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Project Jump Ship: Moguls Fight Fiercely Over Runway 

... agents Endeavor to change

Wednesday, Apr 9 2008
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NBC UNIVERSAL HAS GONE TO COURT claiming that The Weinstein Co. engaged in “deception” and “sham negotiations” with Jeff Zucker over walking its Project Runway from NBC Universal’s Bravo to Lifetime. This is turning into a major show-biz feud — especially after Harvey Weinstein personally assured Zucker, “I will not embarrass you.” I’m not sure which is more absurd — that Weinstein lied so blatantly or that Zucker actually believed him.

Following his recent investment in reviving the Halston label to please his trophy wife, the newly married Weinstein is suddenly enamored of the hot fashion show that is the top reality series on cable. The Weinstein Co. is moving Project Runway to Lifetime beginning in November with the premiere of Season 6. Both Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn are coming along for the five-year deal. But there’s a big wrinkle: NBC Universal filed a lawsuit Monday in the New York Supreme Court against TWC to block the move. The Weinsteins said in a statement that NBC “declined to compete for the right to have Project Runway” and is now trying “to disrupt the series moving to Lifetime.”

“We believe that this lawsuit is without merit,” said TWC’s counsel David Boies. “While good for the market and for lawyers, it is always unfortunate when parties try to win in court what they have lost in the marketplace.”

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The lawsuit claims that NBCU had the right to five cycles of the show (which is finishing up its fifth season) as well as the right of first refusal to acquire additional cycles, plus rights of first negotiation and first refusal for spinoffs of the program. NBC claims TWC didn’t honor those rights and “never intended to negotiate in good faith.” The complaint seeks to stop Project Runway’s move to Lifetime and is demanding a preliminary and permanent injunction, as well as compensatory damages for breach of agreement.

According to the complaint, negotiations for a new Project Runway deal began in January 2007 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills between Weinstein, NBCU chief Zucker and his entertainment lieutenant, Marc Graboff. The complaint alleges that an agreement was reached giving NBC the right of first refusal to license future cycles of Project Runway to any non-Bravo/NBCU platform.

NBC maintains Weinstein “threatened to take future cycles of the program to a competing TV network unless plaintiffs agreed to pay many millions of additional dollars to TWC to acquire a ‘package’ that included television rights to second-tier TWC films.” A source told me, “These were not blockbuster titles. Instead, they were ones no one has ever heard of, such as ICould Never Be Your Woman or The Gathering.”

The lawsuit alleges Weinstein gave Zucker his word at the Four Seasons meeting that TWC would honor NBCU’s right of first refusal in exchange for concessions, “going so far as to assure Mr. Zucker with words to the effect of: ‘You can only have in your life five true friends and I consider you one of my five friends. And I’m telling you, I will not embarrass you.’ ”

According to the suit, negotiations resumed in earnest starting September 2007, and continued into April 2008. But NBC didn’t find out until last Friday that Weinstein had signed a “secret package deal” with Lifetime for Project Runway back on February 7, 2008, which included not only the TV rights to the TWC movies but also spinoff rights to Project Runway. Yet the complaint says Weinstein continued “sham negotiations” with senior management throughout February and March of this year.


Revenge of the Agents, Part 2

I broke the news that at 10 p.m., on Friday, April 4, an attorney for Nick Stevens notified United Talent Agency that the longtime Talent Department managing director and agency co-owner was jumping to rival Endeavor. Insiders tell me that two UTA partners in the Talent Department, Lisa Hallerman and Sharon Sheinwold, are following the 44-year-old über-agent out the door. The high-profile defections were related to my reporting last week of a “heated and loud” closed-door meeting inside UTA during which certain partners took advantage of Stevens’ being out of town on a family vacation to take aim at the two women. This happened on the heels of UTA moving to unseat Stevens as a board member. What took place next was a weeklong frenzy of secret negotiations between the ten-percenter and Endeavor that was touch-and-go until Friday night, when the new deal was mostly in place.

What is transpiring can only be described as a seismic shift for the two agencies, and Hollywood talent representation in general. It’s too early to confirm exactly which clients among Judd Apatow, Owen Wilson, Jack Black, Jason Lee, Jason Bateman, Patrick Dempsey, Jonah Hill, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jason Schwartzman and many current Saturday Night Live members will follow the trio to Endeavor.

Ben Stiller and Apatow are considered two of the hottest hyphenate talents within the Industry as writers, producers, directors and, in Ben’s case, actor. They make movies, they get movies made and they make money along the way. Stevens’ move with his two colleagues immediately strengthens Endeavor’s status as the No. 2 motion-picture agency with a lot of really strong agents and hot clients. But it also weakens by perception UTA’s already struggling Talent Department on the heels of recent losses like actors Vince Vaughn, Kate Bosworth, Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell not so long ago.

Expectedly, Stiller immediately decided to follow his agent Stevens to Endeavor, and issued the following statement: “I think Nick Stevens is a unique entity in this business: an agent with integrity, a point of view, and most of all, humanity. He’s Jerry Maguire at the end of the movie. I would be with him if he was working out of the Sunglass Hut at the Beverly Center.”

Most of the other clients will leave as well, prompting United Talent to hold urgent strategy meetings all weekend.

By all accounts, this was not an easy decision for Nick. He’s leaving the agency he co-owns with Jim Berkus, Peter Benedek, Jeremy Zimmer and Jay Sures, and where he’d topped the Talent Department since 1995, when he was a 30-year-old wunderkind. But Stevens and UTA’s other directors had not been seeing eye to eye for some time over management issues. Simply put, it was a clash of work ethics and corporate cultures: impeccable suits versus Stevens’ T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the 24/7 office workdays versus Stevens on his cell phone from wherever he damn pleased.

So UTA’s directors had already started talking to Nick about removing him from the board while at the same time making the case for him to stay at the agency. But Stevens had long professed his unhappiness with the direction in which the board had taken the agency, including land mines of lawsuits and arbitrations and settlements that cost UTA millions of dollars over the years.

Stevens avoided the minutiae of daily ops and preferred to focus on his clients, searching for and nurturing new talent and putting projects together. He didn’t visit sets, lunch at the Grill, or do any of the usual industry glad-handing. Instead, under his guidance, UTA became infamous for creating a “wheel of comedy” whereby a raft of successful, smart-dumb comedies were and still are being written by the agency’s clients, produced by the agency’s clients, directed by the agency’s clients and starred in by the agency’s clients, many of whom also share the same managers.

Nevertheless, for all the bad blood, several of Nick’s senior partners appealed to him to stay. As for Endeavor, its partners saw a rare opportunity to help their agency and hurt a competitor all in one fell swoop. (UTA also recently lost partner Marc Korman and his TV show-runner clients to Endeavor.) Ari Emanuel had been on vacation when he read about the UTA ruckus on my Web site. So he offered Stevens a clean slate. I understand that Stevens’ deal completely frees him from all management responsibilities so he can concentrate on connecting dots between Endeavor clients and projects.

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