made some real good contributions."
Bialystock gets up, says goodbye. And if Wiatt has learned nothing else at the meeting, he has registered one thing: Bialystock loves Universal's Frank Price. So he hollers at his secretary to send a copy of one of his clients' scripts to Bialystock. "Because Frank loves him," he says.
Will Wiatt actually make a movie with Bialystock? Will most of these phone calls and meetings come to anything? Probably not. "Maybe once a week you make a deal," says ICM's Gottleib. "And the rest is people telling you, 'No, she's too old,' or 'No, she wasn't good enough,' or 'We don't want to make a movie with him.' Ninety-nine percent of the time it's bad news."
It is that remaining 1 percent that Jim Wiatt lives for, those times when the funereal toll of the telephone becomes the tintinnabulation of heaven. "Paramount calling for Eddie Murphy," and the lap of the Malibu tides that night sounded like applause, and the hissing of the surf was champagne in the ear.
The phone rings. "D'ja like her?" Wiatt asks. "She like you? Good. Tryinna make some deals. What are you workin' on? He is ready. He is ready for you, bowaaaah!"