“Call me! Call me! Call me!”
This was a text I received from a former agent at the William Morris Agency, who had learned I was working on a story about Jim Wiatt, the company’s former chairman, who is packing up and moving to New York.
News of Wiatt’s plans sent the Hollywood rumor mill buzzing, and I received several other, similarly urgent phone calls and emails.
By the end of his tenure, agents felt he was less interested in running an agency than with spending time with high-rolling friends.
He’s being run out of town was the gist of the whispers, along with claims that Wiatt—a fixture in the entertainment industry, who spent 31 years as an agent, first at ICM, then at William Morris, representing everyone from Eddie Murphy to Sylvester Stallone—was no longer having his calls returned; that he is heading East not by choice but necessity.
A source close to Wiatt stressed that his move has long been in the works and is for family reasons (his wife, Elizabeth, is from New York). Furthermore, even though the Wiatts have put their five-bedroom, 12-bathroom Pacific Palisades residence on the market for $19.5 million, he’s not fully ripping up his L.A. roots—he is a member of several boards here, and is apparently shopping for a smaller home. This person said that projects were in the works ( this perhaps?), and pointed out that Wiatt was an active member of the AOL board, and has an office in the new AOL headquarters downtown.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the merger with the Endeavor Talent Agency that ended the run of the fabled William Morris Agency, a deal that Wiatt led and orchestrated. Yet the battle over what caused the merger—and the bloodbath that followed the deal—still rages, with Wiatt himself often a target.
Given how much time has passed, and how well William Morris Endeavor Entertainment is faring—the combination of William Morris’ A-list music department (Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Eminem) with Endeavor’s powerful talent and TV divisions is giving long-dominant CAA a run for its money—it’s remarkable how much anger still exists when it comes to Wiatt, who was not the only one in favor of the merger. (The deal was approved by the William Morris board in a vote of 19 to 1.)
Yet the creation of WME brought more than 100 layoffs during a horrible recession. And many feel that the reason it happened in the first place was that Wiatt had mismanaged the company. Over the last few years, several key agents left to work at rival agencies, including Hylda Queally, who represents Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet; and Todd Feldman, who represents director Todd Phillips ( The Hangover) and Transformers screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. In addition, the “merger” was ultimately seen as a takeover by Endeavor, whose co-founders, Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, now rule the roost. (Wiatt had assumed he would remain atop WME as chairman at least for a few more years, but was advised to step down.)
A mass email was recently circulated among William Morris alums that featured a New Yorker cartoon showing a boss standing behind a desk. Facing a crowd of chagrined-looking employees, the boss says: “We’re still the same great company we’ve always been, only we’ve ceased to exist.”
And therein lies the reason for the anger. More than just a talent agency, William Morris was an institution—home of the legendary mailroom, which spawned everyone from David Geffen to Michael Ovitz. And of iconic television shows (Andy Griffith, Bill Cosby) that spewed millions in residuals. And, unlike the 14-year-old Endeavor Agency, William Morris was actually, truly, old. One hundred and eleven years old, which, in Hollywood, is unhyperbolically historic. In 2008, when Wiatt made the decision to sell William Morris’ storied headquarters on Rodeo Drive, a deal that made him and several shareholders a tidy, multimillion-dollar sum, many cried sacre bleu!
Even Wiatt’s detractors give him credit for helping pull William Morris out of its fusty ways when he arrived in 1999; he proceeded to shake things up considerably, building up the non-scripted TV and music departments, and expanding the London office. He also brought over high-profile agents from ICM, including Dave Wirtschafter, who represents Andy Wachowski and Kanye West, and George Freeman, who represents Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott. Several years later, though, some agents sensed that a fatigue set in, perhaps because there was only so much he could do at the tradition-steeped company.
By the end of his tenure, half a dozen agents I spoke with—some who are still at WME, some who are not—felt he was less interested in being in the movie business. Instead of helping senior agents sign clients (Wiatt himself only represented a handful, including Eddie Murphy and Willie Nelson) and make deals, he was trying to pursue multimedia partnerships with Google, say, or AT&T. Also, they said, he loved spending time with high-profile names, such as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whom Wiatt often brought to Lakers games, or Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, who flew Wiatt aboard his private jet to Harvey Weinstein’s wedding in Connecticut. It was a different model from Wiatt’s predecessor, Arnold Rifkin, and other agency heads, such as Emanuel and Whitesell, or CAA’s Richard Lovett, who represent a number of stars and are engaged in the day-to-day grind of agenting. During motion-picture staff meetings, one agent said that Wiatt typically had little to say, other than to inquire about projects for his own clients. Another agent said that when he asked Wiatt if he would help him with a deal, Wiatt responded by staring back at him, as he played with a giant, wooden clothespin given to him by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (a former client) and saying, “Eat it.” (According to four sources from William Morris, Wiatt was also known to use the word “fag” as a means of fraternizing around the office. As in, “How ya doin’, fag?”)
When a friend of Wiatt’s heard these allegations, he said: “When you are the head of an influential, high-profile business, you must sometimes make the difficult, but necessary decisions which negatively impact others. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to a few desperate, disgruntled former employees manufacturing colorful, yet totally baseless and inaccurate, anecdotes to alleviate their frustrations.”
As for Wiatt’s management style at William Morris, this person said, “Yes, Jim did pursue important, big-picture, strategic partnerships that benefited the agency’s clients and kept the company ahead of the curve. But he also always made himself available to support his agents in making the best deals for their clients.”
Whether or not the gripes about him are fair, some Wiatt friends admit that he’s due for a makeover. “He needs to reinvent himself in New York,” said one colleague.
Former Viacom President and CEO Tom Freston told The Daily Beast: “The idea of reinvention makes it sound like it’s some moment when you have to swing into some kind of action. What this is, is a chance for him, a real punctuation mark, so he can start a new chapter in his life. I don’t think he’s walking around, going, ‘Oh my God, I could be running WME with Ari.’ I don’t think he was going to be long for [running an agency], anyway. He certainly wasn’t in his own heart.”
It was Freston and attorney Skip Brittenham who advised Wiatt to step down from WME. Over the following months, Wiatt assumed a decidedly low profile in Hollywood, working out of a spare office in Santa Monica, and showing up with far less frequency at his old lunchtime haunts, The Palm and The Grill. When one of his former colleagues ran into him standing in the kitchenette area of his new office building, the colleague likened the moment to the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when the back of Darth Vader’s head is revealed for the first time, showing an unfamiliar vulnerability.
Wiatt’s trajectory is the harsh reality that faces anyone who’s been Anyone in this town, and who then becomes merely someone when the axe comes down or the contract’s up. (The attacks from people with their own axes to grind also come with the territory.)
“You get treated pretty well in these jobs,” said one studio executive, who said that coming down from a life where the phone rings off the hook 24/7 and is rife with endless perks, can be humbling.
Freston, who, after being abruptly fired from Viacom by Sumner Redstone in 2006, traveled the world and emerged as a leading advocate on issues ranging from global poverty (he’s chairman of Bono’s ONE Campaign) to Afghanistan, said: “I’ve been through my own version of what Jim’s been going through. And my advice to him was to take this as an opportunity to kind of step back, don’t do anything rash… This is an opportunity to let things come into focus, to see what opportunities exist for himself. I think he’s done a pretty good job at that."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.