Agency affair heats up

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Endeavor and WMA, two of Hollywood's top-tier talent agencies, have all but tied the knot. Now the town is waiting anxiously for them to announce a wedding date.

Discussions between the companies have taken place for months, but they reached a crescendo during recent weeks. Barring last-minute glitches, a formal announcement is expected imminently, though neither firm would comment about the merger status during the weekend.

A deal would unite 14-year-old upstart Endeavor with venerable WMA, founded in 1898, and create a powerhouse in the agency world. The combo would realign the agenting biz, affecting every player from top dog CAA to the smallest boutique.

"It will be a viable competitor to CAA," said one rival agent, though most observers concede CAA will remain the town's dominant player.

Although details of the structure of the new entity have not been revealed, Endeavor's Ari Emanuel is expected to assume day-to-day control of the merged entity as CEO, with WMA chief James Wiatt taking on an oversight title like chairman.

The outfits are believed to have wrestled over whose name would hang above the new door, but the William Morris moniker is expected to survive because it has become a veritable brand name, synonymous with agenting and referenced in movies from "Bye Bye Birdie" to "Network."

(Thirty years ago at the 52nd Annual Academy Awards, emcee Johnny Carson cracked: "One of the nominated films is Disney's 'The Black Hole.' A black hole is an empty void in which anything that enters is never seen again. Those of you in the business know it as the William Morris Agency.")

A merger agreement, once approved by Endeavor's 28 partners and WMA's board, could lead to a wrenching period of assimilation.

The inevitable fallout within the ranks of the two players and their respective clients would have a ripple effect in the business as some agents — and clients — move to rival shops.

During recent weeks, in anticipation of the "Survivor"-like tie-up, younger agents have been puffing up their client lists and getting on teams as job-saving measures. When the combined entity begins sorting out its roster, those on stronger teams and those boasting superior lists hope to emerge on top.

Others have been putting out feelers to UTA, ICM, Paradigm and others to make sure they are covered. But as a number of agents and managers said, unless an agent brings an attractive client list, other companies aren't doing much hiring in a belt-tightening environment.

At the same time, agents have been making more calls to clients to solidify relationships. The fear is that as the merger progresses, antsy clients — especially those who fear competing with the newly enlarged client roster — could go elsewhere in hope of getting more individual attention.

That could bode well for such smaller agencies as Gersh and Paradigm, who could argue that they can give clients more attention. A few months ago, for example, Oscar winner Adrien Brody, who left CAA, found a new home at Paradigm, and Anthony Hopkins, another CAA refugee, opted for Endeavor.

On the film side, where WMA reps such solid but aging marquee names as Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta and Steve Martin, Endeavor's acting roster would energize the talent lineup; its client list ranges from Adam Sandler and Matt Damon to Keira Knightley and Shia LaBeouf.

Combining the agencies' directing stables also should result in a formidable combination. Endeavor boasts such helmsmen as Martin Scorsese, Danny Boyle and David Cronenberg, and WMA handles J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and Ridley Scott.

Endeavor is by far the stronger of the two in television, though WMA has two of the biggest names in the medium: Abrams, who has "Fringe" on the air and one of the biggest deals at Warner Bros. TV, and Tyler Perry, who single-handedly produces two 100-episode series for TBS and syndication.

Those headliners would fit nicely on Endeavor's TV lit roster, the strongest of any in town.

Meanwhile, a merger of WMA and Endeavor's unscripted departments would create a powerhouse as both agencies have strong positions. WMA, the pioneer in the field, has such clients as FremantleMedia and Bunim-Murray, and Endeavor reps Thom Beers, Tyra Banks and Jeff Probst. The question is whether three of the biggest agents in the reality field — WMA's Mark Itkin and John Ferriter and Endeavor's Sean Perry — would be able to operate under the same roof.

During its history, WMA also has closely tracked musical trends from Al Jolson to Elvis Presley. It now reps such chart-toppers as Britney Spears, Kanye West, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift, so that would open doors closed to Endeavor. Additionally, WMA has expanded into representing corporate interests, including for Coca-Cola and Hasbro.

However the specifics play out in the coming days, a merger will be only the latest chapter in the colorful evolution of the firms.

Endeavor was formed in 1995 when four agents — Emanuel, David Greenblatt, Rick Rosen and Tom Strickler — quit ICM to set up their own shop. Greenblatt has since left, and the Endeavor partners now number 28.

WMA was founded more than a century ago in New York during the vaudeville days. Formally incorporated in 1918 and opening its first Los Angeles office in 1927, its history parallels the growth of showbiz as it branched into silent film, radio, concerts, TV and new media. Moving from ICM, Wiatt and president Dave Wirtschafter joined WMA in 1999.

Nellie Andreeva, Borys Kit and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.
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