Gavin Polone on WME's CAA Prank: 'Stop Jerking Off' (Guest Column)
This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In between the shocking stories about how Nikki Finke wasn't fired and how the attractive younger wife of an 82-year-old media billionaire may have cuckolded him, I recently found myself reading multiple articles about the controversy surrounding William Morris Endeavor's pranking of its main rival, CAA. A guerrilla ad campaign using a mocking "CAAN'T" logo was meant to promulgate a facetious comment by a reported CAA director client who seems to be dissatisfied with the job his representatives are doing. What I found most engaging wasn't that the director in question might have been David O. Russell (an assertion Mr. Russell denies but many still believe), nor that Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell of WME are so brazen and jocular that they would support such unusual activity. What interested me was how the spat evidenced what is currently wrong with agent-client relationships in the entertainment industry.
I'm a former agent, so my friends and acquaintances often bitch to me about and ask advice regarding the state of their agency representation. Most feel that their agents aren't doing enough to help them achieve their goals. I hear a lot about how the clients have to get their own jobs and how they are promised help with putting together projects but see only rare evidence that their agents have lifted a finger to get anything done. These aren't new complaints, but they do seem to be more frequent in recent years.
I have had agents representing me for the past 16 years, and I can't say that I feel much different from my writer, director and actor friends who talk my ear off about their mistreatment. But while the dissatisfied artists' grievances may have merit, their method of dealing with these issues do not: They either passive-aggressively gripe to their friends and do nothing (much like the director who wasn't David O. Russell did), or they just switch agencies and a few months later start complaining anew.
Significantly, nobody ever gets indignant about how much money they are paying their agents for so little service. In fact, few ever seem to get that they are paying their agents at all. Most view it more like a cooperative venture where the profits are divided 90/10 between the partners. Well, it isn't. Artists pay agents for service in the same way I pay my housekeeper for her work, only precedent has designated that agents get much more than housekeepers. If I were paying my housekeeper $100,000 a year -- or, as in the case of Not David O. Russell, $500,000 to $1 million a year -- I'd expect my house to be pretty f--ing clean. Worse, if I came home and found my house a mess and my millionaire housekeeper printing up posters with slogans about how another housekeeper doesn't dust properly, I'd be angry and looking for another way to get my house cleaned.
Agents have become distracted with things other than representing clients. I can't remember the last time I read an article about an agent actually doing something for someone he or she represents. Most of the press about them has to do with mergers, investments in new technology, commission disputes and interagency competition. I'm sure this is the cause of my friends' disgruntlement. Historically, in cases of other businesses that are not serving their clientele acceptably, someone eventually develops a better idea or method for serving those customers and puts it in place, with great success. If you think about it, why does David O. Russell even need an agent? (Not that the director who came up with CAAN'T was, in fact, David O. Russell.) He is prominent enough to just put up a website that tells of his availability, what he is looking to do, whom he might be looking to cast and what kind of material he'd be willing to develop, and it would all flow to him. Then his lawyer could negotiate his deal and he'd probably be in the same place he was before, only 10 percent richer and significantly less frustrated. And it is very possible that a smart entrepreneur could craft a website for a larger group of artists who may not be as well-known and connected as David O. Russell. It isn't a secret that the employers of talent will go wherever necessary to find good actors, writers and directors.
Those who are dissatisfied with their representation should stop whining and consider a new way to fill their need for representation. And if the agencies want to maintain their lucrative positions as the marketers of talent, they had better stop jerking off, focus on their core business and get me and my friends f--ing jobs.
Gavin Polone is a former talent agent and current film and television producer. His new show, Twisted, airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.