Talent agents began the twentieth century as vaudeville "flesh-peddlers" selling the services of their stable of comedians, actors, singers, animal acts, and freaks to theaters and burlesque houses for a percentage of these performers' compensation. With the rise of radio, television, and the movies—and their accompanying star system—the balance of power shifted to the agents. With the influence to put together productions and dictate deals in the very visible business of media, these "superagents" themselves became powerful celebrities by the end of the century.
The emerging film industry of the 1910s and 1920s found that prominently featuring the lead actors and actresses of its movies—the "stars"—in advertisements was the most effective way to sell tickets. This gave the stars leverage to demand larger salaries and increased the importance of an agent to field their scripts and negotiate their salaries.
During this time, agents were often despised by the talent and the industry alike, called "leeches," "bloodsuckers," and "flesh-peddlers" because of their ruthless negotiating and the notion that they profited from the work of others, driving up film costs. In the 1930s, the Hollywood film industry began colluding to drive down star salaries and some studios banned agents from their premises. "Fadeout for Agents" read a 1932 headline in the film industry publication Variety. But in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild was formed to fight the collusion among studios and President Franklin Roosevelt signed a code of fair practices guaranteeing actors the freedom to offer their services to the highest bidder, making a good agent indispensable for most stars.
While it struggled during the days of vaudeville, the William Morris Agency, founded in 1898, came into its own with the advent of mass media and the star system. The agency recognized that it could make more money representing star talent than by representing the vaudeville houses in which the talent played. The newly codified freedoms agents and stars won in the 1930s helped William Morris grow from $500,000 in billings in 1930 to $15 million dollars in 1938, with a third of the revenue derived from each vaudeville, radio, and film. The agency also popularized the "back-end deal" in which stars received a percentage of the gross ticket sales from a production, elevating some actors' status from that of mere employees to partners.
Another agency, the Music Corporation of America (MCA), was founded in 1930 and quickly rose to become the top agency in the country for the booking of big bands. MCA began to put together, or "package," entire radio shows from its roster of clients, selling them to broadcasters and charging a special commission. By the mid-1950s, MCA was earning more from packaging radio and television shows than from its traditional talent agency business. Like the back-end deal, packaging effected a shift in power from the studio to the agent, enabling agents to put together entire productions. Studios could not always substitute one star for another and were forced to accept or reject packages as a whole.
In 1959, TV Guide published an editorial—titled "NOW is the Time for Action"—attacking the power and influence that MCA and William Morris had over television programming. In 1960, the Eisenhower administration held hearings on network programming and the practice of packaging. Fortune published an article in 1961 on MCA's controversial practice of earning—from the same television show—talent commissions, broadcast fees, and production revenue. When it moved to purchase a music and film production company in 1962, the Justice Department forced MCA to divest its agency business. In practice, and in the public consciousness, agents had evolved from cheap hustlers of talent to powerful media players.
In 1975, after a merger formed International Creative Management (ICM), the Hollywood agency business was largely a two-company affair. ICM and William Morris each earned about $20 million that year, primarily from commissions on actors they placed in television and film roles. That same year, five agents left William Morris to found Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Michael Ovitz emerged as CAA's president, leading it to the number one spot in the business. CAA employed a more strategic approach than other agencies and took packaging beyond television and into movies, forcing studios to accept multiple CAA stars along with a CAA director and screenwriter in the same film.
This was a time when agents were moving beyond traditional film and television deals and into a new, expanded sphere of entertainment. In 1976 the William Morris Agency negotiated a $1 million dollar salary for Barbara Walters as new co-anchor of the ABC Nightly News. This was double the amount anchors of other nightly news programs earned and reflected the expansion of the star and celebrity system to other realms. Another example of this phenomenon was the agency's representation of former President Gerald Ford in 1977.
This trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Ovitz brokered the purchase of Columbia Pictures by Sony in 1989, and in 1992 CAA was contracted to develop worldwide advertising concepts for Coca-Cola. With CAA's dominance and these high-profile deals, Ovitz himself became a celebrity. His immense power, combined with his policy of never speaking to the press and his interest in Asian culture, generated a mystique around him. A subject of profile pieces in major newspapers and magazines and the subject of two full-length biographies, he was labeled a "superagent." It was major news when, in 1995, the Disney Corporation tapped Ovitz to become its number two executive and heir apparent; and it was bigger news when Ovitz resigned as president of Disney 14 months later.
The 1980s and 1990s were also a period of the "celebritization" of sports stars and their agents. Lucrative endorsement fees—such as the tens of millions of dollars paid to Michael Jordan by Nike—were the result of the reconception of sports as popular entertainment. The proliferation of million-dollar marketing and endorsement deals created a new breed of sports superagent. The movie Jerry Maguire and the television show Arli$$ played up the image of most sports agents as big-money operators. When sports superagent Leigh Steinberg was arrested for drunk driving, he apologized by admitting that he did "not conduct myself as a role model should." Agents were now public figures, caught in the spotlight like any other celebrity.
From their origins as mere brokers of talent, agents used the emerging star system to expand their reach, and in the process, helped build a culture of celebrity that fed on stars, enabling agents to win increasingly larger paydays for them. It was this culture that propelled agents to become celebrities themselves. While in practice "superagents" ranged from the flashy and aggrandizing to the lowkey and secretive, their public image reflected their great power, wealth, and influence over the mechanisms of celebrity.
Rose, Frank. The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business. New York, Harper Business, 1995.
Singular, Stephen. Power to Burn: Michael Ovitz and the New Business of Show Business. Seacaucus, New Jersey, Birch Lane Press, 1996.
Slater, Robert. Ovitz: The Inside Story of Hollywood's Most Controversial Power Broker. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1997.