Boutique biz is WME's quiz

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Like any about-to-be-married couple, WMA and Endeavor, which voted Monday to come together, must figure out how to combine their households.

With the Festival de Cannes and its attendant market fast approaching, one question quickly rising to the fore is the fate of the talent agencies' independent film units, William Morris Independent and Endeavor Independent.

And, in a separate development Tuesday, the outlines of the combined agency's New York-based literary department began to take shape with the departure of Endeavor's Richard Abate.

Within the larger scheme of the newly announced William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, WMI and Endeavor Independent are relatively small units — they have barely a half-dozen staffers each — but they are influential forces in the small world of films produced outside the studio system.

Under their respective heads — Cassian Elwes and Rena Ronson at WMI and Graham Taylor at Endeavor Independent — they've packaged scripts and stars, located financing and, in many cases, sold titles to distributors. As the indie world has become a bigger business, even in its present, contracted form, their clout has grown.

WMI has put together and sold hits like "Thank You for Smoking" as well as such critically acclaimed titles as "Away from Her," "Frozen River" and "Amreeka." Endeavor has sold pics including "Phoebe in Wonderland"; the upcoming "Spread," starring Ashton Kutcher; and "Black Dynamite," which was picked up by the Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition Group.

Endeavor also has put together deals like the recently announced agreement to bring a large Raleigh Studios facility to Michigan.

Because the merger won't formally be completed for several weeks, WMI and Endeavor Independent both will present titles at next month's Cannes market.

While they will be competing with each other, they also plan to join forces on one project, which they will co-rep. The title was put together as part of the WMA- created Incentive Film Fund.

The question then becomes: What could the two units look like once the WMA and Endeavor merger is completed?

Both agencies chose not to address the subject Tuesday. But indie-film veterans have been speculating since merger talks heated up that a streamlining could be in the cards.

Unlike the agencies' other departments — like, say, literary, with their rosters of writers and directors — Endeavor Independent and WMI don't have ongoing client lists that could simply be combined.

Rather, each takes on an ever-changing slate of projects that it assembles and brings to market.

Because the two couldn't combine without overlap, WME leadership could make a case for redundancy and pare the combined unit, though the two could try to argue that they'd work better if they continue to function as separate entities.

If a decision is made to scale back, one or more of the principals might find themselves segueing into new roles as financiers or producers, taking on more fully the roles that as agents they are legally barred from embracing.

Most of the execs already have deep contacts in the financing world. Besides their toppers, each indie unit has a small group of other staff members — Emily Hirsch and Jerome Duboz at WMI and Mark Akner, Alexis Garcia and Liesl Copland at Endeavor — who have developed such specialties as finance and foreign production.

Further complicating matters: WMI and Endeavor have close if formally arm's-length relationships with financing entities — Incentive and Media Rights Capital — that work with each agency.

Meanwhile, Abate, who left ICM two years ago to open a literary beachhead for Endeavor in New York, is among the first wave of agents who are not joining WME.

He is rumored to be considering starting up his own literary agency, the New York Observer reported Tuesday evening.

Once the merger is complete, it is expected that the New York lit department will be run by the current WMA team of Jennifer Rubin Walsh, who has a seat on the new WME board, and Suzanne Gluck, who already led a department that is far larger than Endeavor's.

During his tenure at Endeavor, Abate struck lucrative book deals for such agency clients as "Heroes" creator Tim Kring, Guillermo del Toro, Tina Fey, James Franco and Tracy Morgan.

It was not immediately clear whether Abate's literary clients or fellow agents in New York would join him if he embarks on a new, small-e endeavor. (partialdiff)
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