All Shook Up? 

Are William Morris’ changes off the Richter scale or just tiny temblors?

Thursday, Dec 9 2004

When the William Morris Agency’s board next meets Thursday, what probably won’t be discussed is far more interesting than what will be discussed. But keeping news under wraps is just William Morris being William Morris. What nobody is going public with is how the oldest, richest and stodgiest of Hollywood talent agencies is undergoing a seismic shift not unlike what’s happening beneath the San Andreas Fault.

There, it took millions of years for the Earth’s tectonic plates to form the Sierras. Inside Morris, it just seems like it’s taking eons to move the Beverly Hills agency from stuck-in-place-by-tradition to the cutting edge.

At issue is a generational transfer of power, and at the epicenter are four Morris nameplates. Of course, there’s something laughable about guys like Jim Wiatt and Dave Wirtschafter and Sam Haskell in their 40s and 50s being seen as kids as opposed to the geezers like Norman Brokaw who have kept an iron fist around the reins of the agency. But since this is Hollywood, the struggle is about money, too: Who controls it and who deserves it, the young or the old? No longer is it enough to move the Morris Christmas party from the old-fartish Spago to the lukewarm hipness of the Pacific Design Center "because the young people liked it," in the words of one agency insider. (This season’s at the retro chic Wilshire Ebell partied hardy until 2 a.m.) Instead, the goal is to loosen up the Morris board. "This is a painful process," a source says. "But I also view it as a point in the company’s history that’s very positive." So here’s what’s going on:

Sources say that beginning last April, Wirtschafter began negotiating a new contract. One sticking point was whether he’d assume the title of president. But that was already occupied by his boss, Jim Wiatt, who was both CEO and president. The contract talks lagged, and Wirtschafter’s status remained in limbo. Wiatt was supposed to climb another rung to chairman, a position long occupied by Brokaw. Sources tell L.A. Weekly that, at one point, Brokaw was on board with moving to emeritus status, which would free the chairman title for Wiatt. "But then Norman backed away," explains an insider. "And for a long time now, no one’s been clear who’s going to have what title." As if that’s not complicated enough, there remains the matter of Haskell’s status. As executive vice president and worldwide head of television, Haskell is known to be antsy for a higher position. Over the years, the title of vice chairman has been bestowed on the head TV guy (Jerry Katzman, for instance), so Haskell seems to be next in line.

But how long is too long for all this to happen?

Wiatt reportedly has assured Wirtschafter the president’s title will one day be his. (Wirtschafter may already have the promotion but hasn't yet announced it to his staff.) Talk about a break with Morris tradition: From the T-shirt and jeans and flip-flops he wears around the office to the ever-present dog around his heels and in the hallways, Wirtschafter is considered the leader of the new generation of Morris agent. "Symbolically, it’s huge," one source gushes. "It’s such a swing, but the agency needed to swing." Qualified though colorless, Wirtschafter is — no surprise — a lawyer who passed though the business affairs office at Creative Artists Agency, established his agent credentials at International Creative Management and then followed Wiatt from ICM to Morris in 2000. Aside from a good client list that includes the Wachowski brothers, Bryan Singer, Halle Berry, Alicia Keyes, Ridley Scott, Todd Phillips, Carl Franklin and Spike Lee, Wirtschafter still doesn’t have any "gotcha" clients to speak of. But his plusses are that he brings in money, likes to sign, helps other agents and hates the pretense. If Wiatt is the glad-handing outside man, then Wirtschafter is the rainmaking inside guy. He rarely talks to the press (though he’ll be featured in an in-the-works article on agents by The New Yorker’s Tad Friend).

When I recently asked Wiatt about when he’d assume the Morris chairmanship, he stonewalled me with a smile. "There are no title changes. Nothing imminent happening," he said. "I’m only chairman in my mind." As for the generational shift under way, he said: "There’s no resistance here. The old guys have embraced change."

But have they? Yes, the board is looking younger than ever before, but people inside Morris for some time now perceived two separate camps there: old-timers including Irv Weintraub, Steve Kram, Richard Rosenberg, who are all siding with Brokaw, versus newcomers Wiatt and Wirtschafter. But only recently, "They found a way to work together," a source says with some surprise. Any controversy seems just like old times.

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