The new logic of movies: William Morris, Endeavor and agent-driven Hollywood

On Monday, one of Hollywood's most storied talent representation firms, the William Morris agency, announced that it is joining with Ari Emmanuel's Endeavor talent agency. The merger will bring an amazing array of directors, actors, writers and musicians under one roof in a creative powerhouse that will have an estimated $250-$300 million in revenues. In the process, it may also change the creative face of motion pictures.

Finding the creative heart of Hollywood is an elusive game these days. For example, although most movie viewers choose their films based upon the names above the title, the sad truth is that actors are often little more than pieces of bait strung on the end of a very long, very complex fishing pole.

Another common place to look for creative vision is in the last name of the opening credits. Conventional wisdom holds that the director is the artistic force behind a movie, and there is little doubt that auteurs like John Ford, Stanley Kubrik, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese definitely left their mark on the films that they created. However, one could also argue that, over the last twenty years, Hollywood has increasingly perfected the art of reprocessing artistic style into commercial commodities. Even visionaries like Terry Gilliam, the Coen brothers and Darren Aronofsky often seem to be pushed to produce easily-digested mass-market pics.

So if creativity doesn't rest in the hands of the actors and directors, it's worth asking, who exactly is shaping what we see on the screen. Increasingly, it seems that studio executives have wrested control of the movies that end up getting made. In this context, names like Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and Ron Meyer loom large.

This may seem odd given that, unlike directors, who train at film schools and apprentice on movie sets, the career path for studio execs often seems to begin in the mail room. Specifically, in the case of each of the names mentioned above, the mail room at the William Morris Agency.

For years, WMA's mail room has been considered a finishing school for business talent in Hollywood. So iconic is its place in Hollywood lore that the entire agency training program is nicknamed "the mailroom" (members cycle through all departments at the agency, but do, indeed, start sorting contracts and copies of Daily Variety) and is the title of a book on the subject by Davind Rensin. The WMA mail room has not only staffed the offices at many major studios, but also, ironically, spawned several of its major competitors. So if you really want to find the creative heart of Hollwood, you could do worse than to hang out by the postal meter upstairs at One William Morris Place.

This phenomenon also explains one of my pet peeves with the motion picture industry these days: that our best, most culturally relevant movies in recent years all seem to be based on comic books. Some critics have viewed this as a positive trend -- noting how films like Iron Man and The Dark Knight have shown that the genre is capable of expressing intense, adult themes. What they have been less quick to admit is that in today's centralized-creation, centralized-distribution world of entertainment, commercialism is the cost of creativity. When you come right down to it, there is really no other way to produce a trenchant analysis of the Bush administration's war on terror than with a face-painted villain and an avenger in a cowl and cape.

This focus on commercialism makes the William Morris/Endeavor merger particularly interesting. William Morris is among the largest and most successful agencies in the world, and its talent roster extends to film, music and literature. It represents creative people across the spectrum, and has even expanded its business into sport stars and brand names. However, its artists -- including Bryan Singer, Gus Van Sant and the Wachowski brothers -- often seem to be walking a very thin line between commercial viability and complete sell-out.

Endeavor, although less wide-reaching than WMA, has cemented its hold on some of Hollywood's most successful creative people, often by protecting their artistic vision. In 2007, all five of the best adapted screenplay Oscar nominees were Endeavor clients, and it has a list of quirky, offbeat talent that includes Kevin Smith, Seth McFarlane, David Cronenberg and Spike Lee. What's more, under its representation, many of its seemingly narrow-niche clients have gotten record-breaking deals.

With the dollar-driven style of WMA meeting the newer, edgier creative bent of Endeavor, it seems likely that one of two things will happen: either Endeavor and its clients will become absorbed by the Hollwood blandness machine or Endeavor will help some of WMA's more compromised talents rediscover their artistic integrity. Looking at it optimistically for a second, Endeavor will have four board seats to WMA's five, suggesting that the Hollywood behemoth is at least willing to listen to Ari Emmanuel's talent-driven team.

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